The Master Knows
I once visited a famous Chinese writer and Sage in the mountains of Colorado. He held a silent vigil of meditation all night, and then asked his students if they had any questions. An eager student responded abruptly with “ But, Master, ...what do we eat?” The Master paused, and with very deliberate enunciation said: “Veg-e-ta-bles”...
Fossil evidence shows that our species, Homo Sapiens, lived for tens of thousands of years as a hunter-gatherer, eating an omnivorous diet, that is, both plant and animal foods. Fruits and vegetables, tubers, seeds, and nuts, along with occasional meat and eggs probably made up much of their diet. This wild food was very nutritious but was difficult and often dangerous to get. Fossil evidence also reveals that human nutrition went down when the agricultural revolution began, and people started eating farmed crops. Today, not all farmed crops are the same, a crucial topic we will return to. People have known for a long time that diet and health are closely related. ‘You are what you eat’ and other sayings warn us of this truth. But modern civilization presents humans with a dizzying array of choices, often dictated by economic means (or lack hat of). Poor people eat what they can, when they can. People with financial stability can eat what they want, and as much as they want. But they can still make poor choices, and eating a healthy diet remains a serious challenge for many.*--*
“Know Yourself” So… What do we eat? What is a healthy diet for modern human beings? These questions are more complicated than they may first appear. They depend some on what kind of human you are. Not just obvious physical stuff, like how short or tall, or skinny or fat you are...They also depend on your lifestyle, exercise and stress level, emotional temperament, where you live, and many other factors. Even your blood type and genetic ancestry can affect dietary health. So knowing yourself is a crucial part of making good dietary choices.
So, now really, What do we eat? Vegetables and fruits are natural foods for humans and have been part of their diet for much of human existence. So let’s start there. These foods vary, but many provide excellent sources of nutrition and fiber. Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, eat a lot of them. Gorillas, another closely-related primate and complete vegetarians, eat leafy greens all day. These behaviors should be clues to the answer to that question we keep asking. So eating fruits and vegetables, like the new food pyramid shows, is probably a good idea for many people. Green leafy vegetables are particularly high in nutrients and fiber, another important ingredient in diet. Many fruits are delicious, easy to digest, and full of nutrients and fiber. Some fruits, like blueberries, are high in healing antioxidants and considered power foods by some health experts. “But what about Protein!?” I hear the sensible person ask… It’s a good question.
Homo sapiens: The Killer
A famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey shows weak early Homo sapiens competing with herbivores and getting eaten by leopards. Prospects look grim. Then they learn to kill both the herbivores (and each other), eat nasty-looking raw red meat, and grow stronger and smarter. The idea is that they improve their chances of survival, but at a moral cost. Both of the filmmaker’s premises may have once had some truth to them, but it is clear that the need for protein has driven the human to hunt, and fish, scavenge and, yes, learn to kill in the past. But I want to challenge the idea that eating meat is still necessary or good for humans.
The agricultural revolution, with its protein-rich crops and use of domesticated animals developed only recently in human history (about 10,000 years ago). It changed humans’ relationship with food forever. Grains became the basis for all civilizations. Wheat and millet in the Middle-East, rice in China, corn in Mayan America, all fed these great civilizations. Grains have some of the proteins required for healthy cells. The missing proteins can be found in many legumes (beans and peas). Together, they provide complete protein from only plant sources. Why is this important? Plant proteins provide better, cleaner sources of protein for the modern human diet and are more sustainable for the future ecology of our planet.
The Problem with Meat
Meat is dirty. Meat contains some parts like saturated fat and toxic waste that are not healthy for the human diet. It also has complete proteins and some key nutrients hard to get in the plant world. But most of today’s modern meat comes from crowded stockyards with terrible conditions and meat packing plants that pump out an unhealthy product. Meat is also wasteful and inefficient. Diet for a Small Planet, a book written over fifty years ago, explained how it takes over 20 lbs. of plant protein (corn) to make 1 lb of animal protein (beef). With millions of starving people, feeding corn to cows so a few can eat meat is incredibly wasteful and inexcusable. It is ironic that those who eat lots of red meat end up with saturated fat clogging their arteries and dying of strokes and heart attacks. Most of our infectious diseases like the flu, measles, the mumps, and even the common cold came directly from domestic animals.
More Common Sense
Diet is only one aspect of human health. Clean water, lots of it, for drinking and bathing, is essential. Regular activity and movement, whether exercise or work, is necessary and natural for sustaining health. Humans are social and need interaction with people. Getting enough sleep (and rest), enough light (but not too much), continuing to challenge the mind, overcoming problems from the past, having fun, feeling connected with Nature or God, finding meaning and purpose all contribute to the big picture of human health.
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