Thursday, August 09, 2007

More food info!

Because I'm still sick, and people seemed interested, and it's one of my favorite topics. This is more "The History of Fat" than "I'm such a damned idiot". Everyone in the comments had it right, or parts of the story right. When you cobble the whole thing together, it's easy to see why people who eat a Western diet are dropping like flies from 'excess diseases' - heart disease, cancer, etc.

Through most of human history, fat was pretty hard to get. Animals were wild, and only fatty at the very end of summer, if at all - anyone who has ever eaten venison, imagine a steady diet of it. Plus, the bulk of the meat came from smaller game - while we did go out and hunt mammoths and bison and other large animals, it was more easy and more common for squirrel-size critters to wind up in the pot every night. Those, too, are very low in fat. Even when we domesticated animals, until the revolution in animal husbandry that happened in the MIDDLE AGES (like barely a thousand years ago), we really didn't understand how to keep our critters fat and happy all year, so we still wound up with a big late-summer slaughter and skinny animals the rest of the year.

A few OTHER factors to keep in mind: Most meat was dried or smoked for preservation, and while I can't find a good article about it to link to, and you may not believe me, drying reduces the fat content of meat, particularly the unsaturated fats you need more of. Also, if you're out hunting a wooly mammoth, you've got to go out and HUNT IT DOWN, and haul it back to the cave - there's a significant calorie OUTPUT to get the fat in the first place, which leads to much less overall intake than you'd first think. (There is a big deal in anthropology class where you look at calories expended vs. calories brought home, and in many cases, big-game hunting is only beneficial to the small children and nursing mothers who stay home - it's actually a loss or barely break-even for the hunters themselves. It depends a lot on animal, time of year, blah blah, but that's the overall gist of it.)

Oil crops like olives and sunflowers and canola and avocado and peanuts were non-existent for most of our history (particularly in the west - many good oil crops like peanuts and sunflowers were native to the New World, which means Euros have only had them five hundred years). In the case of olives, they were toxic to begin with and had a major domestication job in front of them. (But the fact that we went to the trouble of domesticating them should tell you how desperate we were for fats.) The others were either unknown or grown in very small areas.

All this leads to what anthropologists call the human 'fat tooth'. Like a sweet tooth, but instead of sweets, we crave fats. Back when it was impossible to GET, craving fats was a good thing - it motivated us to go out after the damn mammoths and kept us from starving to death. (It's called protein starvation, and it rarely happens any more in the West, but it used to be a major problem. Without a good bit of protein and a small amout of fat every day, you will eventually drop dead.)

Dairy products were late to the game, a result of the domestication of animals in the neolithic. Before that, it was just too hard to get milk - you gonna go milk a wild cow, which was about twice the size of a modern dairy cow? But of course they're full of fat and other goodies like minerals and amino acids and protein. In a very low-fat diet, dairy products are incredibly good for you. They fill a huge niche in the diet. Nowadays, not so much. So of course when they became available we scarfed up dairy products like there was no tomorrow, and by now, for European-heritage people, it's like a heroin habit that we REALLY need to give up. Or at least cut way back on.

And now, in the West, thanks to our fat tooth (and lack of self control... we do have brains, we don't HAVE to listen to our instincts), we now eat twice to three times the amount of fat that we did in our original, stone-age diet. Pretty depressing, isn't it?

The diet we evolved on is now called the Paleolithic Diet. A short introduction is available here; scroll down to the 'eat none of the following' part. You'll find it depressing and enlightening, all at once (though he says to eat more liver and kidney and I disagree - thanks to modern pesticides and other crap, those organs are unsafe, though they used to be very good for you). And, the coolest thing for me and any other history buffs reading, The Food Timeline. Fascinating stuff.

If I were to completely overhaul my diet and change the way I eat (I don't have the self-control for it), I'd switch over to the Paleolithic Diet. As it is, I settle for cutting back on the 'bad stuff' they list. Which includes, haha, dairy products.

-... -

As for McDonald's, they use up TWENTY FIVE PERCENT of the country's potato crop, and between three and five percent of the entire beef output of the country. That obviously makes them a huge force in FARMING, which most people don't realize. They speak, and farmers listen. Occasionally they use their powers for good - they've asked beef farmers who supply them to phase out antibiotic use on their cattle by 2008, and often where McDonald's goes, the market follows.

Sometimes, it's not so good. McD's insists on Russet Burbank potatos for it's french fries, and it's a really old cloned crop that has no modern resistance to bugs or disease - it costs more in pesticides to grow Russets than you can sell them for. Without the government subsidizing the whole clusterfuck, the farmers would go under. As it is, they've laid waste to huge parts of Idaho with all the pesticides and herbicides. The soil is literally sterilized (that's not good; all those bugs play a role, yanno).

You wanna save the environment? Fuck the snowy owls. Quit eating McDonald's french fries.


Camille said...

One of my courses this year for my psych degree is the psychology of eating and drinking.

You're completely correct, but I know the information based on my psych courses, not my anthropology ones. Ain't the disciplinary overlap grand?

The over-processing of today's foods is also at fault, the nutrients are far too available for the body, particularly sugars, causing more diabetes and obesity.

Amy Lane said...

I'm with you on the fries--but the kids are hooked...

Jeanne said...

Have you read the Omnivore's Dilemma? Michael Pollan is the author, and he also wrote The Botany of Desire. Since I listened to the two books back to back, I don't remember which one it was, but he has a long section on the potato, and Russell Burbanks [Botany of Desire, now that I think more], and in the other book, he talks of the cattle / beef production. Between the two books, I had an immediate hunger for a Big Mac with fries, and the revulsion that I should never, ever eat meat or fast food again.

And then there's corn - which is in everything - high frutose corn syrup, etc.

A self sustaining organic farm might just be the answer. As long as UPS can find me for yarn deliveries :-)

Jennu said...

Interesting info. Another reason not to eat McDonald's french fries? They don't decompose.

There's a special feature on the DVD for Super Size Me where they placed different foods in jars and left them there for weeks. The McDonald's sandwiches decomposed more slowly than the burger and fries from the corner diner. But after a couple of months, the McDonald's fries hadn't decomposed at all.


Catie said...

Very cool post.
I think I need to watch supersize me and the other fast food documentary - my will power is very very weak. I'm hoping they will piss me off enough that I will find it easier to not eat the food.

Alwen said...

Cue up the robotic zombie voice:

"McDonald's. Aliens. Like. Pesticide. Nuked. Soil."

Either humans are so whacked that we can't see what we're destroying (a strong possibility)


the McDonald's aliens are xeno-forming the planet and simultaneously fattening us up.

"To Serve Man", y'know.

(And now that I've clued you all in, the Mickie D's might come & take me away. Just saying, in case I suddenly drop off the face of the earth.)

Bells said...

Thanks for that Julie. I really love that stuff and should seek it out more.

At home we pride ourselves on eating lots of stuff that's fresh produce - steering away from processed foods a fair bit - but we still eat way more than we need to and this post reminds me of that.

We don't eat McDonald's a lot, but I feel kind of ill just thinking about it now.

Becka - The Knitting Wounded said...

Yay, I'm right-ish!

Alwen said...

On a more serious note, I looked up the book titles I couldn't remember before.

The book about how manufacturers cue us to eat is "Mindless Eating," by Brian Wansink, a food psychology prof. at Cornell.

Another book along the lines of your post is Eric Schlosser's "Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food". Schlosser also wrote "Fast Food Nation."

(All this from someone who has been known to make lard piecrust. Tons of cholesterol, BUT! No trans fats!)

Lethe said...

Agree with all of your post.

Little anecdote: About 15 years ago, an acquaintance of mine reported on a tour of a Central American slaughterhouse that had a contract for making hamburger patties for MacDonalds. According to him, (at the time) the recipe for making their patties was 80% bone scrapings (the little bits of meat left on the bones after the major butchering was done) and 20% jowl fat. At the time I had already decided that I didn't like their burgers, and this explained why.

Roxie said...

Fascinating! Freaking fascinating! Could you suggest a reading list?

Your summation is superb. full of information, yet clear andeasy to follow.

sienna said...

I keep meaning to tell you about a summer radio programme on Canada's CBC that I think you'll love! It's called Flavour of the Week & features a history of different flavours, including chocolate & garlic (not together!) & the one I heard on ginger also had recipe ideas & drink ideas. I don't know if it's available on podcast but you may want to stream it someday. I find the one host annoying but the info is great.