January 10, 2014 3 Comments
As most of you know, I have been eating along the lines of a paleo-style template over the course of the past year or so: no gluten or grains, very limited dairy, LOTS of meat, and plenty of vegetables. I’ve had countless encounters with people who bite their lips when I explain what I do and don’t eat. I’ve read all of the articles that explain why so much animal protein will solve all of our health problems. And boy, have I bought a lot of paleo cookbooks: my shelves are full of them!
But now, I’m not so sure anymore. So it’s official: I’m moving on. No more “paleo.”
I know what you’re thinking: Why?!?!?! Is it because I’ve found something better? Was I abducted by aliens? Did I have a special heart-to-heart with a cow? Let me explain.
Eating so much meat is TERRIBLE for the environment.
I am fortunate enough to have access to meat of AMAZING quality. I’m not just talking organic here: I’m talking grass-fed or pasture-raised, all sourced within 150 miles of where I live. How fabulous is that?
Here’s the thing, though: we can’t have all animals live like that, and we can’t eat so many of them.
On farms where my butcher shop gets its meat from, the animals have lots of open space to run around, eat what they want, and live best quality of life possible. While that’s great for the pigs and cows and chicken and sheep, who deserve to live as naturally as possible, it takes up a lot of space! Areas that could be used for growing plants or just left alone for the sake of nature are occupied by animals, who certainly need plenty of room.
The reason factory farms came into existence is that we simply don’t have enough land on earth to feed the entire world with grass-fed and pasture-raised meat. The animals are kept in enclosed spaces, given cheap, unhealthy food, and subjugated to hormones and pesticides—all so the world can eat meat, and as much of it as possible.
While my family is lucky enough to be able to eat well-raised animals, I just don’t get how eating two chickens and several pounds of pork, beef, and lamb every week is helping anyone but myself. The world can’t afford—both environmentally and economically–to eat like that! Even though paleo proponents make up a small percent of the world’s population, I don’t like the idea of setting such a bad example…because eating so much meat really does go against the principals of ethical farming and health for the overall planet. Honestly, it sounds a little selfish to me.
On another related note, certain animals are much more efficient than others in terms of cooking and eating, and we’re tending to choose the inefficient ones.
With a chicken, for example, you can eat the whole bird. When you’re done, you can use the bones to make stock and render the fat to make schmaltz, if there’s any excess. Pigs, too, are very efficient: you can pretty much use the entire animal, with the exception of the oinker. The fat can be rendered into lard and the bones turned into stock, so if you’re savvy, you can really use about 90% of each hog.
Unfortunately–I’m not saying it’s you–but when it comes to eating meat, a lot of Americans choose BEEF, which is very, very inefficient. Cows are HUGE—usually over 1,000 pounds a steer—and you can eat less than half of the animal. That’s over 500 pounds of cow you’re not using! It would be great if our country ate more pork, but honestly, supermarket pork is just kinda…eh. So much of the fat has been bred out of American pigs, and as a result, we have dry, flavorless meat that resembles an overcooked chicken breast 99% of the time.
Another problem with Americans and meat is that we limit ourselves to a few basic cuts, namely chicken breasts, pork/beef tenderloins, and rib-eye or strip steaks. There’s only one tenderloin on each pig and each cow–and it’s TINY! These cuts are far from the most delicious ones you can eat, but because of our predisposed ideas about health and taste, they’re what we go for. And that also is incredibly wasteful. I mean, have you ever cooked with a kalbi steak? How about a pork hock? Chicken feet?
Paleo people eat A LOT of meat: there’s no question about it. And while they choose to eat the best-quality possible and often go for the less-popular cuts, EVERYONE should just be eating less, even if you can afford it.
Am I going to become a die-hard vegan? Am I going to shun meat forever? NO! Of course not! Pasture-raised and grass-fed meat is fantastic for you: it’s an excellent source of protein, fat, and minerals, and frankly, it tastes delicious. It’s SO much healthier than factory-farmed meat, anyway. I’m just going to eat LESS of it–only 3 or 4 times a week as opposed to 6 or even 7–and try to choose the more efficient animals over the ones with a lot of waste. I’d like to eat more good quality seafood, too, if I can find it.
There are so many tasty foods out there that I’m avoiding.
And I’m not exactly sure why anymore. OK, I’m not going to go and eat an entire pan of cinnamon buns, but come on, let’s get real.
Paleo people are against grains, gluten, and legumes–myself included. You say “chickpea” and you might as well have unleashed a woolly mammoth when it comes to certain people. I’m no nutritionist, but avoiding this many foods just doesn’t seem to be the healthiest choice, especially because we don’t know exactly what our ancestors were eating (keep scrolling for more on that).
I won’t get too much into the science of it–because too many facts at once makes me zone out and head straight to my Facebook feed–but I’ll give you the basic premise. Paleo people avoid grains/gluten/legumes because of three predominant reasons: they prevent the absorption of nutrients (primarily because of phytic acid), they stick to our guts and cause digestive issues (blame saponins and lectins), and have high carbohydrate to protein ratios in comparison to, say, a steak.
While these are valid arguments, there are things you can do to aid these problems. To be perfectly honest, I do enjoy my beans and grains, even those with gluten, and in the past, I’ve never had an issue with them. Right now, I’m avoiding them purely for “health” reasons.
This is what I realized: plant foods are nutritious, but to access the nutrients, YOU’VE GOTTA PREPARE THEM RIGHT. That’s why I’m going to follow the “3 S” rule: soak, sprout, or sour.
For centuries, people across the globe have been properly preparing their grains and legumes to make them easier to digest and their nutrients more accessible. The Indians soak and sour rice and lentils to make delicious dosas. The Ethiopians soak and sour teff flour to make flatbread. The early Europeans always soured their bread before they baked it. These people–prior to the introduction of westernized food–were very healthy, and while some ate meat, it was not usually a staple of their diet.
I want to do the same. How about a sprouted chickpea salad? Maybe some homemade sourdough bread made with good-quality flour? How about a bowl of oats that have been soaked overnight?
To prevent these carbohydrates from sending your blood sugar into a tailspin, you should pair them with some fat and/or protein. Cultures around the world do the same! Serve those chickpeas with some slices of fresh avocado. Have that piece of sourdough bread with a good piece of cheese or a slather of butter. Eat that soaked oatmeal with some nuts and a swirl of full-fat yogurt.
You don’t have to–and shouldn’t–be eating bowl after bowl of carbohydrates all day. Personally, I find that a lower-carb, higher-fat breakfast keeps me fuller longer, and a higher-carb meal at the end of the day helps me sleep better. Without refined flour or white rice, it’s much easier not to overeat, especially if there’s some fat or protein to compensate.
I’m not going to replace vegetables with grains or beans, which is a mistake a lot of people (especially advocates of the Standard American Diet) make. I’m going to eat plenty of fresh produce because it’s AWESOME and should never, ever be excluded. But I need some more variety, and as an aspiring chef as well as an aspiring nutritionist, I want to experiment with as many ingredients as possible.
We don’t know exactly how–and what–our ancient ancestors ate. We’re the problem here.
(I ate this steak after not eating red meat for two weeks when I was in France. It was one of the best-tasting steaks I have ever eaten. No, I did not eat the whole thing.)
A few months ago, my friend and nutritionist Alison Held showed me this article. There are some flaws–I’m not saying it’s the perfect truth–but I think it’s worth a read or at least a look-over. While the author seems to misinterpret the paleo mindset a bit, he makes a good point: people around the world ate (and still eat) LOTS of different things, and what you ate depended largely upon where you lived and what your needs required.
Take the Inuit people, for example. They lived/live in the freaking ARCTIC. It’s cold. They’d haul around heavy canoes and spend hours outside fishing, whaling, or just moving from place to place. They needed energy to keep themselves warm and active in such harsh conditions, so they ate a lot of flesh and fat. Other groups, however, who lived in warmer places and performed different tasks, ate less meat and more plant foods. It really varied: no two peoples were exactly alike, so therefore, no two ate exactly alike, either.
Though the “caveman” that paleo people so frequently tout is purely a mascot for eating real, wholesome foods, the concept is misnamed and misrepresented. Our species–and all species, for that matter–is constantly changing, whether by natural selection or environmental “switches.” A ninth-grade biology class will teach you that. While we may not have been adapted to eat certain things say, 20,000 years ago, what’s to say that we haven’t evolved to eat those foods now?
While cavemen certainly didn’t eat sourdough bread and baked beans, your great-great grandmother probably did, and she most likely wasn’t surrounded by people with a myriad of health issues, from heart disease to diabetes to cancer to obesity. Sure, there must’ve been some people out there with those conditions, the number was certainly smaller.
I don’t think that grains, legumes, and gluten are what’s causing the American (and western) obesity epidemic. I believe that the main problem lies in PROCESSED FOOD, namely all of the packaged snacks and meals, sodas, “vegetable” oils, GMOs and pesticides, and factory-farmed meat that became prevalent after World War II. Basically, we’re eating more volume-wise AND unhealthier foods; heck, the word “healthy” changed about ten thousand times, too.
I also believe that these overly-processed and modified foods are what has caused the surge in allergies over the course of the past decade or so. Back in the day, very few people had allergies…and nowadays, it seems whenever I’m with children, SOMEONE is allergic to SOMETHING, be it gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, seafood, or soy. I’ve even met kids with allergies to strawberries–and they’re strawberries, for goodness sake! Something is up, and I don’t think the blame should be placed purely on a food group.
When it comes to gluten allergies in particular, I think the issue is with the state of modern wheat, not ALL wheat. The wheat we grow today has a much higher gluten content than it once did, and usually, it’s treated with chemicals and thrown in with some additives before it becomes flour. Even those with gluten allergies often find flour made with einkorn, kamut, and spelt (all older, more traditional breeds of wheat) much more tolerable than your supermarket variety, which is usually made with hard white or red wheat.
Of course, if you have an outright allergy/sensitivity to something, use your common sense and DON’T EAT IT. A great way to find out how you react to certain foods is to remove them from your diet for a month, then reintroduce them and see how you feel. I don’t think you should eat like that all the time, though.
So, what am I going to do?
The most valuable thing that paleo has taught me is that fat is AWESOME. For so long, I avoided it at all costs, and it made me very skinny and very unhealthy. I restricted my body too much and was very unkind to it; paleo brought it back to health and showed me how to look at things in a holistic manner. It lead me to discover Craft Butchery, where I now work and have spent many Saturdays picking out my meat for the week. It introduced me to and connected me with some amazing people, sprouted my blog, and lead me to realize that food is what I want to involve myself with for the rest of my life. It made me a passionate, creative cook, and I will forever be thankful for all of that.
I am still never, ever going back to eating boxed macaroni and cheese for lunch and scarfing down M&M’s at birthday parties. You will not find recipes where I recommend deep-frying everything in sight. I will not be baking with several sticks of butter nor multiple cups of white sugar. I will still be a roasted cauliflower fanatic and constantly pine for opportunities to use lamb kidneys and beef heart.
I’m going to eat everything, but the best quality possible, and all in balance. I will still eat meat, but as I explained, I’m going to incorporate soaked, sprouted, and/or soured grains and beans. I will eat some gluten, but not very much, and coming from more traditional sources, like the wheat varieties I described. I’m going to eat cheese and yogurt and drink milk, but all local and full-fat, and preferably made with raw milk (which is a SUPER complete food). I will still eat tons and tons of tasty vegetables, but I won’t shun fruit or starches, either. I will still cook “paleo” meals and allergy-friendly desserts, but there will be new foods and cuisines, too. I’m excited to get started, and I hope you’ll come along to join me!
If you still believe that paleo is the way to go, that’s great! Go for it. Eating is all about what feels right for you and your body. This is what I believe; you are completely entitled to your own opinion.
But this weekend, I am making sourdough bread and using it for a grilled cheese sandwich. So call the paleo police, throw me in a dungeon, hit me with a ham.
I am not a scientist, nor a nutritionist, nor a doctor. I am a sophomore in high school who happens to love food and is curious about what lies behind it. I left out the nitty-gritty science stuff because for me, it can over-complicate the matter. There are, however, plenty of studies out there that you can look at for concrete evidence: just go to Google or Bing or whatever search engine you use!
Here is a sunset because sunsets are pretty and provide good closure. I also really hate the fact that New England is cold in the winter. Off-topic.
What do you think? I’m interested to hear your comments!