Wednesday, September 30, 2009


A low-fat diet versus natural food?

Before whoppers with cheese and Big Gulps, and also before most people had ever encountered a vegetarian, people used to eat smaller portions but more fried food and saturated fat. I was 19 when I tasted my first reduced-fat milk. I was in ninth grade when McDonald's came to town. So, for at least the first 14 years of my life I was fed whole foods. Even the junk foods of the 50's: Crisco, margarine, potato chips, Chef Boyardee and soda were not staples in our house. We didn't know these were really bad things, but we were cultivated to like more traditional food by our blue-collar, ethnic parents.

My mother, God rest her soul, was a wonderful cook and baker who considered working in the kitchen as therapeutic and calming. She expressed herself through cooking, and benefited by being raised in two very helpful cultural contexts. Her parents were straight-off-the-boat Italians, and she grew up in a town in Vermont, which until 1965 had more cows than people. So her papa had a grape arbor and grew phenomenal organic vegetables (even transferring Savoy cabbages to the dirt-floor cellar of the house in the Fall), her mama cooked and baked everything from scratch (even making her own cheese), and they were surrounded by a countryside abounding with wild berries and other edibles. As children, Mom, her siblings and friends would often rise before dawn in the summer and walk the five miles or so into the mountains and meadows to pick red and black raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. They would sell some door to door in town and keep the rest for the family. Nearby farms would deliver fresh, raw milk and eggs, and live chickens could be bought at the store around the corner.

As we were growing up, this way of living also continued to a large extent in our household. The main fats in my childhood home were butter and olive oil, with the addition of lard for pie crusts when the occasion arose for pie. We drank water from the vast artesian wells just outside of town (the city of Schenectady had what was considered the best municipal drinking water in the world), and milk delivered from the local dairy. Orange juice and the occasional bottle of ginger ale pretty much rounded things out for us. Dad had his red wine, often mixed with water at suppertime and they made coffee in the morning and late afternoon.

We also had our eggs delivered from a farm, and even had baked goods brought to the door once a week by the Freihofer man. Freihofer was a huge bakery in town that made all kinds of bread and sweets, and get this, had guys come around to the homes once a week in horse-drawn buggies. They switched over to regular trucks somewhere around 1960, but still showed up with their huge, unfolding case of baked goods every week. And their stuff was natural and delicious. Wow.

We had homemade tomato sauce (usually twice a week), and soups, stews, big green salads with pure olive oil and wine vinegar, local honey, seafood on Fridays, baked eggplant, roasted meats, pancakes with real maple syrup (always), beans and greens, nuts, omelets, old-fashioned oatmeal and cream of wheat, and all manner of fresh, home made food. We always ate fresh fruit every day at lunch, and often in the morning cut up on cereal or as grapefruit. We ate apples as a snack at night or mom would sit down in the living room and cut up pears or other fruit and hand them out to us, piece by piece.

For his part, Dad was a forager, and loved to walk out to the woods or fields and gather berries, nuts, mushrooms, apples and fiddle ferns. I particularly enjoyed accompanying him on these missions. My brother loved to fish, and he and Dad brought home a fair amount of trout, bass, perch and bullheads. They occasionally went hunting for small game and deer. Between what they got and what my uncles would give us, I remember eating rabbit, game birds and venison as a child.

I can honestly say that I do not know anyone in our extended family or among my parents' friends, who died young. A couple of the heavy smokers and/or drinkers died between their mid-sixties and seventies, but nobody died before that or was debilitated in any discernible way for the most part up until their 80's. And so many of them were pretty hale and hearty until within a week, and often a day, of their getting pneumonia or having a cardiovascular event which caused them to pass.

Another striking difference is that they took very little, and mostly not any, prescription drugs. These are the kind of people who just kept puttering around the house and garden, going to Sunday mass (on foot mostly), laughing, cussing, and going to parties until the end. They really lived until they died.

How could they have eaten all this saturated fat, not had the statin drugs or many other meds, and not been obese or chronically ill? Many of them were born during the first world war, and/or the Spanish flu epidemic (Dad was born in the middle of one of the first waves, in November 1918), lived through the Depression and World War II, and seemed curiously to not be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by all of that.

When I think of all of the improvements made in health care, technology and supposed advanced knowledge in nutrition and biochemistry, all the food choices and advocacy of low-fat diets, I have to wonder:

Why is everybody so sick? And with ADHD? And fat? And bi-polar, and diabetic, and addicted, and filled with arterial plaque in their 40's and 50's, and infertile, and stressed, and depressed, autistic, and chronically ill and dying young?

What has changed, and what has to be changed back, or at least thought-through a bit more wholistically? Not only do I ask, how should we then eat, but to borrow the late Francis Shaeffer's book title, How Should We Then Live?????????????????????

More to come............


  1. Anonymous3:52 AM


    I am quite opinionated on this topic. I absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend the whole-food approach versus any low-fat regime. (But please be aware that I am *no* medical authority, and it is always wise to listen to your doctor).

    I grew up in a *very* remote region in Australia. I also had the great blessing to have strong affiliation with Aboriginal people throughout my childhood. Being in what we in Australia call 'the bush', (remote country) I learned how these people foraged and ate. I ate with them and shared whatever they enjoyed. These very traditional people, (at this time), really cherished things like bone marrow and fat from all sorts of animals and reptiles. These people were very traditional with no western notion of nutrition. They simply relied on what they knew to work. I am sure they cherished the fat because they knew by experience that it kept them healthy.

    I still eat with this in mind today. I never shy away from animal fat and eat butter rather than margarine and *never* have low fat anything in my fridge. About six months ago I had a blood cholesterol check and the doctor told me I had the "best cholesterol levels she had ever seen". That is the absolute truth! Apparently my HDL (good cholesterol) levels were very good.

    Something you may be interested in, is work by Mary Enig, who specialises in nutritional fats. She purports that saturated fat and trans fats are lumped together in the nutritional literature, when in fact they have different biological effects within the body. You can look her up on the internet.

    Please be aware however, as I have already said, I am no nutritionalist, this is just my opinion.

    As you already know, food is not the only thing to bear in mind in order to be healthy. Our mind and environment are also very important. And remember, God is the healer!


  2. Sonya, thanks for the prayers and the good insights. I have a couple of questions about the aboriginal people. Did they seem to be healthier than the rest of the population? Did they suffer from other ailments that the European population did not? I would also love to know about the women's lives, their daily routines, etc.
    I understand that things have probably changed drastically for them, but I'd love to hear more about them and your own childhood in the outback.

  3. Anonymous2:12 AM

    Dear Emmarinda,

    I am referring to the sixties here. As a child I don't remember any major health issues besides contagious diseases, leprosy being one, and many others that they had no natural resistance to. I cannot remember the word diabetes or heart disease ever being discussed. To me, they seemed to be very healthy and happy. They were simply the people I grew up with and was looked after a lot by. This was also before alcohol was consumed. (This was something the government of Australia did not allow at the time).

    The women mainly did women things like cooking, looking for food such as nuts, small lizards, and grubs. They cared for the children. We also did fishing, but being inland the fish were small. I remember river eels too. The men mainly got the big things like kangaroos, emus and goannas.

    Kind regards,

    Another point of interest, during my time studying, I reviewed some literature on diabetes in Aboriginal populations. There was one study done, which found that when a group of Aborigines reverted to their traditional lifestyle (hunting, walking looking for food and eating their natural foods), their diabetic profile greatly benefited. I can't remember the exact wording now, but I do know their diabetes was greatly alleviated. This work was done by Kerryn O'Dea.

  4. Anonymous6:48 AM

    I should add that the life expectancy for Aboriginal people is WELL below that of other Australians, by about twenty years! I don't know, however, how long this has been the case. We non-Aboriginals have introduced many things that would have reduced their life expectancy, including alcohol and disease.

    Kind regards

  5. Well, I wonder whether the life expectancy issues were related to the contagious diseases, infant mortality or as you said, the lifestyle changes.

    In terms of the chronic diseases, one sentence of yours speaks volumes to modern man:

    "...when a group of Aborigines reverted to their traditional lifestyle (hunting, walking looking for food and eating their natural foods), their diabetic profile greatly benefited."

    This is the prescription for all of us, even if it means walking to the grocery store! Thanks for sharing.


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