I was on a hike recently on a particularly warm December day. It felt great to be outside and not all bundled up. I was moving along at a pretty good clip, when this tall, strong woman hiked past me. She had a great spring in her step. She was full of life and seemed to love being out there as much as I did. She moved with incredible grace. There was something about her. She was gone in a flash too—oh well. Then at a crest about 10 minutes later, I caught up with her as she had stopped for some water. We got to talking and she invited me to dinner at her cabin after hiking, which got us talking about food. We talked for the next hour or so as we finished the hike. Back at her cabin, we started to make a meal together and we kept talking food. She described the glorious meals she made each day from plants she grew in her yard, berries she found in the woods, and fish she caught in the ocean nearby, and other foods. I asked her if she ever studied nutrition as she seemed to eat a very nourishing diet. She chuckled and said, “No, this stuff kind of comes naturally to me, and winked.” It did not know what she meant, exactly, but I was intrigued to hear more. I told her I have studied nutrition and asked her if I could get her perspective on a few things. She was the most well person I’ve ever met and she clearly ate well, so I wanted to get her take on nutrition. Our conversation went like this:
Jason Gootman: What are your typical meals like?
Mother Nature: I eat when I’m hungry. I stop when I’m full. I usually eat three times a day, but I’ll eat more or less if I’m more or less hungry that day. I eat what I can find that day in the woods or what I can catch in the ocean or what is coming up in my garden. Friends sometimes come over with what they’ve gathered or caught or grown and we share. So we eat the food that’s around here and that’s in-season, of course. So it’s a lot of vegetables of all kinds. Lettuces, greens like kale and collard greens, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers—you name it. Some fruit from the trees around here. Lots of fish. Some deer and some small animals. And acorn squash, yams, and foods like these. They grow like crazy here.
Jason Gootman: So you eat meat?
Mother Nature: Yes. But I have some friends who don’t and they’re as well as me. People are different on this. I know people debate this wildly. But there are long-living, well people who eat a diet that is mostly meat (like native Alaskans) and there are long-living, well people who eat a diet that is mostly plants (like Okinawans). To adamantly say that eating meat is the only way to be healthy or to adamantly say that abstaining from meat is the only way to be healthy is looking to make an absolute out of something that is not absolute. My suggestion: Do what truly feels good to you. Eat an amount of meat that feels good to you.
Jason Gootman: Do you follow a specific regimen? Do you eat a certain number of calories? Do you read labels?
Mother Nature (grinning widely): Labels? On my salmon? On the broccoli from my garden? No I don’t read labels. Or count calories. I told you I eat when I’m hungry and I stop when I’m full and I eat all of the various kinds of foods I can get my hands on. None of that stuff, calories, or following a strict regimen matters.
Jason Gootman: So what does matter?
Mother Nature: Remember that Hostess factory near the mall growing up? Remember how everyone raved about how good it smelled there? Yuck, I say! I like how my garden smells much better. This distinction is what matters. When you started to alter the food so dramatically that it barely resembled food anymore, that’s when nutrition become a challenge for you all. I guess you were bored? Were raspberries and asparagus and salmon and cashews not delicious enough for you? You had to make pink and purple cakes made in factories? That was the simple nutrition “fall from grace” when you started to try to make the food better through chemistry. For generations prior to that, people ate food. Whole, natural, real food. Your great grandparents never saw soda or breakfast cereal or energy bars. In very short order, you changed what was available to eat. That’s why you have all these questions about nutrition. That’s why you’re always trying to figure out what to eat and what not to eat. But the only real thing you need to do is eat whole, natural, real food and avoid food products (a.k.a. processed food).
Jason Gootman: That seems too simple. On the news, they’re always talking about the latest research findings on what’s good for us and what’s bad for us. Isn’t there something to this science?
Mother Nature: Science has led to many important discoveries. But has it improved nutrition? I’m not sure. One thing that happens is you create all these extreme rules of what to eat and not to eat. What if you all went back to eating whole, natural, real food and ditched the processed food? Why don’t you study that on a large population over a period of time and see what happens?
Mother Nature: Around that time when you started processing all the food, like got pretty busy for you all too. You started eating all this packaged stuff so you could eat “on the go”. You don’t have time to eat? Eating is one of the fundamental parts of life. Eating is life. How did you all make eating such a low priority? I saw a little girl the other day, couldn’t have been more than five, rushing off to the bus stop with a granola bar in her hand. You’ll all do well to make eating about your families and friends. Cook together. Eat together. Plan meals together. Have fun with food, nourishing yourselves, and letting all your food hang-ups go.
Jason Gootman: Got it.
Jason Gootman: What do you think of the Zone Diet, eating 40-percent carbohydrate, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat?
Mother Nature: It’s a bit anal, don’t you think? No one should be that obsessive-compulsive about how they eat. But, I will say this. By requiring you to eat some carbohydrate, protein, and fat, this way of eating does a great service for many people. For those people afraid to eat carbohydrate, they have to eat carbohydrate. For those people afraid to eat protein, they have to eat some protein. For those people who are afraid to eat fat, they have to eat some fat. This is a good thing. All three macronutrients are essential. It’s scary how they’ve each had their time of being vilified. You will not find your answer to better nutrition by vilifying carbohydrate, protein, or fat. Each plays a role in your body. It saddens me when I see someone who will not eat any fat or any carbohydrate. They are starving themselves.
Jason Gootman: What about the Paleo Diet?
Mother Nature: This has advanced nutrition in many ways for many people. Primarily by getting people into real food and away from food products. Of course, people get lazy on this and you can now buy “Paleo energy bars”, because they’re more about “belonging” to a certain diet, than to eating well, but I digress. Eating lots of vegetables is a big boon that people who adopt the Paleo Diet get. And eating a wide range of meats from fish to buffalo to fowl to ostrich leads to very nutrient-rich diets.
Jason Gootman: What about diets based on eating raw foods?
Mother Nature: You definitely don’t want to be cooking the crap out of your food. Raw food does generally retain more nutrients than cooked food. Raw vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, fish, egg yolks, and other raw food are loaded with micronutrients. But lightly cooking your food does not eliminate it’s nourishment. Do what you enjoy. Have some raw food each day. What’s easier than having a banana or a handful of nuts. Or making a salad? People short on time for cooking can do great with raw foods. No cooking! When you want to cook some food, go for it, and avoid blasting your food with heat. Steaming is a way to lightly cook food. Cooking in a slow cooker is another great option. All other common cooking methods work too as long as you stay on the side of not charring and overcooking your food, which can greatly reduce the nutritive value of the food.
Jason Gootman: This salmon is incredible!
Mother Nature: Don’t thank me. Well, yeah, thank me! Ha ha!
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.