Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Low-Cost Healthy Diet

In November, 1998, Texas Gardener Magazine published my article The Paleolithic Gardener. I am interested to see that the "paleo diet" is now all the rage.

I no longer have a copy of the article, as it was lost when my house burned down, but as I recall, the article was more about gathering and eating wild foods than adopting a strict paleo diet. Recent advocates of the paleo diet do not insist on gathering wild foods, although I'm sure they would not object to this. According to the author(s) of the Paleo Diet website, "Paleo is a simple dietary lifestyle that is based on foods being either in or out. In are the Paleolithic Era foods that we ate prior to agriculture and animal husbandry (meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruit, berries, mushrooms, etc.). Out are Neolithic Era foods that result from agriculture or animal husbandry  (grains, dairy, beans/legumes, potatoes, sugar and fake foods)."

I'm not sure what's meant by "fake foods," but I'm guessing that would be stuff such as Chicken McNuggets (see note 1 below). These would not have been Neolithic treats, but still, I see the author's point.

The reason very old-fashioned diets are supposed to be healthy is that the human body evolved prior to the neolithic period (the Neolithic period was believed to have begun around 12,000 years ago, although I think I read somewhere that recent archaeological evidence indicates that people may have been farming and living with domesticated animals prior to that time). Our bodies are made to deal with certain kinds of sugars, proteins, and fats; we don't thrive on substitutes. As a gardener, I would not plant azaleas in the highly alkaline clay soil in my San Antonio garden. I would, instead, plant azaleas in my Caldwell County garden, where the soil is well-draining sandy loam and slightly acidic. For similar reasons, it makes sense for the human consumer to give his or her body the sort of nutrients that will help it to thrive.

There are two reasons I've suddenly become especially interested in my diet: 
1. Ever since I reached the age of 50, I've tended to put on lots more fat than I need;
2. The extra weight is very hard on my knees;
3. I was recently ill with a bad cold or flu. I'm not sure which it was, but it involved fever and feeling completely drained of energy. And it made me lose my appetite. I didn't eat much for several days, and I was amazed to find that even after the cold or flu symptoms were gone, and my energy level back to normal, I didn't crave carbohydrates the way I had before.

I am now able to get by well on about 2/3 of the calories I was consuming before, almost none of which are refined carbohydrates. I can go for many hours without eating, with none of the symptoms of low blood sugar I would have had before (headache, shaky feeling, dizziness).

It reminds me of when I quit smoking as a young person. I had not been able to kick the habit, no matter what I tried, until I got sick with a nasty cold. While I was sick with the cold, I had no desire to smoke. By the time I got well, I'd gotten past the most horrible withdrawal symptoms, and it was not that hard to never smoke again. It was not easy, by any means. For at least a year after I quit, I'd really want to have a cigarette when other people lit up. But it was possible, whereas before I got sick, it was not.

Having developed an intense interest in diets, as a result of what recently happened to me, I watched Super-Size Me and Food, Inc. on Netflix over the weekend. Food, Inc. included an interview with a family who said they could not afford to buy good food. The whole family was eating fast food from paper bags -- stuff that was probably heavily laced with high-fructose corn syrup,  fried in rancid oil. They also said they didn't have time to cook, since they had to leave the house early in the day and didn't get home until about 9:00 in the evening. 

I don't believe this. I believe it's possible to eat a healthy diet for less than the cost of buying fast food, at least in terms of money. I'm not sure about the time. I see that a McDonald's franchisee has reduced the drive-through order time down to one minute by outsourcing the order taking function to a call center.  It would be hard to beat that time, but my experience with drive-through fast food joints is that it takes more like 5 - 10 minutes to get all the way through the line from order to pick-up. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I've never been through a McDonald's drive-through, only Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell.

But "According to Nielsen Media Research's latest report, the average American household watches 8 hours and 15 minutes of television in a 24-hour period. The average amount of time per individual (over the age of 2) is about 4 and a half hours."

If people believed they could lose weight and feel better by trading off a couple of hours of TV a week for going to the grocery store instead of to McDonald's, I'll bet most people would be willing to make the trade, if it were not for one thing: addiction.

I believe addiction is the main reason people continue to eat unhealthy food, even though they know it's bad for them, just as a person addicted to cigarettes and short on money will buy cigarettes instead of food. I was addicted to carbohydrates before my recent illness. If I didn't have some carbs every few hours, I would get a headache and might even feel shaky and dizzy. It's VERY hard to stop eating carbs when stopping makes you sick. Also, people are constantly exposed to the smells of frying foods and pictures of food, and people eating on TV.

I'm going to test the theory that healthy food costs more than fast food by tracking the cost of my food, in terms of time and money over the next several days, and see how hard it is to eat a healthy diet without spending a lot of money or time.

Today I have eaten:

Breakfast: oat porridge with milk (8 grams protein in the milk; 10 in the oats) 60 cents for oats and milk [about 6 minutes to pour the rolled oats into a pot with some water, cook, and pour in the milk; 3 minutes to wash pot, bowl & spoon]
Lunch: 4 oz string cheese (8 grams protein in each stick, total 32 grams) [less than 30 seconds to remove wrapper] 50 cents
Snack: a large carrot, eaten raw 5 cents at most [less than 30 seconds to remove from fridge]
Supper: bowl Tasty Classics (Canadian brand) chicken and rotini soup (6 grams protein) 25 cents [4 minutes to open can, pour into pot and cook]
Fresh asparagus 90 cents [3 minutes to break into pieces and throw into the pot of soup] 
Small can V8 juice 40 cents [less than 30 seconds to open can]
5 pecans, gathered from beneath a pecan tree earlier today (3 - 5 gram protein) [5 minutes to gather a bag of pecans]
Mid evening snack: another carrot, eaten raw 5 cents [less than 30 seconds to remove from fridge]
For bed time snack, I will have some unsweetened applesauce and maybe a few more pecans 25 cents for the applesauce

The fresh asparagus was the most expensive thing on the menu today. True, 90 cents per serving is kind of expensive, but my total cost for food for the day was still under $3, which is less than one would spend for a meal at McDonald's. 

I didn't consume a paleo diet today, since the soup contained wheat pasta, and the oats and milk would not have been available in quantity prior to pastoral and agricultural times. But I ate very few refined carbohydrates. I got plenty of protein and fat and carbohydrates, along with a good assortment of vitamins. I spent the morning doing fairly demanding mental work and the afternoon doing physical work in the garden. I felt good the whole time -- no hunger pangs at any time during the day. 

I'll admit that this is not a very interesting diet, so far, but it's at least as varied and visually appealing as a fast food meal. Some of the paleo diet cookbooks have very nice photos of yummy-looking food. 

This is the second week I've been on what would have seemed like a very restrictive diet before my illness. Yet I don't feel at all deprived. I enjoy eating when I'm doing it, but I don't have constant cravings to eat, and I get full on less food than before. I've been losing a pound every 2 or 3 days, which is fairly rapid weight loss, but since I feel good and am getting the other nutrients I need, I think it's OK. I've lost about 5 pounds, and my knees are already working better. I would like to lose 11 or 12 more pounds. I expect the weight loss will taper off as I get lighter and it takes less energy to move my body around. If I'm still losing weight when I get to my goal, I'll want to add some calories to keep my weight stable. I'm sure those calories won't be in the form of refined carbohydrates. The last thing I want is to get addicted again. Instead, I'll eat more fruits such as bananas and more nuts and maybe more meat.

Note 1: "The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable.

But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill."
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  

1 comment:

  1. Barbara: I've been fully paleo, diet-wise, for over two months now. I can completely relate to your experience in not feeling hungry often or quickly since I've cut way back on carbs (probably quite a bit more restrictive than what you describe). My energy levels have been more stable, and I have no trouble doing high-intensity weight workouts of around 45 minutes, or 25-minute interval training aerobic workouts, without having eaten for hours beforehand.