Thursday, March 21, 2013

Should You Eat Weird Foods?

     Maybe it's a function of aging, but I tend to be skeptical of faddish foods.  In the 1970's these included all-in-one box-mixes for cheesecake and tunnel-of-chocolate, as well as odd inventions like Fruit Loops, Hamburger Helper, cotton candy, Neccos, gummy bears, Spam, and Dream Whip.  These prettily-packaged products resembled, on close inspection, spackle, or plastic, or toys--not comestibles.  Anyone with a vestige of instinct steered clear of them.
     In the 1980s, "health food" replaced convenience foods, and natural products like sunflower seeds, muesli, dried peaches, bulgar wheat, marrons glaces, and tofu appeared on supermarket shelves, followed in a few years by ethnic ingredients such as tahini, tamari, umeboshi plums, Marmite, kelp, marzipan, daikon, ginger root and phyllo.  People started eating weird meals of stir fried veggies and tempeh, spanakopita, tabbouleh, falafal, blintzes, borscht, chapati, tacos, moussaka, sushi, and West African peanut soup.  I remember my mother preparing such dishes--proudly gleaned from issues of Gourmet, proof of her cosmopolitanism--and serving them for Sunday dinner along with narratives on the geography and cultural anthropology of the regions from which they haled.
     The last two decades have brought a storm of new foods to this country, corresponding to the internationalism of our travel and politics.  We have so many choices about what to cook every day, that it's tempting to ignore them all, and revert to old-fashioned American food:  macaroni and cheese, oatmeal, baked beans, buttered toast, green-bean casserole, and egg-salad sandwiches. 
     But there isn't a health, fitness or women's magazine in sight that doesn't tout the benefits of a new set of weird foods, which makes readers wonder if they're sacrificing years of salubrious life by foregoing them. 
     Are we supposed to eat chia seeds every day, to get even more omega-threes than are packed into the fish-oil capsules we've been tricked into taking?  What about pomegranates?  At $3.99 apiece, they seem extravagant--and all those tiny seed-pods, what a red-speckled mess they make.  Then there are "studies" on food-components like nutritional yeast, probiotics, cold-pressed oils, and non-GMO soybeans--are they important?   I don't really know, and I'm not sure anyone is doing much more than advertising for these things.
     The human body is designed to handle a very wide array of foods from underground, up in trees, inside animals, or sowed in rows.  Just about everything we eat gets broken down, almost instantaneously, into glucose, which is exactly what our cells need to survive.  It's not a mystery, then, that our taste buds have evolved to seek out glucose in nature--it's the quickest way to supply organs, especially the brain, with fuel. 
     If, therefore, you choose to eat a vegan raw-food diet every day, those vegetables and grains just disappear into bundles of glucose--and the overabundance of micronutrients you ingest ends up in your excretory pathways.  You simply can't flood your system with way more nutrients than it needs, and expect them to turn you into a superhero. 
       Are doctors like me supposed to be telling patients to eat more kale, blueberries, and edamame, even out of season, even shipped from long distances, even if they don't like them?  Should everyone invest in a juicer, and then need to buy four times as many vegetables to make juice, with the goal of living longer?  If the fiber residue left from juicing has to be discarded, then aren't juicers just another strategy to get us to buy more, More, MORE?  America's economy doesn't flourish unless people purchase more this year than they did last year--but how can that make sense?  We can only consume so much.  That's why weird foods, with niche markets, high price tags and trumpeting claims keep finding their way onto supermarket shelves.
     It pays to be sensible.  The human body has adapted to a variety of foods over thousands of years, and now requires the same variety to function well.  Therefore, variety is important.  This may explain our innate attraction to new and exciting-looking foods.  Other primates experiment with new, colorful foods when they come across them in the wild--which isn't the case with wolves, big cats, gophers, or salamanders..  Humans succumb to packaging and taste, when it comes to weird foods, because we're programmed, biologically, to do so.
     Here's my advice.  Eat basic foods--what you grew up with, or grow and cook, or like.  Try new foods--but don't break your budget doing it.  It's important not to eat the same things, day after day, for months on end, because human physiology is primed to extract what it needs from many different sources, and it needs many different enzymes and nutrients.  You will suffer from deficiencies if you subsist on a mono-diet. 
     Beware of noisy promotions for new, weird foods, because they probably don't mean much.  You can buy and eat them without doing yourself harm, but you shouldn't eat what you don't like, just because you've been told it's good for you.  Many foods are good for you--surely, you can find some you like.   Remember the heyday of noni juice, spirulina, goji berries, and acai?  They've been replaced by chia seeds, and soy nuts, and flax, and acanthocyanins. 
     Weird foods aren't terrible--but they cost a lot more than they're worth.  And the claims you read about them are mostly a lot of hype.  As long as you realize it might be skillful marketing that impels you to buy weird foods--not facts, or prudence, or irrefutable health benefits--go ahead.  Buy whatever you can afford, and eat what you like.  


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  2. Reminds me of a German medical student who was doing an addiction rotation in the US. He asked me why Americans were so preoccupied with counting up the number of drinks per day because:

    "In Germany, beer is food."

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