3 August 2013

What to eat

I'm up early. I've long wanted cultivate the habit of rising early and exercising either my body or my mind, either by walking, yoga or writing. It would be a recultivation, really, because I lived that way for a decade or so before having children.

It would mean, of course, sacrificing pleasant evenings once the children are in bed, because sleep has to be had some time, and I get dog-tired by the end of the day if I'm up early (and sometimes even if I'm not). How wonderful it would be, I think, to need just a few hours of sleep!

However, these days the pull of sleep and bed is so strong and delicious that ... well, you can guess the outcome.


Upon rising I lit that centre of winter cosiness for our family, our woodfire. In fact it was already 20 degrees in our living area, so the flickering flames are definitely pure luxury. A boy with an ear infection is likely to emerge soon, though, and yesterday his main needs were for the fire, the cat and a book. Perfect.

I'm not compelled to rise early to toil in the fields, and fuel is so plentiful we can warm myself whenever I want (thank you husband, for chopping it). Which brings me to food. How many societies throughout history were able to choose to eat the type and amount of whatever food they wanted? It is the lap of luxury, and the delightful guiles of junk food seem to be ruining our health.

People I know and others I read about seem to be throwing themselves into one or other health-improving diet. There is the paleo diet: no grains (oats! flour! rice!), legumes or dairy, and not much fruit. Lots of meat, nuts, vegetables and fat. Then there's the Nourishing Traditions diet, taken from the book of the same name. All grains must be fermented, all dairy unpasteurised, and meat, vegetables, fruit, fat and soaked nuts are staples. Lastly there's the vegetable based, non-dairy diet, which is what much of the world is forced to consume anyway.

People who have set themselves up as experts in these diets explain the theoretical evidence for their diet over the others, and offer lots of success stories. But in terms of long term trials of people on one diet vs. another, the evidence seems to be lacking. Apart from glaringly obvious fact, that is, that if the diet excludes junk food and excess, and includes lots of vegetables, it's going to improve health.

There is, however, one diet that has been trialled and found to be a winner, and it has a little meat, a little dairy and unlimited vegetables, fruit, nuts and lentils, along with hefty servings of olive oil (four tablespoons a day). It's the Mediterranean diet - specifically mimicking what people in Crete used to eat (they've since moved on to burgers, from what I've read, and things have gone down hill for them healthwise).

Lower cholesterol and heart disease, blood sugar control in diabetics, less risk of cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, fewer menopausal symptoms. What more could you want? Reassuringly, the results come from published scientific studies, not someone's diet blog!

My mouth waters at the thought. Did you ever make the eggplant parmesan recipe from my blog? Roll on summer! Here's a blog I found, Olive Tomato, that is written by a Greek-American nutritionist and is laden with good-looking recipes.

All the diets largely exclude sugar, which I suspect is one of the biggest health baddies. Most people eat so much of the stuff, yet until a couple of hundred years ago it was scarce and fiercely expensive. Bodies don't adapt that quickly. (The Cretans had two to three sweet baked things a week. I can live with that.) They also involve a lot of vegetables - far more than the small pile of peas that furtively perches on the traditional New Zealand dinner plate each night, cowering off to the side in order to leave room for the meat.

This early-up body is hungry now. Soaked oats and dates are waiting to be cooked into a sweetish porridge. Breakfast is one meal I always get right.

(I pulled the info on the Med diet from the print version of this Listener article. Only subscribers can get full-text at the link. I also glanced through this study in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

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