What to eat?


As a Herbalist, one of the things we are supposed to provide advice and guidance to our clients about is diet; what to eat! I find this to be a more challenging aspect of the job and there are a few reasons for that, not the least of which is my own aversion to rules, and the fact that everyone has their own likes, dislikes and ideas about food!

I have tried a few different diets in my days (and by diets, I don’t mean eating less to get skinny, just different dietary philosophies) and I had a hard time following the rules of any of them! I was vegetarian for several years, even vegan for a few. I dabbled in raw-foodism and was tempted to learn more about macrobiotics over 20 years ago in my “finding myself” days. Now I am most definitely an omnivore. I wonder what 16 year old vegetarian me would have thought had someone told me that 20 years from then I would be skinning and gutting deer, butchering it in my kitchen and rendering the fat to make soap! Oh the journeys that life takes us on!

Today we have fancy sciences, we can break down and study food so that we know exactly how much protein or fat or carbs is in this or that food, how much of each vitamin and mineral, etc. are in each different kinds of food. We break it all down into tiny parts and then try to build it back up into a diet “plan” that includes just the right amount of this, only a little bit of that and then a whole lot of something else entirely. And then just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, science learns something it didn’t know before and all the rules change! Frustrating isn’t it!

Before writing this post, I read briefly about a number of diet philosophies, just to get a sense of what each is about – vegetarian, vegan, Weston Price Diet, Atkins DietPaleo, Macrobiotics, GAPS diet, raw-foodism, Eat Right for your Type, just to name a few! (I included simple links for those who wish to read more. Mostly they are just Wikipedia link for quick info.) Websites with good nutritional advice include: The Nourished Kitchen, Chris Kresser. The Sistah Vegan Project, Vegetarian Nutrition. These are just a few links, please feel free to share more in the comments!

To some extent, each dietary theory mentioned above claims to explain the major modern themes of human disease and to offer the dietary answers to them.

The thing is, reality isn’t so neat and tidy. And people are individuals. With unique likes and dislikes, and with moral points of view, with particular tendencies, and individual constitutions shaped by many factors.

One common thread in almost all of the dietary philosophies is to avoid processed foods. Other common themes are reducing or avoiding processed sugar completely, the significant contribution of traditionally fermented foods to our overall health, and the importance of paying attention to our gut health, our microbiome. All of this makes good, common sense to me.

If I had to put dietary advice into one sentence it would be, “Eat traditional foods.” That is a simple statement and yet it can mean so many different things! Every culture, every people around the world have their own traditional foods and traditional means of preparing foods. Some methods of food preparation are common around the world, for example herb teas and fermentation. Traditional foods and diets are an evolutionary human adaptation to people’s immediate environment and to ensuring that adequate nutritional needs are met using the plant and animal resources available. That may sound complicated, but its not; its just common sense. People use what is around them to survive.

Poster published by the Northwest Indian College.

Poster published by the Northwest Indian College.

Typically, traditional diets combine foods in such a way that the people eating them are getting adequate and balanced nutrition, for example the plethora of traditional dishes which combine legumes and grains in a single dish to provide a complete protein- dahl and rice, beans with corn tortillas, tofu with rice, hummus with pita bread, etc. Phsyiological adaptations evolve, also, to accommodate the reality that people living in different parts of the world have access to different kinds of foods, for example the Inuit have a different way of metabolizing fats. (And this is an interesting article about traditional Inuit foods.)

Traditional diets connect us to land. For First Nations in North America, eating traditional foods can be healing in more ways than one. Traditional Ojibwe – Pottawattami foods vary according to what part of Anishnabe Territory you are in, and include wild game – deer, moose, rabbit, squirrel and more, wild berries, mushrooms, fish, wild rice, corn, beans and squash, sunchokes, maple syrup and so much more! All of these wild and simply cultivated foods are deeply nourishing and healing themselves.

The kids skinning and butchering deer.

The kids skinning and butchering deer.

Eating food “from the land”- meaning hunting, fishing, foraging and growing food in garden plots- connects you to the land because you literally rely on the land for your sustenance. This means, also, that you must be concerned about the health of the plants and animals and the environment on which you rely. This kind of eating requires an appreciation for how all life is interconnected, an appreciation that is healing to anyone, and to the planet.

For many, eating traditional foods can be healing because it connects us to other traditional ways, for example, food processing. When our family started collecting maple sap and making syrup several years ago, I did some research as to how maple syrup “used” to be made. After a little digging, it became clear just how well thought out, technical and community/family orientated syrup production was/is. The colonial narrative would have us believe that “wild indians” chopped random holes in maple trees with tomahawks, let the sap drip out and then somehow, mysteriously, turned that sap into syrup. Mysteriously- to the colonial mind- because it was done without metal pots to boil the sap in. Reading about real traditional methods, and understanding that there are many families and communities that still make syrup together gives a sense of pride that is profoundly healing. Its like hearing a completely different story about who you are. What are your favourite traditional foods?

But what about those who can’t hunt, fish or forage? Who can’t grow a garden? What about those who live in cities? What about people whose ancestral traditions are different than the ones of the land they live on?   What about those who live in poverty? No matter how you try to slice it, explain it or wrap it up in pretty language, it is very difficult to eat a healthy, ethical diet when you live in poverty. There are some programs out there to help fill this gap. Some are referenced in links further on in this post. Please add comments to this blog with other helpful hints! Also, there are ways you can still eat healthy, traditional foods! In the modern world, however, eating traditionally often happens through filters

Many traditional methods of food preparation can be done in your own kitchen. And, we are fortunate enough- in North American anyway- to have access to traditional foods from around the world and to resources that help us learn to prepare them.

For those who live in cities or who cannot hunt, gather, and garden you can support those who do! Increasingly there are opportunities to purchase wild harvested and ethically/ecologically grown foods and medicine. You serve two greater goods this way- you are taking care of your own health, and supporting those trying to sustain themselves with traditional skills. You are also helping to revive traditional skills by making it possible for people to support themselves doing it! Many First Nations people already do this (have always done this!), through traditional customs of giving, sharing and barter exchange. Relatives still living on the Rez and (at least partially) off the land often share wild foods with family living in cities or away from the Rez.

(Re)learning traditional skills and sustainable eating habits is more popular now and there are many resources and programs available to those who wish to look for them. Many reserves, also, are finding ways to bring more traditional foods to people’s diets, as well as introducing and running gardening and food security programs.

I dislike making food complicated. This may be different for some- some find comfort in things that are carefully measured and well planned. But, when what I eat becomes a complicated mathematical question of percentages of protein, carbs, fat; of calculating calories consumed vs calories burned, etc, I simply throw my hands up in frustration. I don’t enjoy food anymore. For me, there is something intrinsically unhealthy about stressing about what to eat! In a way, though, this is a privilege for me as I typically enjoy good health, without too much fuss about what to eat. Others have specific health issues, food sensitivities or allergies that require a more carefully planned and restricted diet.

For myself personally, I do not follow any particular diet plan or philosophy. I chose to try to eat traditional foods, to hunt, gather or grow as much as possible, and to learn about and incorporate traditional methods of food preparation as much as possible. I don’t know it all- no one can! I am just starting to learn about fermenting foods, for example! Sometimes financial and time limitations dictate what our family eats more than what we would like to eat does. That’s just reality. And I don’t stress about the occasional fast food meal, or salty snack.

For each person, though, what you feel comfortable eating, what you like to eat and what is healthiest for you is a matter of personal preference and individual constitutional needs. There are some basic parameters of healthy eating that are not too hard to learn. Most people can find a way to meet their nutritional needs within the style of eating which they like. Herbalists, naturopaths, wholistic nutritionists and other professionals can help you sort out what is best for you, personally, based on your own preferences, style and needs. In my own practice, I do not advocate any one particular kind of diet, but can help you to find a healthy way of eating that works for you and for your family!

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