Bloke's Health

Paleo or peasant food?



Food, glorious food, we are surrounded by it. We are certainly the lucky country with respect to food, largely due to our multicultural society, which gives us access to a wide, varied and healthy array of cuisines. And I stress the healthy component. Just the other week I partook in Italian food on Monday, Spanish food on Tuesday, Greek food on Wednesday, Vietnamese food on Thursday and Thai food on Friday. My taste buds needed a rest on the weekend!

Yet there are all sorts of food wars going on with protagonists extolling the virtues of restrictive diets and labelling certain foods and food groups as being bad for you. This is totally wrong. It is extremely confusing for the public who are getting mixed messages about very healthy foods. I think that it is important not to moralise about food. Rather than the food being good or bad, it is more the eating behaviour or use of that food that is the problem.

Food information comes from varied sources, a lot of which I find questionable. Unfortunately, some of this misinformation influences the public to head along a particular eating and nutritional pathway that may be detrimental to their health in the long term. And I stress the long term.

Often the science behind the diet is pretty flimsy, but there is potential for a good book or a supplement sale. The public is also very vulnerable and our diet, with all the associated processes to get the food from the source to the plate safely, becomes a scapegoat as to the cause of all sorts of diseases. Throw in the suspicions and conspiracy theories raised about ulterior motives of the big food conglomerates and people end up making unnecessary and drastic dietary changes.

A lot centres on the difficult area of weight loss where there is a huge money-making industry set up and an even bigger and extremely vulnerable client/patient base. In Australia, obesity is literally a huge issue with the serious associated health issues of diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis and even some cancers adding a huge burden to Australia’s healthcare costs. Diets fly left, right and centre. Eat only this, don’t eat that, eat only at this time, don’t eat at that time and skip eating on these days. Crazy!

The reality is that, from a weight loss perspective, all diets work – for most – over only a fairly short period of time. That success doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy if kept going life long, particularly if there are restrictions of major and healthy food groups. When you peel away all the ritual associated with the weight control method, you will find that less energy comes in than goes out. Any proper weight loss regime should be healthy, balanced and sustainable. It should also encompass exercise into the equation.

The simple answer to the problem of obesity is to eat less and move more, but this has no ritual attached to it. It is not very sexy. It won’t sell many books. Most people want some sort of a ritual to hang their hat on. Eat only this, eat it at this time, avoid that and do it this many times per week. A diet of do’s and don’ts generally satisfies this necessity for a ritual.

A diet also implies a beginning and an end. It is the end bit that most people secretly and subconsciously find attractive. The perception is that I will fix up whatever nutritional problem I have in a fairly short period of time and then I can lapse back into what I was doing before. A small number of fanatical followers will continue, but the vast majority will slip off after a while or jump onto the next new food craze.

It is interesting that when extolling the virtues of a particular diet, celebrities are the most revered people to champion the cause rather than say Emeritus Professor Cafoops, head of nutrition at the World University. And when referring to the evidence backing the said diet, the standard statements begin with ‘They say…’ and ‘Studies show…’ It is important to ask who ‘They’ actually are. What are their qualifications? Where are they from? In what journals do they publish their findings and how many of them are there? With respect to the ‘studies’, how many back that way of thinking and how many are against it? Who, what and where were the studies done? How were the studies done, what was their quality and power? With respect to quoting studies, you can probably find a few somewhere to back virtually any way of thinking.

I will give you my general thoughts about proper nutrition as a late 50-something male who is also a doctor with a big interest in preventative medicine and a considerable amount of extra training in nutrition. On a day-to-day basis I see people with all sorts of problems, and nutrition and exercise are high on my list of assessments. Am I perfect with my own diet? No way. I’m a typical bloke when it comes to food and eating. There are things I love to eat that probably aren’t particularly ‘healthy’, but I’m not overly concerned as the majority of my eating is healthy and I always have the other all-important positive health promoter in exercise, churning away in the background.

Why do we eat?
We eat to obtain energy for all our bodily systems along with micronutrients like vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, and other compounds such as fibre. Food also gives us some fluid and increases our metabolism as it is broken down.

That is the scientific side of things, but food also has a huge social element to it. We eat to enjoy. It gives great joy to the creators and enjoyment to the consumers. It is often the cornerstone of the family unit and has been for a long time.

Certain meals such as breakfast and lunch to me have a stark, scientific ‘fill me up with something reasonably healthy in a short time frame’ message, but dinner has connotations of enjoyment and family communication. I couldn’t imagine sitting down at dinner and worrying about what was ‘bad’ in it or even feeling guilty that I was eating it at all. Food would become a fiend rather than a friend.

The other big thing I want in my diet is balance. And that is the big thing that most fad diets dip out on. The current Australian Dietary Guidelines cover this. Guideline 2 says that we should enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these food groups every day:
– Plenty of vegetables of different types and colours, and legumes/beans
– Fruit
– Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
– Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
– Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat
PS: And drink plenty of water.

I have no qualms whatsoever eating something from all the food groups despite some recent diets telling people to avoid major food groups such as grain foods and dairy products. In the words of ELO – confusion. For the vast majority of people, grain foods and dairy products are fine.

The sheer volume
Liking a wide range of foods as I do, I must control the main problem affecting blokes when we eat: the volume. We eat too much boys! Importantly, it is the volume of food relative to the amount of energy we burn each day, in a society with energy-saving devices everywhere and a work situation that is largely sedentary. It is important to note that Dietary Guidelines are not thought up on a whim. There is a huge amount of research and ratified scientific data that goes into preparing them.

I certainly believe blokes eat differently to females. We eat more, drink more and do both more quickly. We are also less likely to be able to prepare a healthy meal for ourselves as we tend to cook less than our female partners. I think blokes perceive cooking as being time consuming, so fast food options are more attractive and hence we tend to eat more ‘fast’ or ‘junk’ food, getting lots and lots of calories in a very short period of time. Or we just skip that meal, particularly breakfast and just have a fag and a cup of coffee instead! We don’t plan our day very well either with cooking and diet being low priorities.

I know that there are a lot of SNABs (Sensitive New Age Blokes) out there who do the cooking, but I’m not one of them. I could survive if I had to and I can read a recipe, but I have no spontaneity or flair. I hope to improve this in my third book, Blokes’ Food, where I will cover in-depth my thinking on diet and also look at some basic healthy cooking techniques and recipes – it seems every author must do a cookbook, but believe me, mine will be different.

I hate the necessity to label oneself as a particular type of food follower, but if I had to, I’d say I’m a Mediterranean-style of eating fan. The roots of this probably stem from the wonderful peasant foods from countries like Italy, Greece, and Spain, and the subsequent delicious and healthy staple foods that emanated from the necessity to survive on very little. The ingenuity of people to make beautiful basic and healthy food from raw plant-based ingredients has been amazing.

The Mediterranean type diet should be modified a bit because of Australia’s wonderful and close association with Asia and the Subcontinent, and the delightful and healthy foods that come out of those regions. Is there such a way of eating as MeditterAsian?

The new food pyramid
Nutrition Australia has just recently updated their Healthy Eating Food Pyramid, which I am happy about as it is basically a Mediterranean-type pyramid with the bottom two rungs switched around. This is at great odds with the current dietary flavour of the month, the Paleo Diet, which restricts wonderful grains including bread, cereals, legumes, and potatoes, as well as dairy products. I couldn’t cope with that and I think that their time machine overshot the mark and should have dropped them off when peasant foods were being created.

Without pasta, noodles, rice and potatoes, many societies would have not survived. These wonderful, nutritious foods have survived for centuries with delicious and extremely healthy recipes being passed down from generation to generation. And the societies that eat those basic staple meals are not unhealthy, generally not overweight (unless they eat too much) and importantly, are very happy eating them. My wife is of Italian and Irish extraction. Her Nonna taught her how to make risotto perfectly. And she does. She also makes the most delectable mashed potato you would ever want to taste as well as pasta and sugo to die for. Those foods were basically peasant foods that have become staple foods. Over the years the recipes have been modified from region to region with their own little quirks. Fresh vegetables and herbs have been added in, along with various meats and seafood.

There are people who struggle with wheat and dairy products, but most of the intolerances are relative rather than absolute. Some with conditions like coeliac disease need to be properly assessed by a doctor/gastroenterologist and then advised by an accredited dietician. Don’t assume that you have some intolerance and go on a restrictive diet until you have spoken to a professional such as a GP or dietician.

There are also so many myths out in the general public about food. I was having a go at Bob, one of my patients, the other day about his weight. He quipped in, “I’ve already started, Bernie, and cut bread right out.” I then had to explain to Bob that bread wasn’t the problem, that in fact as a wholemeal variety it gave him good fibre for his bowels and B group vitamins and minerals such as selenium. It was also a good base to add lots of healthy ingredients. Bread was good for balance. The extra couple of beers per day and sitting on his bottom too much were more of the cause of Bob’s body blowout.

I am happy to continue the way I have always eaten and I feel sorry for those who will deny themselves some particularly healthy and enjoyable foods, but that is their choice. For me, paleo or peasant? Peasant please. It would make a good Monty Python sketch. I will throw in another P word which is extremely important – portion.

As always, stay happy and healthy. And Go Hawks!

About Dr Bernie Crimmins

Dr Bernie Crimmins

Bernie has been a GP for almost 30 years during which time he has developed a special interest in men's health.

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