With the recent revelation that celebrity chef Paula Deen has entered into a contract with diabetes drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk, it seems like a good time to examine why it is exactly that traditional dishes such as those popular in the Southern and Midwestern states are so bad for people living in today’s America.
Food is one of the most quietly contentious subjects in the world of public health, and as diabetes and obesity become the predominant issues the nation faces in terms of healthcare, there will be more and more fights over this subject. The goal of this entry is to look at some aspects of traditional American dishes and explain why they are no longer appropriate for most people in modern America.
The first reason why certain foods are no longer dietary appropriate for daily consumption has to do with simple nutrition. Food is one of three essential fuels for the human body (the other two being water and air). Taken from this perspective, it’s easier to explore the idea that different foods fill different roles in terms of maintaining health depending on the activities that are being engaged in. To put it another way, someone who works as a farmhand is going to have much different nutritional needs than an office worker. As more and more Americans have moved from jobs that are predominately physical to more sedentary and cerebral, the nutrients needed to maintain good health will change as well.
When a person works a job that has challenging physical requirements, he or she is going to need a lot of calories. And these calories will need to come from foods that provide energy at different rates. For example, fats are needed to provide a source of continuous energy throughout the day, but carbs are also needed to cover quick bursts of greater exertion when they are needed. Depending on how physically exhausting the work is, protein is required to rebuild damage done to muscle tissue as well as also keep blood sugar fluctuations to a minimum. Worth noting as well, because there is also usually an element of exposure to the climate, foods that effect the temperature of the body are also important. In colder months, a higher fat diet is preferable as the fat can help insulate the body, warm the body as it burns, and the oils contained can help repair skin that has been damaged due to exposure.
Also, because every movement helps move blood through the body, more physically active individuals don’t have to worry quite so much about the purity of their food. The reason for this is that all that exertion increases the speed at which the body detoxifies. When people work harder, they sweat, and that sweat is one of the ways that people eliminate toxins from their body. Also, as mentioned above, every time the muscles contract and relax, they pump blood being held in nearby arteries, veins, and capillaries. This reduces the work load being placed on the heart and also helps move negative elements in the blood stream to the organs of elimination. Because of these elements, if the food being consumed does have a lot of preservatives or other harmful ingredients, these ingredients will not remain in the body as long. As for how this can impact health, the longer harmful elements remain in the body, the more likely they are to stress the immune system, mutate cells they are contact with, increase inflammation, and basically clog up the works so that the individual has less energy and generally feels less comfortable.
Now take this information and apply it to a worker in an office environment. Most of the stresses in this environment are mental and emotional, and the physical stresses range from minor to nonexistent. As mentioned in previous blog entries, that’s not to say that there aren’t physical problems that can arise from sitting in an office chair at a computer all day, but these are more problems dealing with strain on the postural muscles. In terms of blood flow, the engagement of these muscles has a negative effect on the ability to move through the body since when these muscles get tight, they obstruct blood vessels as opposed to assisting with the movement of the blood.
As for how what a person consumes can worsen this type of problem, here’s an example. One habit of the office worker that has become inappropriate is the daily cup of coffee. Coffee is different from most forms of caffeine in that it causes the body to release adrenaline. If a person is working a job that is physically demanding, that boost of adrenaline will improve breathing, blood flow, and energy while the energy released can be consumed by the physical exertion he or she is engaged in. If a person’s job is primarily sedentary, all the energy that might have been expended in physical tasks instead manifests in increased stress, emotional intensity, overthinking, and muscle tension. While this may seem like a small thing, over time, that daily coffee cup adds up and can precipitate and eventually aggravate other stress-related symptoms such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, inflammation, and pain.
So how should a person who’s job is less physically demanding differ their diet from someone’s whose daily life is more physically demanding? The first thing to do is eliminate unnecessary fats, simple carbs, and proteins. If these nutrients are not being used by the body, then their presence is actually harmful. Digestion requires a certain amount of the body’s resources, including blood, so eating more than is needed places stresses on multiple systems of the body, including the heart, the lungs, the organs of digestion and elimination, and the liver. When a person overeats, the food stays in his or her system longer as it takes time for the body to breakdown the food in their system. If that food remains in contact with certain tissues of the body for an extended period, it can cause those cells to mutate, which can be a precursor to cancer. It can also provide a growth medium for bacteria, which in minor cases can increase discomfort, but in extreme cases can actually cause the serious systemic infection.
There is also the matter of what happens to the body over time when there are more available nutrients than it needs. Type 2 diabetes is one example of how the body adapts to a change in it’s internal environment. This form of diabetes develops when the body can no longer cope with consistently high levels of blood sugar. If a person is physically active, those sugars are converted into a form of fuel called ATP that is consumed by the muscles during activity. When there is no need to create and replace the ATP in the muscles, those same sugars will either convert to fat for later use or remain in the bloodstream. As blood sugar levels remain high, various systems and tissues will start to suffer negative effects as they remain in contact with the offending substance. This is why various organs start to fail over time, with the kidneys being particularly vulnerable as urination is one of the methods the body uses to regulate blood sugar, so when blood sugar is high, the kidneys are exposed to a far greater amount than usual.
With that in mind, an office worker should instead focus on foods that make up for the lack of physical exertion. A greater amount of vegetables for their nutrients and fiber, some fruit for the sugar and vitamins, an increase in fiber intake to make-up for the lack of abdominal movement (contractions of the abdominal muscles contribute to the movement of nutrients and waste through the intestines), a decreased amount of protein and fat, and generally a lightening of the diet (avoiding heavier, stick to your ribs kind of foods associated with concepts such as the ‘Lumberjack breakfast). Also, someone who has a less sedentary job should look more at a grazing approach to eating (consuming food only when hungry), as opposed to having 2 or 3 large meals during the day regardless of hunger, a habit adopted by the more physically active due to the knowledge that the calories will be consumed eventually. (A habit that can become harmful if activity levels change without an adjustment to the diet – retired athletes and members of the military often have to deal with this issue).
The second reason why a lot of these traditional dishes are no longer appropriate for people has less to do with the individuals consuming the foods as it has to do with why and how the food is prepared the way it is. One of the main reasons why fried foods are such a large part of the traditional southern diet is because the hot and humid climate of the region causes things to spoil much quicker than they would in cooler or less damp regions. Frying foods, especially meats, was a simple way to keep them from spoiling. The high heat that food was exposed to in the frying process was also a way of making food that was close to spoiling safe to eat. With the advent and widespread availability of modern refrigeration technologies, people no longer have to worry about their food staying safe to consume after being exposed to warm temperatures through the day. In actuality, fried foods tend to become harder for the body to process after they have been cooled and reheated as the fats are more likely to oxidize during the reheating.
Another characteristic of these traditional meals is that they were often quite time consuming to prepare. In times and places when the division of labor allowed for one member of a household to concentrate a large amount of their day on the production of food, preparing a meal that requires a full day of work was much more manageable. Contrast that with today, when often every adult member of the family spends the majority of their workday outside of the home, such time consuming meals are no longer possible to properly prepare. However, with the development of modern cooking ingredients (often developed in laboratories as synthetic equivalents to naturally-derived foodstuffs), it is possible to create ‘traditional’ meals out of non-traditional ingredients. However, even though the foods may look and even taste the same, all of those artificial ingredients still take a toll on the body. If these foods are consumed on only a occasional basis, this change is less of an issue, but if these foods are part of the regular diet, combined with a lack of physical activity, these artificial ingredients build-up in the body, eventually creating issues when they overwhelm the body’s ability to clean them out. Sugars are a a major cause of this type of health problem, but recent studies have shown that artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives can affect the body in small but subtle ways that, when combined, can significantly lower the quality of life and create chronic health issues.
In conclusion, it’s worth noting that traditional regional diets are worth preserving, as they often provide a well-rounded diet that covers most of the traditional needs for a population using the foods available. However, these diets were also developed for certain groups with specific nutritional needs. A meal of fried chicken, greens, and sweet potatoes can be an excellent well-balanced meal for someone working in a physically-demanding profession such as agriculture, but it’s less healthy for someone working in a call-center. The cheesesteak sandwich, meatloaf and gravy with mashed potatoes, even the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, these foods can all be appropriate daily caloric sources, if there is enough physical activity and environmental factors to necessitate them, but in today’s day and age, most people simply don’t require that many calories to fuel them, and would get greater benefits and feel better with a diet more suited to their needs.
Someone whose work stresses are more mental and emotional than physical has different nutritious concerns than just getting enough calories, especially since the ability to snack as needed is much more available. A focus on foods that are high in anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, as well as ones that digest cleanly will often lead these people to feel more energetic, less stressed, and overall more comfortable than a ‘traditional’ diet based on the nutritional needs of ancestors who lived in different climates, had more elemental exposure, and worked in professions that placed different stresses on the body.
As diabetes and obesity become a bigger and bigger public health issue, it’s worth remembering that the first and most effective form of treatment for these conditions are dietary and lifestyle changes. However, because there is so much variety in working and living environments and the subsequent demands required by those environments, it’s inappropriate to say that there is any one diet that will work for everyone. Hopefully, articles like this one will cause people to think more about what they want from their food and how to get it, and also remind them that sometimes traditions often exist for a reason, and once that underlying reason changes, the tradition itself needs to either change to reflect that or it should be considered obsolete. But the lessons those traditions emerged from should be remembered, not just for the history behind them, but also how and why they came to be and to see if they can be adapted to the modern world for everyone’s benefit. Even if the only benefit is a tasty treat.