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Dietary Theories

July 18, 2011

I like to consider myself an open-minded person, and not someone who blindly accepts what others say. Even so, I realized recently that I’ve become fairly set in my beliefs about what people should eat, based what works for me, and based on the common thoughts of our time.

This came to my attention when I began reading about different dietary theories as part of my preparation for my health coaching certification. I found myself balking at the concept that anyone would actually be able to live and be healthy while eating in these ways. Some examples are:

  • Atkins Diet: I’ve never understood this one. How is it healthy to eat all that fat and protein? And how can you possibly say that eating fruit is bad?

  • High Carbohydrate Diet: the opposite of Atkins, which only suggests 10-15% protein, and preferably to get that from sources other than meat or high-fat dairy products. I was trying to understand how this could work if you’re going to be very active and crave protein and fat.

  • Raw Foods Diet: This avoids anything cooked about 116 degrees, as well as all meat and dairy. (Probably a good thing, given the cooking restriction.) After having read Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, I have a hard time accepting that eating only raw foods is actually good for us, or necessary.


Part of me understands that everyone is different, and that the “one size fits all approach” doesn’t work in relation to what we can or even need to eat. But part of me was thinking, no, you need to eat a balanced diet of protein (possibly including from animals), various carbohydrates (including fruits), and vegetables.

Then I started reading Ceremonial Time by John Hanson Mitchell. In it, he examines the history of life from the past 15,000 years in a small plot of land in Massachusetts, including looking at the diets of the peoples who’ve lived there. This included:

  • Paleo-Indians, who pretty much only ate meat, since animals were so plentiful.

  • Late Archaic Indians, who were still meat-eaters but also started gathering plant-based foods, primarily nuts and seeds

  • Woodland Indians, who did some agriculture, and began to focus more on plants

  • Eastern Woodland Indians, who were “essentially horticulturists; they kept no animals and still relied heavily on wild plants and hunting to supplemental their vegetarian agriculture.” (p. 111)

  • Puritans, who were “heavy protein eaters. Ideally, each adult would consume a pound of meat, cheese, or fish a day, and perhaps a quarter of a pound of corn or oats or barley porridge.” pp. (111-112)


These correspond at least in part with some of the dietary theories people follow today, and sure enough, all those peoples survived, had children, etc. Whether they were missing certain nutrients or not is hard to say, but it obviously wasn’t something they worried about, nor was it drastic enough to drive them to extinction or to prevent them from going about the necessary functions of life. I also remember my great-grandfather, whose diet I considered pretty horrifying - not just in the sense of lots of fatty foods but also spoiled foods, since his eyesight was going - but who lived to be in his mid-90’s.

Thinking over all this, I am forced to re-evaluate my own stance on food. Yes, I do still think that balance, variety, and moderation is a good approach, but I must also recognize that different people can eat in different ways and still be healthy. Now I just need to remember that, and not let my habits develop into a holier-than-thou attitude as I help others rediscover their own relationship with food. 

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