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One Size Doesn't Fit All When It Comes to Food

I’ve known for a long time that a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work when it comes to what we eat. And yet, while I know this intellectually, it can still be hard to acknowledge that it may be okay for someone to have a radically different approach to eating from what I’m used to.

Diets that make me scratch my head

Part of the challenge for me is that many of the diets out there these days seem quite extreme, and I have a hard time thinking that people would be able to live and be healthy while eating in these ways. Some examples are:

  • Atkins Diet (and the similar Keto 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 restricts eating anything cooked above 116 degrees, as well as avoiding 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.

Real-life examples of extreme diets

Then I read 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 groups survived, had children, etc. Whether they were missing certain nutrients or not is hard to say, but even if they weren't, it wasn't drastic enough to drive them to extinction or to prevent them from going about the necessary functions of life.

What I eat isn’t what everyone needs to eat

Thinking over all this, I have to remind myself to be more open-minded about food.

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. And if I’m ever tempted to tell someone what to eat, I need to remember that they need to find what works for them – and that what works for me isn’t necessarily ideal for others.


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