How do you make food thatís good for you and tastes good? Begin with the finest ingredients whenever possible: fresh wild foods, homegrown organic garden produce, or fresh ingredients from a certified organic farm. When you prepare food, focus on bringing out the ingredientsí outstanding qualitiesóflavor, texture, and appearance. Cook food until itís just done. Use ingredients that complement each other.
The worldís great cuisines were all developed by home cooks using local ingredients and seasonings. They provide excellent guidelines to follow. Choose proportions, cooking methods, and seasonings appropriate to your ingredients and respectful (but not slavishly imitative) of the cuisines youíre emulating. This intimidated me when I was a beginner, but after a while, it becomes second nature. Like removing the training wheels of a bicycle as you gain confidence, the recipes that follow will guide you toward putting together high-quality, healthy wild (and no-so-wild) ingredients with sound culinary and nutritional principles.
Wholeness is a mainstay of all natural foods cooking. A diet of whole foods best approximates the quantities and proportions of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, enzymes, and fiber we ate as we evolved and adapted to the foods our environment offered. Although different individuals of different sex, age, states of health, and genetic inheritance have different nutritional needs, a whole foods diet provides an excellent starting point for achieving better health.
Ingredients should be as close as possible to their living states. You can use them raw, chop or grind them, and heat them within reason, but avoid refined ingredients After industrial processing, the original ingredients are often unrecognizable, and their flavors and nutrients are sacrificed for the causes of shelf life and profit.
Grain ground into flour, for example, retains most of itís original properties, although flour's increased surface area unduly speeds digestion and absorption over that of cooked whole grain. But refining grain into white flour removes all the fiber your digestive system needs to operate properly. It removes the valuable germ layer (which is fed to hogs!), along with all the B-vitamins, vitamin E, and trace minerals, leaving only starch and protein. "Enriching" white flour only restores a legally-mandated minimum of these nutrients. Degrading sugar cane into white sugar yields similar results. Should you feel enriched if you find a few of your precious valuables in a pile of rubble after a tornado has flattened your home?
Why are carbohydrates refined? Because the healthful oils removed with the germ eventually become rancid, and refined flour, with its longer shelf life, is more profitable. Refined foods are usually white, nutritionally meaningless but culturally and commercially desirable because of a psychological association with sunlight and the day, while dark foods connote darkness and night.
The refined carbohydrates rush into the bloodstream and raise the blood sugar (whole foods, on the other hand, take time to digest), forcing the pancreas to produce unusually great amounts of insulin quickly. To burn these empty calories, you need vitamins and minerals which must come from your body (remember, theyíve been removed from the food). You usually canít burn all the calories at once, so the body stores them as fat, which is very difficult to break down. (Thatís why itís so hard to lose weight). Your blood sugar levels go down, and youíre soon hungry again.
The overprocessing of other foods is just as bad. Subjecting vegetables to solvents or high temperatures to extract oil, then filtering them, for example, saves industry money and leads to a clear, beautiful-looking but unhealthful, insipid product that easily goes rancid. The preservatives added to prevent this are often carcinogenic.
Artificial flavors and colors are commercially convenient because theyíre cheaper than their natural counterparts. Artificial colors are made by heating coal in the absence of oxygen to produce coal tar, which is then further treated. These carcinogenic chemicals are suitable for dying clothing, but not for eating. One artificial color, Yellow Dye Number 14, becomes toxic when exposed to sunlight, so farmers put it on manure heaps to kill flies. Do you want this in your body?
Evolution has endowed us with molecules to transport the breakdown products of natural foods into our cells, to be reassembled as needed according to our genetic codes. We havenít developed the mechanisms to handle coal tar and other laboratory chemicals, which we havenít been eating for millions of years. These substances enrich the food business at our expense.
Margarine, another example of a lab-created food, comes from vegetable oil which chemists solidify by bubbling hydrogen through it. Natural vegetable oilsí molecules (with the exceptions of mono-unsaturated olive and canola oils) are polyunsaturated: All the places that could be filled with hydrogen are empty. Thatís why theyíre unsaturated. Saturated fats such as animal fat, coconut oil, and avocado oil hold as much hydrogen as possible. The body has evolved mechanisms to handle these natural fats, within limits.
But margarineís partially-saturated fat is new. No natural fat has only some of the places where hydrogen can bond filled. Furthermore, margarine is configured into the mirror image of normal fats. We have no effective way of handling these alien molecules. So they give rise to free radicals. These highly-active electrically-charged molecular vampires steal electrons from other molecules, destroying their normal functions, and turning them into free radicals themselves. Resulting DNA damage leads to mistakes when cells divide. Enough of these inheritable errors accumulating over generations of damaged cells can lead to cancer cells. And free radicals killing cells in artery walls lead to lesions that get filled with cholesterol, contributing to cardiovascular disease.
On the other hand, northern nuts such as black walnuts, butternuts, acorns, and hickory nuts provide the high-quality essential fatty acids the body canít synthesize. Other natural foods make you healthy in other ways, and new major discoveries involving health benefits of components of natural foods burst into the media almost every year.
The recipes in this book omit animal products. I gradually became a vegetarian as I discovered that the high fat content was dangerous. Modern livestock has been bred to contain far more fat than the wild game our Paleolithic ancestors occasionally caught. The hormone residues in animal products and the low fiber content and are also very dangerous. And the relationship between a diet high in animal fat and cardiovascular disease is unequivocal.
Meat-eating also degrades the environment. Itís wasteful because raising animals converts vegetable products such as grain, which we could eat directly, into meat very inefficiently. Livestock wastes water resources and produces excrement that pollutes the environment. Livestock on public lands damages the environment directly when ranchers act irresponsibly. Factory farmers inhumanely crowd animals together and mistreat them. To keep these abused animals alive, they pump them full of antibiotics, creating a milieu where pathogens can evolve antibiotic resistance, and this threatens us with untreatable infectious diseases.
Even if you do eat animal products, youíll probably enjoy an occasional vegetarian meal. That was how I first approached vegetarianism. Today I consume no animal products whatsoever. These substances arenít necessary to make great-tasting, healthful meals. It was a long time coming, but now even the conservative medical establishment admits the benefits of reducing animal products and increasing the uptake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Non-vegetarians worry about protein deficiency in vegetarian diets. We require the twenty-three essential amino acids the body canít synthesize. By including whole grains and legumes (or legumes plus seeds) in the diet, we get all 23. Root vegetables, nuts, and cattail flower (and seed-) heads also supply protein in the absence of animal products.
Vitamin B12 is absent in non-animal foods (foods previously touted as sources of B12 contain inactive B12 analogs), but it does occur in high concentrations in vitamin B12 supplements, which I take. Eating a variety of vegetarian foods provides other important vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals, as well as fiber in much better balance that in a meat and refined-food diets.
If you gradually improve your diet, add some exercise and stretching to your routine, get some meaningful contact with nature, and do some meditation (or whatever gives you inner fulfillment), youíll notice an improvement in your health and attain a greater feeling of well-being.
In America we tend to take food for granted. Many people never cook. I myself had a real aversion to cooking until my late twenties, even though I didnít know anything about it. People in other cultures take a far greater interest in food. In China, for example, family lifeócentered around the tableóled to the creation of one of the great world cuisines on the one hand, and Chinese take-out joints in America on the other!
We have many ways of understanding food, food preparation and nutrition. Although cooking is an art form, the science of nutrition can also analyze food, its effects on the body, and food preparation methods. Science is supposed to be an objective search for the truth based on evolving theoretical frameworks that we can verify or refute experimentally. However, establishment nutritional science has long been mired in dogma because of its ties to the profit-oriented food industry and medical-pharmaceutical institutions.
The study of alternative nutrition takes account of research that is not profitable to the food and medical industries and that sometimes takes decades to be accepted. When I first started studying health in the mid-1970s, the medical establishment opposed may of the same "alternative" ideas they promote today. Anyone who recommended a low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables was considered a quack. Acupuncture was superstition, chiropractic was fraud, and exercise was undervalued. Artificial flavors and colors, pesticides, herbicides, and preservatives were supposed to be harmless.
Alternative nutrition, on the other hand, also includes rigid schools of thought not always amenable to new scientific research. Although dogmatic, they also contain elements of truth:
Macrobiotics, for example, embodies an ancient Japanese philosophical system sensibly urging "closeness to nature." You should eat locally-grown food in season, minimize refined foods and animal products, and avoid synthetic chemicals. This is consistent with the best of scientific nutrition and conservation, as well as with the seasonal realities of foraging:
Wild leaf and stem vegetables come into season as winter ends and peak in mid-spring, although there are plenty of wild vegetables in the summer and fall, and a few grow during the winter when itís above freezing. Edible flowers bloom mostly in springtime. Most root vegetables are in season from fall through early spring, although the leaves that tell you where to dig usually disappear in winter, and also the ground is frozen then. A few roots continue in season from spring to fall.
Fruits and berries come into season by the start of summer and continue until the beginning of winter. A few even continue through the winter. Most nuts and seeds ripen at the end of summer and autumn. Gourmet mushrooms peak in the fall, but some come up in spring and summer, and a couple of species even appear in very rainy weather in the winter. Seaweed is best in the spring, before epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) infest it and animals chew holes into it, although you can still harvest some in summer, fall, and sometimes even winter.
But macrobiotics also categorically denies the scientifically-proven value of all vitamin and mineral supplements. And it shoehorns all aspects of reality, including food, into the concepts of yin and yangótoo simplistic and reductionist for me to digest. Food that originates from a different latitude from your home is supposed to be harmful, so northerners should avoid (tropical) oranges and potatoes (originally Peruvian), even though you canít demonstrate harm experimentally. Furthermore, in tune with ancient Japan, macrobiotic cuisine tends to be high in salt and low in healthful raw salads. (Before modern sanitation, raw food was often contaminated with pathogens, which cooking, pickling and fermentation killed or reduced. Alcohol was much safer to drink than water.)
At the other extreme from macrobiotics are a variety of live food and natural hygiene philosophies that emphasize raw food because thatís more "natural" than "dead" cooked food. Some variants eliminate all cooked food. Cooking does reduce vitamin content, and raw food contains healthful heat-sensitive enzymes, some as yet undiscovered, that cooking destroys. So I include raw vegetable salads and fresh fruit in my diet every day. Some people I know claim to thrive on vegetarian diets that consist of purely raw food with no vitamin B12 or other supplements.
But you canít digest grains and beans, which are important vegetarian sources of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber without cooking them. (You can sprout many grains and some beans, making them more digestible raw.) Some healthful root vegetables, such as burdock and potatoes, are very difficult to digest or inedible raw. Lightly cooked stinging nettles, very high in nutrients, are delicious. Raw, they'll sting you.
Mushrooms, which are tasty and healthful, should always be cooked. All species, including commercial mushrooms and those wild species that donít get you sick immediately if you eat them uncooked (some otherwise-edible wild species make people sick if eaten raw, others are of unknown edibility raw), contain carcinogenic hydrazines , destroyed by cooking, substances NASA uses in rocket fuel.
We originally learned which wild plants to eat, grow, and use for medicine from discoveries indigenous cultures developed over the centuries, as they struggled to survive. All these societies cook food, no trivial matter when you had to gather and chop firewood. None of these societies use mushrooms raw. Thereís even paleontological evidence that Homo erectus, one of Homo sapiensí nearest predecessors, used fire. We shouldn't sweep all this experience away in the name of unsubstantiated dogma.
Conventional and alternative systems of health and nutrition are both less than perfect. Your best bet is to study these fields widely, seeking what makes the most sense and works best for you, and remain flexible as you learn more.