People often ask me whether this or that food is healthy, and why or why not. I'm not a scientist or doctor or farmer, so I'm not a licensed expert, and I don't have all the answers. I'll try my best to figure it out, though! I do have plenty of curiosity, and a large vested interest in preserving my health, my community's health, and my planet's health. These, along with an open and critical mind, are great tools in figuring out answers.
Here's a basic guide for figuring out the health value of any food:
Assess dosage, form, and culture.
Amount & Frequency
- How much of it am I eating?
- How often?
The difference between poison and medicine is a matter of dosage.
Water is the least toxic compound, but it's still possible to overdose-- water intoxication is an extreme electrolyte imbalance from drinking too much water. This is rare, but it does happen sometimes in water drinking contests. Each food has an appropriate dosage. The right dosage can vary from person to person because of biological individuality, but it's safe to follow general guidelines such as drinking plenty of water and cutting back on sweets.
Source, Preparation, & Accompanying Foods
- Where does it come from?
- How is it made?
- What am I eating it with?
The entire process, from start to finish, has to be examined.
Sometimes you'll read articles that say things like "steak is bad for you" or "steak is good for you". But what kind of steak, and from what kind of cow? What did the cow eat? Was the cow's food grown in healthy soil? Was the cow's food treated with herbicides and pesticides? Was the cow given synthetic hormones and antibiotics? Did the cow have space to walk around? Did the cow have access to fresh air, clean water, grass, and sunshine? How was the meat preserved from slaughterhouse to market to table? How was the meat cooked, and what was it cooked in? What was it served with? All of these factors affect the nutrient density and nutrient bioavailability of the food. It makes sense that healthy food comes from healthy animals and plants grown on healthy soil in healthy farms.
Society, Psychology, Economy, & Politics
- Is this food considered acceptable and normal in the society I live in?
- Is it easy to find and affordable for most of the population?
- Is it perceived to be healthy?
- Is it fed to children at home or at the school cafeteria?
- Do corporate and government policies encourage the production and consumption of this food?
This is important contextual information that can greatly impact our decisions about the food we eat.
I once saw a grocery store aisle labeled "Healthy Tea & Healthy Tea Drinks", filled with bottled sugary tea beverages. Sure, these drinks contain tea leaf extracts with healthy antioxidants, but they also contain refined sugar. The unhealthy effect of the sugar is amplified by the fact that these beverages are widely available, affordable, and perceived as healthy due to powerful marketing. Most people would probably drink less of this stuff, and also restrict their children's consumption of it, if they had a more balanced perspective on its health value.
You can determine the appropriate dosage, form, and culture of any food by consulting scientific studies and investigative journalism; and conducting self-experimentation and observation of what works well for your family members.
Scientific studies present accurate and well-documented findings that apply to the general population, or to specific kinds of people, but may not apply to your own specific health requirements. The system of science is designed to reduce bias, but, since scientists are human too, studies may still be prone to bias.
Investigative journalism supplies the context and narrative of the scientific data, making it more relevant and accessible to the general public. It may reveal important hidden information, but may also be more prone to bias.
Self-experimentation is tailored to your specific biological individuality, and may therefore bring you the most relevant and effective results. However, it may be less well-documented, more prone to bias, inconvenient, and risky.
Observing your family members' experiences with the food in question is a convenient way of figuring out what might work for you, based on the experiences of individuals who are significantly biologically similar. Like self-experimentation, it may also be less well-documented and more prone to bias.
These methods work great together. Scientific studies form a reliable database of empirical information, while investigative journalism contextualizes and supplements that information. You can draw upon this information, and greatly enhance it with diligently documented, prudently conducted self-experimentation and observation of your family members.
That's it for now, thanks for reading! I believe everyone is responsible for making informed decisions about their own health, and I hope I've shared something that will help you reach that information. In the next "how to" article, I will talk a bit more about scientific studies and how to make sense of them.
--- --- ---
Here are some relevant links and literature for you to explore the stuff I've mentioned above.
General dietary guidelines:
Weston A. Price Foundation Dietary Guidelines
- Includes recommendations to eat soaked, sprouted, or fermented grains and to practice forgiveness.
Food Rules compiled by Michael Pollan
- Includes recommendations to eat only foods your grandma ate, and to avoid foods whose ingredients you can't pronounce.
The Complete Illustrated One Page Bulletproof Diet
- A quick and concise guide for foods to eat and foods to avoid on the "upgraded paleo" diet.
Healthy food from healthy farms:
- Short, witty, online cartoon videos showing the reality of factory farming.
Framework of Biological Dairy Farming
- Introduction to soil minerals and micro-ecosystem health management, nutrient-dense produce, and increased agricultural efficiency.
The Finite Nature of Soil Minerals
- Gary Kline explains that soil minerals, once depleted by farming, do not magically reappear in the ground.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- A book investigating the science, culture, economics, and politics of industrial agriculture, industrial organic agriculture, biodynamic agriculture, and hunting-and-gathering.
Scientific studies and news about health:
How To Read And Understand Scientific Research
- A simple guide to understanding scientific studies, so that you can determine the real facts underlying (often sensationalized) science news stories
NHS Health News, Behind The Headlines
- Simple summaries by the UK National Health Service to help people understand science news stories and the studies they're based on
Ancestral Health Symposium
- News from the Ancestral Health Symposium, an annual conference tackling the science behind the paleo / primal / ancestral health movement.
Aqiva: Not The Solution For Picky Eaters
- A mom's blog reporting about the marketing strategies of Aqiva milk formula for children. This brand's message is that it's okay for kids to eat junk food, as long as they also get their dose of Aqiva milk "nutrition insurance". Aqiva samples are given away at schools, and parents even receive school memos containing letters from the Aqiva nutritionist.
The Science Behind The New York Big Soda Ban
- New York's ban on large-sized soda drinks was just passed; here's the logic behind it.