Health tip for you and the planet: eat like a peasant.
by Paul Rauber
Nothing we do has a greater impact on the world around us than what we choose to
eat. We clear rainforests to raise cattle, systematically vacuum up species after
species of fish with factory trawlers, and poison rivers, streams,
and oceans with pesticides and waste from industrial hog and chicken facilities.
Americans have come to expect food that is fast, uniform, and cheap, but the
price for those fish fingers and bacon burgers turns out to be empty oceans and
The same environmentally destructive, meat-and-pesticide-heavy diet that is
poisoning the earth also leads millions of people to
premature death from cancer and heart disease. Seeking to address the
human-health consequences of American diets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
released its "food guide pyramid" in 1992, a much-needed revision of the old
"four basic food groups." The updated model graphically represented the
importance of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta at the base of a healthy diet, but
still ranked meat and dairy products on a par with fruits and vegetables. At the
"use sparingly" apex of the pyramid were all fats, oils, and sweets.
It was progress, but slow progress. The prominence given to meat and dairy, some
charged, was based less on sound nutrition than on pressure from the politically
potent beef, pork, chicken, and dairy lobbies. The result was a wave of alternate
models: not since the reign of Pharaoh Cheops have pyramids
enjoyed such a vogue. First was the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, developed by
Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust (a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes
traditional, environmentally sustainable cuisines) together with
the Harvard School of Public Health, and the World Health
Oldways has followed it up with food pyramids based on traditional
Asian, Latin, and, most recently, vegetarian diets. All relegate pork and beef
toif anythingthe most rarely used step of the pyramid, give plant oils
precedence and, to the alarm of some puritans, acknowledge the healthful role of
moderate alcohol consumption.
The Mediterranean Pyramid stems from epidemiological research in southern Europe
and North Africa. A famous study of Cretan peasants in 1964, for example, found
that even though they got up to 40 percent of their calories from fat (largely
olive oil), their rate of heart disease was 90 percent lower than that of similar
groups in the United States, and they regularly lived into their 80s. Other
studies showed healthful effects from a diet rich in plant-based food, liberally
doused with olive oil, and washed down with a glass or two of red wine.
The result was a model diet that, like the cuisines of the Mediterranean, depends
to a large extent on pasta and grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. It is not
a low-fat diet, but a low-saturated-fat diet; most of the fat comes from olive
oil, although cheese and yogurt are allowed daily in small amounts. Fish,
poultry, eggs, and sweets are reserved for a few times a week, and red meat a few
times a month (or more frequently in very small amounts). A plate of pasta with
tomato sauce or pesto, a risotto with a bit of cheese, or a spicy falafel would
fit the bill exactly.
Of course, a diet of dolmas and Dolcetto isn't for everyone. In 1995 Oldways
released the Asian Diet Pyramid, based on a foundation of rice instead of pasta.
Like traditional Asian cuisines, it is low in fat and sparing of meat. The next
year's version was the Latin American Diet Pyramid, with a New World base of corn
and rice, a daily triumvirate of beans, fruits, and vegetables, and liberal
amounts of chili and other spices for seasoning. Eggs, dairy, and fish products
are recommended several times a week, with beef and pork reserved for special
occasions. In the latest vegetarian model, meat and fish are pushed right off the
top of the pyramid, with protein coming from nuts, seeds, and dairy products.
Replacing red meat at the apex are eggs and sweets.
Changing the way we eat is not a panacea, environmental or otherwise, but itıs a
start. If eating a plant-based cuisine is easier on the planet, keeps us
healthier, and tastes wonderful at the same time, why not pass the plate?
For further information on Oldways' diet pyramids, send a self-addressed,
stamped envelope to Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, 25 First St.,
Cambridge, MA 02141.
Mustard 'n' potatoes: heat 1/2 c. oil
with 2 minced garlic cloves, 1/2 t. each turmeric and salt, 1/4 t. each red pepper,
ground cumin, and mustard seed. Pour over 8 boiled potatoes.