When I ask clients to describe their diet, the two most common answers are “I eat a really good diet” (everything is relative) and “I was raised on a traditional diet, I like my meat and potatoes.” The former is usually the female answer and the latter comes mostly from men. Tradition gets used as a reason for a multitude of sins. If it was good enough for grandpa it is good enough for me. Two questions spring to mind – the first question is if our nostalgia for tradition is a reflection of fact; the second is the value of tradition on its own.
When I started to eat a macrobiotic diet in the mid 1960’s, my grandfather told me that I was eating more like he did as a child. His family lived on porridge, bread, vegetables, beans and small game with very little red meat. He thought it was funny and he loved the food. The amount of meat in the diets of most people 100 years ago was very small; it was chemical free and free range or grazed. I have found this to be true in every country I have visited; if you ask the elders, their diet included less meat unless they were quite wealthy.
There has been a long association between wealth and meat eating, the wealthiest get the best cuts, and the poor get what’s left. This is still true today; meat eating and the abundance of food are often associated with success. It has always been the rich who were overweight; with the shift in the modern diet, the tables are turned. Food abundance and plentiful meat and dairy are now the staples of the fast food diet. Obesity is now available for everyone – how democratic. The only problem is that the meat being consumed is still the scrap. The popular fast food hamburger can contain as little as 15% meat and includes bones, connective tissue, blood vessels, fat, water, nerves, cartilage and plant based fillers. No one wants to know what’s in a hot dog. So-called traditions of meat eating serve those who sell meat but are not a reflection of reality. The question still hangs in the air; even if our ancestors ate meat as their primary food why should that affect our diet today?
Human evolution is dominated by two influences, physical adaptation and cultural adaptation. Physical adaptation is a reflection of our ability to meet the challenges and changes in the environment as reflected in physical form and function. These changes represent the raw desire for survival. Cultural evolution represents a different and unique aspect of human life. We develop ideas to drive and inform our attitudes and actions which are reflected in social institutions and the ways we alter our environment. The environment we are now adapting to is one of our own making.
Over the past 10,000 years human societies have reversed the swing of evolution. We have changed the environment we adapt to, we are in the process of altering the source of our life and we are doing it without any conscious vision of the result. Human culture has made forests disappear, changed the course of rivers, altered the atmosphere and changed the composition of the seas. The crucible out of which life emerged has been bent to the will of humanity, mostly for the worse. Our attitudes regarding food are an important part of this process.
The gift of consciousness, our capacity to be aware of our actions and the implications of them, is a great gift if we use it. Tradition can be described as social habit. As with any habit, tradition should be assessed as either improving or diminishing the quality of individual and social life. With consciousness we may feel that some traditions fill an important need and are worth retaining, others may have outlived their use or are based on ignorance and need to be replaced. To retain any tradition out of misplaced nostalgia is ill advised. I loved my grandparents very much but am quite happy to leave some of their prejudices and beliefs in the past since they do not serve in the present.
The development of technologies and the speed of social change make many people anxious about the course of society. This anxiety often produces irrational fears as we move into uncharted territory. The course of history makes demands on us all to reassess what is of true value, not only in the moment but also for the future. When we approach the issue of nutrition, the demand is that we move beyond the restraints of imagined tradition and ask ourselves how we create a healthy and environmentally sound diet that is flexible enough to adapt to personal needs, diverse enough to satisfy the senses and capable of feeding a hungry world with the least environmental impact. This is not only possible but urgently needed.
One of the habits we will have to leave behind is our dependence on animals as a primary food source. It is wasteful, unhealthy and produces environmental chaos. The way forward is to continue to advocate eating low on the food chain, to promote education of the young on the benefits of healthy eating, to support organic agriculture, and to demand politicians to have the courage to confront the massive agriculture and food monopolies and make them accountable for the quality of their food. There is no benefit in respecting tradition if it poisons the future.