How to Eat Better

by Ran Prieur

March 3, 2009

Creative Commons License


What Your Ancestors Ate is Good for You. Thousands of years from now, the oceans might be full of bacteria that feed on plastic. Their ancestors will have specialized in eating plastic for millions of generations, and plastic will be the best food for their health. Your ancestors did not eat plastic, or donuts, or many of the "foods" that fill industrial-age supermarkets.

Of course people around the world ate different foods, and each of us has inherited a slightly different set of adaptations, so there is no universal correct diet, and there's more than one school of ancestral eating. I lean toward the Weston Price diet, which includes foods from pastoral and agrarian societies: milk and meat from animals raised in pastures, and whole grains that have been either sprouted or fermented. The book on the Weston Price diet is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

If you have trouble with milk and grains, you could go farther back to the Paleolithic diet, which excludes grains, legumes, and dairy, and permits fruit, vegetables, roots, non-grain seeds, and animal flesh. Raw foodists go farther yet, excluding a million years of ancestral adaptation to cooking. I like raw foods but wouldn't eat that way all the time. A raw food diet is a mentally easy way to cut out processed foods and get a short term improvement in health, but people who follow it strictly for years get malnourished.

Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food is another manifesto for traditional diets. The main points are covered in this article. Pollan argues that it doesn't much matter what categories of food you eat -- as long as it's unprocessed, it's likely to be good for you.

Refined Carbohydrates are Bad for You. Mostly that means white sugar, white flour, white bread, white rice, and the vast wasteland of food made from highly processed corn. Almost every diet, from Paleo to Maker's to Atkins to Weight Watchers, agrees on this point -- and yet it's almost impossible in America to eat a meal that doesn't contain refined carbs. There is some disagreement about potatoes and whole grains, and the book Perfect Health Diet says that you can supplement Paleo with white rice.

Avoiding white flour is challenging. On ingredients lists it often appears as "wheat flour", and it always appears as "wheat flour" on products marketed as healthful. If it says "unbleached" or "enriched" it is certainly white flour. You want to look for "whole wheat" or for non-wheat flours like rye.

Refined Sugar is Especially Bad for You. There is good evidence that sugar is toxic, harmful far beyond just giving you empty calories. There is no consensus on agave syrup, brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, real maple syrup, or honey. Fruit juice is not a health food -- you should eat whole fruits. "Unrefined" sugar, including turbinado and demerara, is missing only the last step of refinement. Worse, labeling rules allow fully refined sugar to appear on ingredients lists as "evaporated cane juice". I know because I've seen it in some sodas that are totally colorless. Real unrefined sugar would be brown-colored dried cane juice, and right now there are two brands, Sucanat and Rapunzel "whole cane sugar", formerly called Rapadura. Blackstrap molasses would be even more dense in nutrients.

Trans Fats are Bad for You. Trans fats appear on ingredients lists as "partially hydrogenated" oils. Hydrogenation was invented in the mid-20th century to make liquid oils solid at room temperature, to replace traditional solid fats like butter and lard. But partial hydrogenation creates a kind of chemical bond that your body is not adapted to work with. Occasionally you'll see "fully hydrogenated" oil, which is not trans fat, and is probably less bad for you.

Saturated Fats are Good for You. Oils that are naturally solid at room temperature, including coconut oil, palm oil, butter, lard, and yes, bacon grease, are part of the ancestral diet, and are good for you in moderation. (But palm oil is also ecologically destructive.) Here's the Weston Price fats page, and a good archived article, Low fat diets: Not fit for purpose.

Common Cooking Oils are Moderately Bad, including canola, corn, soy, and safflower. Canola's healthful reputation has been completely fabricated by corporate marketing, but it isn't the worst. That would be cottonseed, which is loaded with free radicals and pesticide residues. The good liquid oils include cold pressed olive, sesame, flax, and hemp. Olive and sesame can be used for cooking, but I use solid oils, coconut or beef tallow or clarified butter.

Soy is Bad for You unless it's fermented. Tempeh, miso, and tamari are fermented. Almost all other soy products, including soy milk, tofu, and soy-based fake meats, are unfermented and contain toxins and antinutrients. Here's the Weston Price soy page.

Wheat is usually Bad for You, but it doesn't have to be. Here's an excellent article, Against the Grain, about all the ways that wheat has been corrupted in the industrial age, and explaining how it can be made more healthful through sprouting or souring.

Some Natural Foods are Bad for You. Here's an archive of a dead page on naturally occurring toxins in foods, and another good page on natural food toxins.

Fresh is Good. The longer food is stored, the more nutrients it loses. Also, generally, the less nutritious food is, the longer it can be stored. For example, the reason white flour originally caught on was that whole grain flour got eaten by insects, but if insects got into white flour, they starved! A good rule is: eat stuff that goes bad, but eat it before it goes bad.

One exception would be fermented foods like sauerkraut, which get partially eaten by microbes in a way that makes them more stable and nutritious. Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz is a great book on the subject. Another exception is pemmican.

Milk should be Low Tech: unpasteurized, unhomogenized, full fat, and from pasture-fed cows or goats (or donkeys, whose milk is even closer to human milk). is a good site about the issues. Pasteurization destroys vitamins, enzymes, and beneficial microbes, and you can get some of those back by turning your milk into yogurt or kefir. But also, pasteurization is allied to carelessness: the more careless the farming and milking and storage, the more you need pasteurization to not get sick; and the more milk is pasteurized, the more producers can get away with raising and milking their animals in dreadful conditions.

Homogenization was invented to make milk more uniform for industrial distribution. Homogenized milk has been blasted at high pressure through valves to break down the fat globules to a size that's wrong for human digestion, and it has been speculatively linked to cancer and heart disease. Also, according to this dead link:

After pasteurization, dead white blood cells and bacteria form a sludge that sinks to the bottom of the milk. Homogenization spreads the unsightly sludge throughout the milk and makes it invisible. Ironically, white blood cells and beneficial bacteria are one of the healthiest things about raw milk. But once they're zapped with heat they're useless, and rightly regarded as a waste product.

You can make your own unhomogenized milk by mixing skim milk and whipping cream, but be careful because even some 100% creams are homogenized. Generally, the easier it is to whip, the better the cream.

Salt should be Unrefined. "Sea salt" is a meaningless marketing term. All salt is either sea salt or rock salt, and rock salt is just ancient dried sea salt. The cheapest food-grade salt from the cheapest supermarket is sea salt, processed to strip out all the valuable trace minerals, but then at least they add one back, iodide. For double the price, you can get something that's equally refined, not iodized, and has a pretty label to make you think it's good for you.

The word you want to look for is not "sea" but "unrefined". It's going to be expensive, probably lumpy, and have colors other than pure white, but it's worth it for the extra nutrients. I buy Redmond "Real Salt". Two other common unrefined brands are Lima and Celtic sea salt.

City Water Additives are Bad. Chlorine is added to kill microbes, and some kind of treatment is necessary if your water comes from a source with sewage or dead animals in it. But chlorine is harmful to all life, including you, and you need to take it out. Any charcoal filter will get most of it, and you can also take it out by boiling, or just by letting the water sit out uncovered for a day.

Fluoride is an industrial waste product, so common and toxic that the polluting industries came up with the idea to make us accept its commonness, and disbelieve its toxicity, by putting it in our drinking water. It's true that it makes teeth resistant to decay when applied topically, but ingesting it does nothing for your teeth and harms your body. Unfortunately, it's damn hard to filter fluoride. Reverse osmosis and distillation are best, and activated alumina and ion exchange resin will also work but they need frequent replacement.


Look at Ingredients Lists. And look critically. The companies that make these products are out to deceive you, or they are in competition with other companies that are out to deceive you. If the honest product says "white flour" and "white sugar", while the deceptive product says "wheat flour" and "evaporated cane juice", which one will sell for more money? Some other tricks: "Yeast extract" is basically MSG. "Wheat bread" is usually white bread with a bit of whole wheat flour and some brown food coloring. Almost any ingredient that ends in "-ose" should be read as sugar. "Natural" means almost nothing. Being sold in a food co-op guarantees nothing. Many products, like chips and granola, are made with only their most visible ingredient organic. Any farmed ingredient that doesn't say organic isn't. I once saw a non-organic product with the brand name Oganic.

Think Beyond Organic. USDA organic standards are not that strong and getting weaker. And even those weak standards have been violated by big corporate producers including Horizon and Aurora factory dairy farms, and almost anything from China. Buying from a small local farmer is better politically and ecologically than buying from organic agribusiness, and it may be better for your health -- small farmers often exceed organic standards in some ways even if they're not certified. Other local farmers may use loads of pesticides, so it's good to know your farmer.

If treatment of animals is important to you, you should know that "free range" just means uncaged, and the animals are likely to be packed in a concrete-floored warehouse. "Pasture raised" is a stronger term, and Certified Humane is best.

Make Food a Higher Financial Priority. In the 1930's, Americans spent more than 20% of their income on food. Now it's down under 10%. Of course, to spend more on food, you have to spend less on other stuff: haircuts, new clothing, the latest technology, having a nice view. I wear socks that I collected from an abandoned shed that I once tried to squat, and I'm drafting this on a computer that I bought used for $200 in 2006, but I just ate eggs that cost $4.70 a dozen, because I don't think there's anything better to spend money on than the quality of stuff that goes into my body.

Expand Your Concept of Food. Humans are dietary generalists. Our ancestors ate tens of thousands of species of plants and animals and fungi and insects, most of which modern people no longer recognize as edible, even though they're better for us than processed corn and soy, and often free. Some of the most common garden "weeds", including lamb's quarters, dandelion, and purslane, are more nutritious than greens grown intentionally. Small animals and birds can be easy to catch and good to eat, but check your local hunting laws. I think rats and starlings are the largest mammal and bird that are completely unprotected. Insect larvae are a great source of fat and protein, and taste surprisingly good.

Listen To Your Body, not your mouth. Your mouth likes sweets and fat because your ancestors lived in a world where all the sweets and fat that existed were healthful in moderation, and too rare to be eaten in excess. If you've got a giant cake made with hydrogenated oil and white sugar, your mouth will tell you to eat it all, and later your body will tell you it was a mistake.

Another reason to listen to your body is the great variation in what our different bodies need. You can read all kinds of diet books, including books that categorize you in a type, but the ultimate authority is how you feel after eating a particular food. Your nose is also a good indicator. If the smell of cooking meat makes you feel sick, you should be vegetarian for a while. If it smells like heaven, you need to eat it. It's tragic that so many people make dietary choices based on culture or ideology, instead of their personal biology.

Also it's possible to feel a bodily craving for a food you're allergic to. Here's a page on food addiction/allergy focusing on obesity as a symptom.


Quit Drinking Soda. Of course, it's easier said than done. A good substitute, if you crave sweet fizzy drinks, is fermented apple juice. All you have to do is take a sip out of the bottle, leave it unrefrigerated, and wait. You might need to leave the cap on loosely to help the CO2 escape. When it's fizzy, but before it turns to vinegar, put it in the refrigerator to stop fermentation. Also it's important to rinse your mouth after drinking it, because apple juice is especially good at rotting your teeth. An even better substitute is Kombucha, which you can make at home for as little as a dollar a gallon.

Quit Fast Food and Junk Food. Again, this is something everybody knows and most people have great trouble doing. You need to gradually build the habit of replacing McDonalds and vending machines and bags of chips and cookies with food you make yourself. Even unhealthful food you make yourself is likely to be both cheaper and better for you.

Buy Organic, selectively. I think the most important things to buy organic are oils, because they're concentrated from such a large quantity of other foods, and animal products, because they're higher on the food chain. And some plant foods are much more critical than others. Here's a list of fruits and vegetables ranked by pesticide load, and a site with more details, What's On My Food? It's not true that organic makes no difference in maple syrup and olive oil. Here's a link about organic versus "conventional" syrup and a scientific abstract about pesticide residues in olive oil.

Many organic brands are owned by big agribusiness -- here's a 2005 pdf chart of the organic industry structure. This is more than a political issue, because it's built into the nature of large corporations to sacrifice anything, including the truth and your health, for profit. Here's a 2008 pdf of independent organic companies.

Buy Local. Again, this is probably better than buying organic national brands. Some natural food stores are good about stocking local items, and you can also enroll in a CSA or go to Farmers' Markets.

Practice Recipe Cooking. Cooking from a recipe is expensive in money and time, because you have to go get everything on the list, even if it's out of season or comes from halfway around the world. But it's a good way to learn basic cooking principles and grow confidence in your ability to turn raw ingredients into good meals. A good way to motivate yourself is to think of your favorite food and then learn to make it, and then think of your next favorite food, and so on.

Practice Improvisational Cooking. This is one of the most valuable skills you can have for frugal living or surviving hard times: to open the refrigerator, or the bag of stuff you just got from the dumpster or food bank or garden, see what's there, and make it into something that tastes good.

Keep a Sourdough Culture. Here's my page on sourdough. It's more healthful than baker's yeast, free, and makes bread that keeps better. You can use it for all kinds of things including bread, tortillas, pancakes, and biscuits. But it takes longer to rise, and it takes more attention than other kinds of leavening, because you're tending something that's alive. Think of it as microscopic chickens.

Sprout! Sprouting makes most seeds easier to digest, easier to cook, and more nutritious. Here's a good page on sprouting. My usual breakfast is boiled sprouted wheat berries with fruit.

Grow a Garden. If you're lucky, Food Not Lawns has a chapter in your city. They have a book, and other good gardening books include Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway and How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, and The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. All authors have their own biases, so don't stop at one book.

Plant Fruit Trees, and nut trees and berry bushes and perennial herbs. Plants that stay there year after year require a greater initial investment than annuals, but in the long term they're easier, and they're better for the soil. If you have the money and time, the best book on the subject is Dave Jacke's two volume Edible Forest Gardens, but you can go a long way just picking a few of your favorites and researching how to grow them online. See my landblog links page.

Raise Animals. As the economic collapse deepens, more cities will be allowing chickens and ducks. Goats are great for milk, and pigs can turn large amounts of food scraps into pork. There are many good books on raising animals. Carla Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living has a nice overview.

Hunt and Forage. Before the invention of grain agriculture, our ancestors got almost all their food this way, and they ate better than we do because wild foods have a higher ratio of nutrients to calories. Also there's a grey area between agriculture and foraging, including eating fruit from human-planted trees and bushes, and eating "weeds" from human-created ecological niches like gardens and lawns.

(last updated Dec 2011)
Appendix 1: Raw foodism
So far, most objections to this piece have come from raw foodists. It's important to separate the reality of raw food from the myth. The reality is that almost anything in a raw food diet will be more nutritious and less harmful than the highly processed sugars and grains and fats in the western industrial diet. The myth is, "Look, I've found a simple rule that solves everything!" This myth, in any context, leads to ruin. Here's the Wikipedia page on orthorexia, an eating disorder in which an obsession with healthy eating leads to malnutrition. And here's a section on raw foodism research. My objection is not to raw food in general, but to extreme raw foodism, especially considering that our ancestors have been cooking for hundreds of thousands of years.

Of course a study comparing a strict raw diet to the toxic industrial diet will make it look good, especially in the short term. What I'd like to see is a study lasting more than five years and comparing a 100% raw diet to a 90% raw diet, or to a 50% raw diet where the other half is unprocessed, or to a Weston Price or paleolithic or macrobiotic or ayurvedic diet, or anything other than the dreadful "normal" diet of our time.

Appendix 2: More links
Hops in Beer and Estrogen

Hidden Names for MSG

Cornucopia Institute organic egg scorecard