Sometimes diets aren’t in vogue because of the latest research study or governmental recommendation; they’re popular because they harken back to very old food wisdom — traditions that inherently make sense to our human sensibilities, before food became a corporate venture. It’s about eating the way people “used to” eat, not only for sake of one’s cultural identity, but because (believe it or not) vintage food habits are sometimes just downright healthy. But as the United States Department of Agriculture consistently promotes its own brand of nutritional guidance unique to Americans, just where does one differentiate between what is a traditional human diet and what is actually a government-subsidized crop being marketed as healthy?
Current governmental standards for a healthy diet include low-calorie, low-saturated fat, and low-cholesterol eats. This war on fat means the only “acceptable” remaining foods that one should not be wary of are high carbohydrate, oft government-subsidized grains and starches. Yes, conveniently, some popular low-fat foods, including corn and soy, are crops in which the government has invested money. But while corn and soy seem innocent enough, they elicit their own brand of fatty problems. Although they contain no saturated fat or cholesterol (as per USDA nutrition guidelines), they contain one other kind of fat we rarely hear about, and one with dire consequences: Omega 6.
Omega 6 fats, although not innately bad in and of themselves, when eaten in large (ie: daily) quantities, are highly inflammatory. Meaning, they contribute to illness and health problems. Inflammatory conditions include: cancer (yes, cancer), diabetes, autoimmune disease, hormonal imbalance, weight gain (especially around the midsection), obesity, infection, digestive problems, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so many others. But thinking back to how many corn and soy products you’ve eaten this week may be more difficult to calculate than it seems. For Americans, soy and corn sneak into pre-made and processed foods in shape-shifting forms: vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, fructose, caramel coloring, powdered sugar, soy lecithin, and others. Corn and soy are the darlings of the food industry because they are so versatile and can be transformed into additives that enhance shelf-stable food. Suddenly, our intake of corn and soy goes up without our cognition or consent. And it all falls within the parameters of the USDA nutrition plan.
Human food traditions tell us that although societies have cultivated and enjoyed both corn and soy over time, there are marked dietary differences. For one, saturated fat and cholesterol were never feared; fats were eaten because, believe it or not, they are essential to human life and actually contain health benefits when eaten properly (wild-caught seafood, coconut milk, grass-fed beef, for example). Saturated fat and cholesterol are necessary for proper cognition, hormonal balance, immune function, blood sugar regulation, metabolism stimulation, and mood stability; it is only when they are eaten with high carbohydrate foods that they become a concern (ie: dietary saturated fat and cholesterol do not raise blood cholesterol. Yes, believe it or not, there is another side to this “Lipid Hypothesis” story, as it’s called). Corn and soy also have much different traditional preparations than we currently employ. There were no extractions and additives. Instead, soy and corn were often fermented or allowed to culture naturally so that enzyme inhibitors had a chance to be removed, for proper human digestion (miso, tempeh, and fermented corn tamales or beverages, for example). Traditional corn and soy strains also were not genetically-modified, as at present.
What we can learn from the case of corn, soy, and low-fat eating is that dietary fads, as promoted by the USDA standards, don’t benefit us. They are simply a product of the times and a marketing tool of government-subsidized crops. Above all, they want us to buy their product and such nutritional guidance is dictated by industry and consumerism. Look back to a time before food became a corporate venture and we see a much different human diet. People have always eaten fat, and people have prepared their grains and legumes very differently. The bulk of a normal human diet wasn’t an emphasis on inflammatory and disease-promoting Omega 6 fats, it was a healthy balance of all fats. Or, as author and food activist Michael Pollan says, “Food is a really old story. The foods that we do best on are the ones we evolved eating over many thousands of years. ... They told us butter is evil and margarine is good, and it turned out to be the opposite.”
Liz Schau is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor who specializes in nutritional changes for women with thyroid disease, food allergies, autoimmunity, and digestive health concerns. You can find her at LizSchau.com.