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Beefs and Beliefs

Can Humans Eat Smart Like A Cow?

Fred Provenza and I say that with one notable exception we humans can eat the right foods by listening to our bodies.

Fred Provenza, the man who proved livestock have nutritional wisdom, pretty much convinced me last week that humans have nutritional wisdom, too.

We just get it all messed up. But it's there, in our cells and in our consciousness.

I haven't had the pleasure of hearing Provenza speak or of visiting with him in four or five years. He always sets my mind buzzing.

I'll share with you some of the things he is saying these days about humans and our own nutritional wisdom.

Provenza is one of those not-really-retired professors now ... an emeritus. About the time he retired he was really beginning to explore this idea of humans having the same ability to choose the right foods for balanced nutrition and even for medicinal purposes. He's still going strong on that topic.

He says if you ask people in Africa whether people have nutritional wisdom they immediately answer, "Oh, yes." Then they begin to explain how they eat this plant for one thing and that plant for another and animal foods for other purposes.

If you ask most Americans they just scoff at the idea, he says.

Provenza quotes an interesting survey question from University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, in which he asks: "If you were going to spend a year on a desert island and you could take only one food from this list, which one would it be?"

Here was Provenza's

  • corn
  • alfalfa sprouts
  • bananas
  • hot dogs
  • spinach
  • peaches
  • milk chocolate

Which would you choose?

I immediately said either hot dogs or chocolate milk because I was considering nutrient density. Most people in Rozin's survey, however, picked bananas(42%), spinach (27%) and corn (12%). Incidentally, Rozin's survey actually used milk chocolate rather than chocolate milk.

The truth is, only hot dogs and milk chocolate (or chocolate milk) by themselves have the essential amounts of protein, fat and energy to keep a person alive for a year.

Now you're thinking: "Sure, that makes sense."

However, Rozin and Provenza are both saying the problem here is we choose what we've been told is good, not what our bodies/mind tell us is right.

I put it this way: the government codified bad information back in the 1970s and has been funding and requiring bad nutritional research ever since. We've been lied to and now we believe the lies.

This is some pretty interesting stuff and you can link to some of Provenza's writings on his university webpage and also access some of the work he and others have done on animal nutriton at the BEHAVE webpage.

But I have something to add to all this. After hearing Provenza speak last week I caught him and asked about my own hypothesis on energy overconsumption, a trait I consider universal in every animal I can think of, including humans.

I have come to believe this insatiable drive to consume energy is really nutritional wisdom.

Under current conditions it doesn't seem like it. This energy desire is so strong it affects all the areas of the brain that are normally lit up during addiction behaviors. Why?

Because in nature energy is at a premium.

Why is it harder to fatten cattle, horses, goats and sheep on grass than on grain? Not as much energy.

Why do humans get fat eating high amounts of carbohydrates? Because there's more energy than in meats, fat or vegetable matter.

Moreover, the time of moderate availability for carbohydrates is actually quite limited in nature and timed with natural needs.

Grasses only have high amounts of sugars during the best part of the growing season. Fruits and grains only come on in the summer and fall. Nuts, too, which are not as high in carbohydrates but have quite a bit of fat, also mature in the fall.

All these things, especially in temperate zones, happen before winter arrives. Winter puts high nutritional demands on all animals just to keep warm and survive. Pregnant females have it even harder in winter.

But we humans changed all that for ourselves and our livestock beginning about 8,000-10,000 years ago. We started farming grains and storing them and cooking them to make the energy more available.

The more we store these energy-rich foodstuffs the longer through the year it is available.

We began to alter the natural balance of nature. Instead of needing to get fat because we had hard winters or hard work to bear. We created warm homes for ourselves and warm barns for our animals. We created a food system that is loaded with carbohydrates because we value them and they give us a "sugar high" and we like that and we want more.

In other words we followed our nutritional wisdom to acquire energy whenever possible with obsessive, singular vision until we perverted it. That doesn't mean it isn't fundamental nutritional wisdom. It means we must now learn to control a natural urge which we've set up to run awry by dramatically altering our food system.

Provenza agreed with me, incidentally.

So next time you're wondering about extra weight you may be carrying, consider cutting back on energy intake. It's not easy. It floods down on you in every menu in every restaurant and on nearly every isle of every grocery store.

This is one of the times you need logic to override what your body tells you.

Limit carbohydrates and make meats and vegetables your primary foods. Your appetite will be satisfied and you'll be healthier for it.

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