Tuesday night I stood in the kitchen, pausing as I made Maezy’s school lunch, to sort through her school papers. One of them was a print out from the Modoc County teacher who comes to her first grade class once a month to talk about nutrition. It was from ChooseMyPlate.gov. It described macronutrients, sources of these macronutrients and what portions of each should be eaten.
If I, personally, were to adhere to the recipe and recommendations for macros, I would likely still be battling raging autoimmunity, exhibiting poor gut health, feeling heavy and tired and suffering from underlying chronic inflammation—which could express itself in many different forms, which for me is hormonal disregulation and severe migraines. This is not a recipe for my health as I do not tolerate dairy or grains.
The intentions of the program are great. I fully support them. It is important to share the tenants of good nutrition: fresh (local), real food, quality, diversity, avoidance of processed foods and soda. But to take it to the level of telling people what combination and quantity of macronutrients…well, I wonder if that going to truly result in healthy, informed people? Who knows. The anti-smoking campaign launched by the Center for Disease Control in 2012 was very impactful. This is different because the message is not as simple as: don’t smoke.
As I studied her sheet, I wondered what the outcome would be if we had programs that helped all people apply a framework for managing their own health built on deeply knowing their own bodies and what works best for them. It goes beyond a recipe to a framework. No matter how wonderful the recipe is, the approach is too linear and narrow to apply to a complex system like the human body. Instead of constantly renewing (and deeply confusing people in the process) the recipe for nutrition, what if we managed our bodies, health policy and public health programs holistically?
The low fat recipe of the ’80s and ’90s
Growing up, my generation was taught in school to adopt a low fat diet—an idea we now know was driven largely by the sugar industry. Whole grains were the foundation of the food pyramid. I remember looking at that pyramid printed on the back of cereal boxes as I munched my cold breakfast before school.
Fat was the bad guy. I thought that this was true until my health unraveled at 30 years of age and I was faced with figuring out how to calm an autoimmune condition and manage debilitating migraines so that I could be healthy and present enough to be a great mom to my infant daughter. I did not make progress until I examined my diet, researched autoimmunity and began the long slow process of healing my gut. If autoimmunity goes unresolved long enough, the damage is irreversible. But healing the root cause of the problem (in the gut) is putting autoimmunity into remission for many people. This motivated me enough to break through the paradigms about nutrition that were deeply embedded in my eating habits (and fueled by the food pyramid and public nutrition programs). It was a huge wake up call and a catalyst for change. I was supported in this process not by a government health program, but by ordinary people who had experienced this themselves and were willing to share—and by health care providers willing to connect diet and health to address root causes of disease.
Turns out that fat is not the bad guy, but an essential macronutrient. It is necessary for proper hormonal function and doesn’t make us fat. It is refined carbohydrates that make us fat (and depressed and chronically inflamed). Despite all the information on the importance of fat, I am surprised to see that low fat is still cautioned against in the government’s nutritional program taught in schools. Types of fat matter. Healthy fats like avocado oil, grassfed beef tallow, grassfed butter and ghee are great. Unhealthy fats like seed and vegetable oils (think soybean oil, corn oil, etc.) cause chronic inflammation and weight gain. In our family, we follow a nutrient-dense, traditional, high healthy-fat (compared to the Standard American diet), local-food based diet. Our Smith Family macronutrient “plate” looks like this:
Protein: local meat from our neighbors, our organic ranch or wild game my husband hunted or caught on fishing trips: beef, pork, lamb chicken, salmon, trout
Fat: grassfed beef tallow, lard we rendered from pastured hogs, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, butter
Carbohydrates: tons of seasonal veggies mostly purchased from our neighbors with market gardens or grew ourselves including: lettuce, tomatoes, tomatillos, beets, carrots, kale, winter greens, potatoes, peppers, onions, leeks, turnips, rutabagas. We buy the veggies we cannot grow and are grateful to local stores in our rural county for providing access to organic food. We get honey from the beekeepers who keep bees on the ranch. We make our own elderberry syrup and jelly. We sometimes eat beans and Maezy and Spencer enjoy gluten-free bread or waffles on Sunday mornings.
Our family’s food pyramid looks like this one from the Whole Journey:
The outcomes of our family’s health framework
Here are some photos of typical meals in the Smith household. This is what is most healthy for us based on our own experiments with various diets, eating programs and lifestyle research.
A health framework for managing our complex bodies
Maezy’s favorite vegetable is roasted Brussel sprouts and her favorite snack is bell peppers and hummus. These are praised by her nutrition teacher, but she is confused and anxious when the lesson for the day is to limit fat. She knows how much coconut oil goes into cooking her Brussel sprouts!
Instead of her spending time worrying about this, I want her to learn how to know herself. Know her body. Know what balance of macronutrients supports her optimum health. As a parent, my wish for school nutrition programs is to provide a framework for students to learn about and manage their own health.
Just as we holistically manage the land, we need a framework for managing our health so it provides us with enduring returns. We all deserve to be full of energy, happy and ready to focus on the work that matters most to us. This is what I want for my daughter. I want this for all children. This will not come from a macronutrient recipe from MyPlate.gov. Maezy would not achieve her maximum health potential even if she followed their recipe perfectly. The answer doesn’t lie in a recipe. Human health is far too complex for this. Just as the holistic framework in Holistic Management teaches us how to form a holistic context and to make decisions that lead us toward this context, we could teach children how to define what they most want out of life and then teach them a decision-making process that allows them to direct and support their lives toward the outcomes they most deeply desire.
Here are the guidelines I want to teach Maezy to start to provide a framework for life-long health and vitality:
Tune in. How do I feel 2 hours after eating? Do I feel hungry and stressed? Do I feel energetic and satisfied? Hungry means too many carbs and not enough fat. The right balance is unique for each and every person. This is why at the end of most diet and nutrition programs, the author encourages readers to experiment.
Be a scientist. Learn how to keep a journal (food, exercise logs, etc.). Figure out through trial and error what is best for you. Be a scientist. Ask questions, form hypothesis, observe, draw conclusions. Have fun with the process.
Own it. Take responsibility for your own health. Know that nutrition, movement, sleep and stress management are the four pillars to health and manage all with the latest research and information. Never stop learning.
Rest. Just as we apply Holistic Planned Grazing to manage the recovery of plants, human bodies need recovery too. Our culture doesn’t value true rest enough. Make time to restore your energy.
Connect. Applying your energy to work that deeply matters to you will provide a satisfying life. Connect to the work you do each day. Connect to people who matter to you. Connect to nature. Our health is far more that what we eat.
To learn more about what the Holistic Management framework is and it can be applied to land and all complex systems, including health, contact us or check out the 2017 workshop calendar to register for an event near you.