Full disclosure: the Amazing Race is our guilty pleasure show.
There's something really fascinating about watching how producers pit contestants against each other - and how the things asked of contestants change depending on where in the world they're racing.
In a recent episode, racers had to visit a market in Vietnam, collect and transport ingredients for a traditional dish, and cook it for a judge. Kind of interesting, right? My astute husband pointed out the particularly cool fact that the ingredients they had to select were all things we could find here [chicken, fresh vegetables, spices], and that the racers shouldn't have a hard time identifying them in the market. (Generally, a carrot will look similar across countries... GMO notwithstanding, of course!) These whole foods are (typically) available in some form or another across cultures. Surprisingly, the American contestants had some difficulty finding what they were looking for: it really solidified that we really are not as in-touch with our food as we could be.
This stuck with me for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, natural, whole foods are what civilizations have been built on. Factory farming and processed junk were not part of our cavepeople ancestors' lives. Cultures that have endured hundreds of centuries (and maintain traditional diets today) are still thriving and well: they eat real foods and little to no garbage 'non-food'. Clearly, there is some evidence that this way of eating works. Typically, these foods can be found around the world. What changes from culture to culture is the junk: how much of it we eat and in what form.
Secondly, I recently came across the 'Hungry Planet' photo journal, Peter Menzell's photographic study of culture and food. He travelled the world, snapping images of families and one-week's worth of food. The comparison is staggering.
Looking at these photos, it hit me: the junk is our doing. As a species, we have so much natural, whole food available to us by virtue of living on a planet where plant- and animal-life is sustainable. Culturally, we choose to partake in convenience and modification, much to our detriment. The number of whole foods in the Standard American Diet relative to the number of processed foods is quite low (check out the photos below for a particularly stunning visual). People did not evolve on junk, so it makes sense that we cause ourselves a lot of problems by moving away from real and more towards fake. Plenty of the health problems prevalent in the Western world today are preventable -- they start with food, and they should end with food. Many conditions can be reversed (or at least ameliorated) by improved nutrition - it can be as simple as eating a real peach instead of the canned, syrupy variety.
For many of the people featured in 'Hungry Planet', they do not have access to processed food: it's just not a part of their culture. They are probably better off for it! The Western diet is not serving us - and it's because we've departed so wildly from the sustenance that created and sustains the oldest cultures on earth today.
Let's find inspiration in the way they eat and embrace a higher ratio of real food: non-food.
Reduce foods with labels. Amp up food that looks the same as when it was growing. Visit a farmers' market.
Little steps towards longevity and whole-life wellness stack up quickly -- we don't need to wait decades.
The photos below are from Time Magazine's Photo Essay compilation, culled directly from 'Hungry Planet'. What do you notice is the same in each culture? Different? Which family's food looks the most like yours?