We have so much information on nutrition available to us today. Newspapers, books, television, and of course the internet are full of it. Much of it is conflicting, much of it confusing. It seems incredibly hard to stay on top of things, and to know what’s best. Which sometimes make you wonder: Why do we need to know all this? For centuries, people didn’t know, yet they managed. Even our own grandparents didn’t know much about diet and nutrition, and they were absolutely fine. Why do we need to know? It’s true, my grandparents probably didn’t know an awful lot about nutritional requirements or the nutritional properties of different foods. I was told to eat my carrots for better vision (true!), and to clear my plate for better weather (not true!). After that, there wasn’t much to say.
But then they didn’t need to know. When my grandmother was growing up, all food was organic. Pesticides and factory-farming where yet to be invented. Eggs came, of course, from free-range hens. All food was seasonal and local, fresh from the garden or field. Produce didn’t have to travel very far and so it stayed put to be harvested when ripe and ready, having accumulated plenty of vitamins and phytonutrients in the process. My grandmother didn’t care whether her carrots were wonky or the apples different sizes.
My family preserved the summer and autumn harvests of fruit and veg by canning, making jam and apple sauce, sauerkraut and pickles. Potatoes were dug up and kept in the cellar, where we slowly worked our way through the pile until it was almost gone by the time the next harvest came along.
Yes, sugar was in their lives – not least as a preservative for some foods – but if they wanted cake, waffles or biscuits, they had to make them. Such things were not available in the shops, and there wasn’t any spare money to spend it on such frivolities anyway. So they made their own cake, one a week, shared with the family on a Saturday or Sunday, birthday cakes as required, and once it was gone it was gone.
In her youth, my grandmother never saw a pineapple, avocado or coconut. Didn’t know tofu, soya sauce, miso or quinoa. But she also didn’t see crisps, bottled salad dressings, ready meals, pot noodles, chocolate spread and multi-coloured breakfast cereals.
Our culinary horizons are much wider, but so are our opportunities to make poor choices. My grandmother’s diet contained organic meat from grass-fed cattle, pork from pigs she had known in person, lashings of butter, lard and bacon, lots and lots of superfresh fruit and veg from her own garden. The food she cooked was stodgy and fatty and abundant – apart from wartime meals of course. And yet she was not overweight. Not everyone was slim back then, of course, but overweight and obese people were few and far between. Yes, people died from heart disease, diabetes and cancer then, too, but numbers have been growing consistently since the introduction of factory-farming, grain-fed cattle, hormone and antibiotic use in animals, pesticides, herbicides, environmental pollution, modern preservation methods such as radiation, high-fructose corn syrup, food processing on a large scale …
I grew up just when all that was changing. My grandmother carried on growing, preserving and eating food as she had always known how, so I still saw how it once had been done. But I have always known the shops to be full of convenience foods and as many sugary treats as I wanted. My mother – a young housewife in the Fifties – was thrilled when convenience foods became available. Not only was she not a keen cook, she also loved the modernity of it all. Cooking was so pre-war!
So, growing up I had my fair share of ready meals, fried and deep-fried foods, sugar and fizzy drinks. I always struggled with my weight, but I always had an interest in food and nutrition, so I read and learned and cooked and eventually got an education in diet and nutrition. Over time, I retrained my tastebuds, and most junk food doesn’t appeal anymore – no willpower required. That was quite a liberating experience. I am no stick-insect and never will be, but yo-yo dieting is a thing of the past.
What our grandparents ate is not a million years away. Instead of turning up our noses to the old-fashioned ways, maybe it would be worth looking at their menu with a fresh eye, give it a modern twist and enjoy the foods of our childhood again. Maybe it’s not necessary for everyone to go quite as far back as Paleo. Start by eating real food again. It’s a huge step in the right direction.