What you eat affects almost every aspect of living, from feeling energized and strong to lethargic and weak to dictating mood swings and our physical appearance. This is in part why the world of health has exploded over the last few decades, especially as researchers continue to make important discoveries regarding the relationship between the human body and certain foods.
With that said, while becoming intimately familiar with healthy eating is in itself a healthy habit, it’s also important to retain simple enjoyment of food. I like to refer to this as eating enjoyment versus eating criticism. For those of us that focus on the chemical makeup and nutrient value of our food, oftentimes our meals are no longer meals but a plate filled with different natural specimens that will do certain things to our body and mind.
So, how do you find the balance between knowledge, practice, and enjoyment?
First, let’s take a deeper look at what the simple macronutrients are in our food — the ones that we absolutely need for survival — and then let’s explore some cultures from around the world that have traditionally incorporated these macronutrients without the need for food scientists, ingredients labels, or medical professionals.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients also referred to as essential nutrients, are “compounds that the body can’t make or can’t make in sufficient quantity.” The three major macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat, and protein, but vitamins and minerals are also included in this group. These essential nutrients are just that essential and are linked to disease prevention, growth, and overall short and long-term health. They also happen to be the three sources of energy the human body uses. Luckily, most plant-based foods are naturally rich in macronutrients.
So, why is the traditional American diet deficient or unbalanced when it comes to macronutrients?
The simple answer is processed foods. Unfortunately, through the process of processing these foods, many of the macronutrients, as well as vitamins and minerals, are stripped from the food product leaving what is referred to as empty calories. Empty calories refers to food products (many packaged items) with little to no nutritional value and a high solid fat and added sugar content. In the end, this combination is what can “lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies.”
Most of us are aware that eating too many carbohydrates can be detrimental to our health. This is due to the natural makeup of a carbohydrate, which is essentially sugar. Carbohydrates can be broken down into three different types of sugar structure: monosaccharides, simple sugars such as glucose, disaccharides, two joined units of sugar such as lactose, and polysaccharides, complex sugars such as starches and glycogen. Carbohydrates are an important fuel source for the body including the “central nervous system and brain” and carbs have been linked to protection against disease.
With that said, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Healthy carbohydrates include “whole grains, beans, and fiber-rich vegetables and fruits instead of refined grains and products with added sugar.”
Even though carbohydrates are center stage in the debate regarding daily recommended consumption, when it comes to the health effects fat takes the throne. Our history is plagued with negative publicity concerning fat and yet it happens to be one of the essential macronutrients that our body desperately needs. There are four types of dietary fat: monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fats. While monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and small amounts of saturated fats are healthy, trans fats are incredibly dangerous and have actually been banned in many places.
Recent studies have illuminated the incredible benefits of healthy fats such as higher and more sustainable energy, weight loss and healthy weight management, incredible lean muscle growth, and even boosted neurological health and longevity. The ketogenic diet amplifies these studies by focusing on incorporating a high level of healthy fats, a moderate intake of protein, and a low intake of carbohydrates.
As with carbohydrates, it’s all about incorporating natural, healthy sources of fat such as avocados, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and coconut oil.
When you think about exercise and diet, you probably go straight to protein, and, while you’d be right to do so, it’s not for energy but instead for recovery. While protein is an essential macronutrient for overall health, it is primarily involved in “growth, health, and body maintenance.” What does that mean? After that vigorous run, it’s the protein that mends ripped muscles. Yet, that’s not all that protein does. Created from a variety of amino acids — compounds “composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen,” as well as a side-chain group — protein also plays a role in hormones, antibodies, and basically almost all biological processes.
Many people are under the assumption that protein can only be obtained via meats such as fish, poultry, and eggs, yet there are many healthy plant-based sources of protein such as various grains, beans, nuts, and soy.
Cultures that Practice Unprocessed Plant-Based Diets
Many of the modern-day research around health and food has focused on observing the traditional diets of cultures from around the world. There is a wealth of data available if we simply look at cultures that have been healthily thriving outside the confines of the industrial revolution and processed foods. Therefore, let’s take a look at some of the longest-standing traditional cuisines around the world.
Beet and Chickpea Falafel/One Green Planet
This is one of the most popular culturally sourced diets in the states. And for good reason! A Mediterranean diet includes “fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains,” while limiting the number of unhealthy fats and carbohydrates. As plant-based lifestyles have grown in popularity, mostly due to research illuminating the various health benefits, new diets have begun to mimic that of the Mediterranean. It focuses on plant-based foods, drastically limits red meat intake, incorporates small portions of fish and poultry, and focuses on healthy fat oils and fresh herbs instead of salt and butter. Studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol, a reduced risk of cancer, as well as a reduced risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
So, what does the diet consist of?
Residents of Greece, where the Mediterranean diet originated, generally have up to nine servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies daily, red meat only once or twice a month, whole grains served plain or with healthy-fat rich extra-virgin olive oil (the least processed variety), and daily consumption of nuts adding up to almost 80 percent of their daily calories. The diet also consists of regular consumption of fatty fish, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are linked to lower anxiety and stress levels, healthier blood vessels and blood pressure, and an overall reduced risk of sudden heart attack.
Looking to go vegan-Mediterranean in your household? Here are a few Mediterranean inspired recipes to help you get started: Grilled Vegetable, Olive Flatbread, and Hummus Plate, Mediterranean Couscous in Red Pepper Sauce, Beet and Chickpea Falafel, or this simple Mediterranean Millet.
Indian-Spiced Lentil Soup With Creamy Coconut Milk/One Green Planet
There are many benefits of an Indian diet. Not only is it primarily vegetarian, but their recipes focus on a host of flavorful, colorful, and naturally rendered spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and kadi patta. Traditional Indian cuisine focuses on ingredients that could be sourced from their own soil. This means, initially, there was little to no processing, freezing, and shipping of foods. So, what is involved in a traditional Indian diet? It consists of “roti, rice, dal, chutney, pickle, beans and legumes,” and, in some regions, small portions of meat.
India was also one of the originating sources of Ayurveda practices. Ayurveda, a 3,000-year old medicinal system documented in three texts called Caraka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Astanga Hridaya, stems from concepts that “promote the use of herbal compounds, special diets, and other unique health practices,” which seek to aid in overall health and protect against disease. Ayurveda dietary practices have become a popular health trend in western countries. This particular diet includes six main principles: incorporate six tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, pungent, and astringent), eat mindfully (avoiding distraction while eating), eat slowly to savor, eat quickly before your food cools, be stringent about quantity by listening to the bodies hunger signals, and eat only when your previous meal has been digested. With that said, the Ayurveda diet focuses on the mind-body connection seeking “to create a healthy strong body through a series of diet, exercise and lifestyle practices, including sleep and mindful living.”
If you’re looking to experiment with some Indian cuisine, try these vegan-friendly Indian inspired recipes: Mushroom Butter Masala, Curried Cauliflower Rice Pilaf, Kale Chane Poori, or this Indian-Spiced Lentil Soup With Creamy Coconut Milk.
Butternut Squash and White Bean Risotto/One Green Planet
So far, we’ve looked at a dietary tradition that involves billions and another that began in the cloistered environment of an island environment. Yet, this next diet focuses on an incredibly small grouping of people with incredible abilities.
Some of you may recognize the name from the book Born to Run written by Christopher McDougall. The book is based upon the Tarahumara Indian tribe, who McDougall refers to as “superathletes”. They are an extremely reclusive North American tribe located in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. These indigenous individuals are known for their athletic ability that allows them “to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it.” Not only do the Tarahumara poses incredible physical prowess, but they have also shown incredible immunity to many of the diseases that affect the rest of the world.
The Tarahumara diet consists of dual sources: what is available directly from the land around them, a practice referred to as hunting and gathering, as well as a small amount of cultivation. Their main sources of sustenance include plant-based foods such as corn, cactus fruit, edible agaves, beans, mustard greens, squash, potatoes, chilies, and wheat, as well as fruits such as peaches, figs, and oranges. When possible, they also consume small fish sourced from rivers, and smaller animals such as squirrels, birds, and deer.
Vegan recipes can play somewhat in tandem with the Tarahumara diet, such as this Fava Beans and Za’atar Potato Salad, Grilled Street Corn With Aji Amarillo Queso, or this Butternut Squash and White Bean Risotto, yet researchers suggest that the tribes complete escape from anything processed, as well as eating foods rich in natural nutrition, play large roles in their physical competence and immunity.
For a host of culturally inspired and vegan-friendly recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!