We hear a lot about studies, theories and celebrities espousing the best diet for us. Thousands of books and opinions tell us what foods are best, how much we should eat and how to lose weight faster — with less sacrifice — than anyone else.
I prefer to look at the foods people have eaten in different cultures for millennia, and the conclusion is that our diet is vastly different now than it used to be.
From the perspective of sustainability, eating a largely vegan diet is preferred, though there's no evidence I've seen that humans historically embraced vegan diets exclusively or thrived on them.
On the contrary, when we learned to eat and cook meat, our brains grew, and we got smarter, bigger and stronger. Fish has been a major food source throughout recorded history, and cultures dried, salted, preserved and traded fish so inland communities could benefit from its healthful protein, fat and other nutrients that — while not known at the time — are well studied today.
Humans in higher latitudes consumed marine mammal blubber to survive the cold, and inland communities hunted big-game such as bison, elk and boar.
Native Americans didn't survive North American winters on camas, wapato, cattails, acorns, stored seeds, berries and vegetables alone. They relied more on these foods when they ran out of primary proteins such as steelhead, salmon, deer, birds and other game.
Many people in our region recognize the value of wild game and foods they hunt. In fact, they treasure them. However, it's also clear that we all can't eat top-notch wild meat. There simply isn't enough to go around. The same goes for the oceans, rivers and lakes that are rapidly being depleted. We're increasingly plumbing the depths for fish that are harder to access, at much greater cost to the environment. Moreover, with ocean pollution and acidification, the sea is becoming a dicey food source.
Some celebrity chefs are talking up the flavor and sustainability potential of invasive, regionally unwanted species such as Asian carp in the upper Mississippi River and wild boar in Texas. Perhaps invasive Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades and meat of Louisiana nutria, a large rodent, will be next. Not everybody is sold on these alternative species, but in time even insects may find their way onto regional menus.
There's no doubt that eating vegetables is important to health, but there's variability among the value of plant foods in the diet, and when it comes to concentrated protein and fat sources, they don't stack up to meat and fish.
We all need to try eating fewer foods high up the food chain as our population grows, and as pressure on fish and wildlife stocks persists. There are many questions about the quality and safety of factory-farmed meats, as well.
Collectively shrinking our waistlines will be a step in the right direction toward food security, decreasing our impact on land and sea alike, but tough challenges will persist.
Collective and individual sacrifice for the good of the planet — and efforts toward dietary egalitarianism for the hungry — will be part of the menu, and we may all be better off for it.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at email@example.com.