Every successive generation seems to be getting sicker, with more illness and disability. This despite government claims that the science of diet has mostly improved from just 50 years ago. These claims are far from the reality the modern world and its population experiences. Our grandparents used to make their own butter, cook with lard, fry their foods, drink full cream milk and they still looked so healthy while living so heartily. How did they do it? For starters they ate less, but their food was also healthier. Today we cut carbs, remove fat, cook less, eat more, consume genetically modified, artificially sweetened, processed foods and spend most of our time sitting. See the difference?
The trend becomes unmistakable once fat intake increases for a population. Once that number passes 30%: countries with higher average fat intake have the longest life expectancies. Fat intake has been transformed in modern day to low fat or no fat, high sugar and processed carbohydrates.
Grandfather-of-12 John Golding, who runs a family farm outside Grafton in northern New South Wales, says food was scarce when he was growing up.
"We ate less for sure because the food had to go around a big family. There were seven or nine kids in every family so you didn't eat much at all. There were no 'seconds'," he said.
"We didn't overeat and you'd restrict your bread intake because otherwise you'd run out.
"It was all healthy food. We always had a huge vegetable garden so we had cauliflowers growing in the winter time."
In Unhappy Meals, a piece for The New York Times Magazine, best-selling author Michael Pollan says we can all cut back.
Science Says Calorie Restriction Increases Life Span
"The scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. 'Calorie restriction' has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention," he said.
"Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practices a principle they called 'Hara Hachi Bu': eat until you are 80 percent full."
Organisms from yeast to rodents to humans all benefit from cutting calories. In less complex organisms, restricting calories can double or even triple lifespan. In studies, animals on calorie restriction diets die at an advanced age without any diseases normally related to aging. In contrast, among animals on a standard diet, the great majority (94 percent) develop and die of one or more chronic diseases such as cancer or heart disease.
According to the results of two previous studies, reducing calories activates the silenced information regulator genes, which prolongs cell life.
John says he and his wife Ollie, who does most of the cooking, rarely ate processed food.
"We didn't have any packaged stuff at all," he said. "When Dad bought this farm after the war, we'd milk two or three cows so you'd make your butter and custards.
"We were reared also on fried scones. We loved fried scones. Instead of baking the scones, we'd fry 'em. They were beautiful just with butter.
In Six Rules For Eating Wisely, a piece for TIME magazine, Pollan says we shouldn't eat anything our great-great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
"Imagine how baffled your ancestors would be in a modern supermarket … (most items) aren't foods – quite – they're food products," he said.
"History suggests you might want to wait a few decades or so before adding such novelties to your diet, the substitution of margarine for butter being the classic case in point.
Their promise was that margarine would prevent disease. People around the globe questioned this advice, especially those who have valued butter for its life-sustaining properties for millennia. Today we know that butter is light years healthier than margarine ever could be.
"My mother used to predict 'they' would eventually discover that butter was better for you. She was right: the trans-fatty margarine is killing us. Eat food, not food products."
John, 79, eats everything but grew up on staples of rice, rolled oats and potatoes.
"When mum was rearing the five of us while dad was at the war she fed us on a lot of rice because that was cheap. I loved boiled rice with a bit of sugar on it, but now I don't have sugar," he said.
Pollan says the western diet has shifted radically from whole to refined foods, complex to simple carbohydrates, leaves to seeds and from food culture to food science.
Food Culture Is Not What It Used To Be
Governments here and abroad have been cautioning the public for decades on the dangers of high fat diets. Their claims based on "their science" concluded that it was best to avoid fat because of its extra calories – and saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease. This low-fat mantra has been questioned for years by clinicians and nutritional scientists – not least because it has failed to halt the obesity epidemic. The fact is, high-fat diets lower blood sugar, improve blood lipids, and reduce obesity.
"The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition," he said.
"Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating.
"You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat."
Our grandparents also didn't spend all day stuck at a desk or hours at night on the couch. They performed manual jobs and rode their horses everywhere at full gallop.
Food intolerances were unheard of back then and no-one, least of all John, feared carbs.
They also didn't deprive themselves.
Despite becoming a fast food nation, John says his diet has improved with age.
"Our diet's changed a little bit. We don't eat fat or drippin'," he said.
"The problem these days is fast food. Bloody McDonald's.
"If people are getting big and fat, I don't know why they keep eating. I can stand behind people (in line for meals) on a cruise and know what they're going to order – greasy fish and chips.
"If you want to give up something, I think it's easy. Well it's easy for me – it's just determination."
Here's to that.
Pollan's nine principles of healthy eating:
1. Eat food… Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. Don't forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.
3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number – or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.
4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer's market; you also won't find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.
5. Pay more, eat less. There's no escaping the fact that better food – measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) – costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care.
6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves … By eating a plant-based diet, you'll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less" energy dense" than the other things you might eat.
7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren't a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn't still be around.
8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it.