Culture and Cuisine In The American Diet

If you take a look at the traditional diets from a variety of different cultures, you’ll be able to find many health attributes. Take a look at basically anything American, and the results are ….frankly, disastrous. We know the terrible statistics and the consequences of following the SAD (Standard American Diet). Think about it: Has the modern American diet contributed anything healthy or nutritious to global culture or human health? 

We are the originators of fast food restaurants, and the ensuing fast food culture. All the major burger chains originated in the 1950s in Southern California; read the fantastic book Fast Food Nation to learn how the rise of fast food restaurants had a devastating impact on family life and social connection in America). We have become addicted to (mostly) sweetened beverages from Starbucks, with the chain being the most populous retail establishment across the land. Did you know that the default setting on the Starbucks mobile ordering app for orders of iced tea is 7 pumps of liquid cane sugar?! That’s right folks, you actually have to hit the minus button seven times before ordering if you do not wish to get poisoned by and addicted to Starbucks sweetened beverages. This systematic manipulation of consumer product offering and ordering should really be illegal. It’s easy to imagine how millions of Starbucks consumers worldwide aren’t even aware of the sub-option to open a new window and revise the default sugar dosage. This seems not much different than usurious lending practices or misleading marketing messages.  

You may have heard the stat that the average American adult consumes 154 pounds of sugar (delivered in all forms, often from hidden or unlikely sources). But that is how it is with American food. In the bestselling book, Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis describes how food manufacturers find a way to sprinkle wheat on assorted processed foods (even non-bread products), because they are aware of the addictive properties of the gliadin protein contained in the modern-day wheat crop. Even when people make valiant attempts to be healthier, and try cooking their favorite comfort dishes at home, they still have to be proactive and vigilant about limiting excess sugar. Think about the amount of sugar in the ever popular American staple: barbecue sauce. Even if you look up the recipe and make it yourself, you’re still adding a ridiculous amount of sugar, like 2/3 cup!  

Take a glance at the typical cuisine originating from the US, and you’ll find so many grossly unhealthy ingredients and elements to the diet, that it’s no wonder we are the land that houses the fattest population in the history of humanity. So what are Americans supposed to do when they are told to eat like their ancestors – surely that doesn’t mean the classic drive-thru dinner of a burger, onion rings, and a milkshake? 

It certainly does not — we have to go back a little further than our parents to model healthy ancestral eating. Native American chef Sean Sherman explores his ancestral cuisine in his award-winning cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” in which he offers some amazing insights, one being the importance of eating ancestrally because of how it relates to the land. Sherman says,  

“We have all of this under-utilized food around us. There are so many lessons of resourcefulness that we can learn through indigenous cultures. And we can be so much less wasteful as a society and really start to focus on community-based food systems by pushing away from industrial agriculture.” 

The core of the ancestral health movement revolves around the idea that the healthiest, best way of eating for humans is actually pretty simple, right? No complicated diets, no counting calories, driving yourself crazy as you try to attain that “perfect” bod. It’s a lot easier to just eat the foods that your great-great-great-great grandmother ate. This was the profound advice offered by Dr. Peter Attia during his interview on the very first Get Over Yourself podcast. Attia, an extreme self-experimenter who does week-long fasts every quarter and monitored his blood glucose non-stop for three years of strict nutritional ketosis, emerges from his deep dive into dietary optimization to deliver the most simple and sensible advice imaginable. In Sherman’s book, he conveys a similar message: The more you can adhere to whatever ancestral culture you might have in your family lineage, the more healthier you might be. Look at the startling juxtaposition of these two studies: 

High carb diet increases breast cancer risk in Mexican women. (Thanks Dr. Shawn Baker leading carnivore expert for posting this on his Instagram recently). 


Traditional Mexican diet reduces breast cancer risk. 

The contradictory results from these two studies serve as an example of how complex this issue can be, and why it’s necessary to examine scientific evidence and research instead of just blindly accepting anything as the be-all, end-all truth. “A high-carb diet increases breast cancer risk” – but what carbs are we talking about? Flour tortillas are common in Northern parts of Mexico, but homemade tortillas made from masa (corn flour and water) have long been the staple in the traditional Mexican diet. Both carbs, yes, but as we know, not all carbs are created equal, not to mention the difference between preparing food the old school way, soaking grains in water and lime juice, and letting things ferment, versus super refined white flour tortillas….there is simply no comparison. Clearly, Mexican women still have a fighting chance at optimal health if they can simply re-embrace their own culture and family memories and do some ruthless screening and avoiding of the many harmful influences of western culture. This commentary reminds me of several recent vacation trips to the town of Sayulita, Mexico.  

This formerly sleeping fishing and surfing village about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta has turned into a hip tourist hot spot. The town has preserved a lot of authenticity, with narrow cobblestone dirt roads and numerous fantastic dining options that are rustic and authentic Mexican. However, you can also see obnoxious 7-11 type convenience stores selling bottled soda, frozen ice cream bars, nasty beef jerky and industrial oil-laden chips. You have the disaster of industrialized food processing juxtaposed with a joint across the street serving fresh, wild caught fish, making tortillas by hand, and offering up unique ice cream flavors that I learned were made by hand from an elderly gentleman from Guadalajara who makes the four-hour drive once a week to replenish their flavors. Yes, I tried some of that ice cream, just like I enjoy the gourmet hand-made offerings Seattle is famous for every time I visit that city. Check out these crazy all 100% plant based flavors at Frankie&Joes. Ever tried “salty caramel ash” ice cream before, made with activated charcoal for digestive benefits? I have, and it’s awesome! So is the “nuez” flavor in Sayulita made with delicious walnuts and chocolate. 

For an incredible education about the benefits of traditional cuisine and how it shapes culture in a positive manner, check out Tania Teschke’s masterpiece titled The Bordeaux Kitchen for a total immersion into traditional French food, wine and culture. When is the last time anyone in America (okay, let’s add other commonwealth countries where cuisine is not legendary) talked about eating lamb brains? In Tania’s book, the recipe is titled: Cervelles d’Agneau Pochées et Sautées. Lamb brains have long been consumed by the French, but it’s controversial, obviously. This can be partly attributed to the fact that brains contain prions, which is a type of protein that has been linked to mad cow disease, and they also have more cholesterol than any other food, something surely to scare others away. A shame, because brains still remain one of the most nutrient-rich organs you can find in any animal, because of the high amount of DHA they contain, as well as B12. Not to mention that we know by now that mad cow disease scares are way overblown, as the risk has been virtually extinguished across the globe. 

Another food you won’t catch most Americans chowing down on is heart. Beef heart boasts higher levels of protein, thiamine, folate, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, CoQ10, and several B vitamins, than steak, roasts, and ground beef. Not only that, but because of its “ick” factor, you can buy beef heart for considerably cheaper than the more desirable parts of the cow! Sadly, most people still only want muscle meat, which shows how much our ideas have changed when it comes to what constitutes as food. Why is it that organ meat is considered more gross or less appetizing than super-processed food? At least it’s a whole food! But try telling the average American to eat some liver instead of their regular burger – they will look at you like that’s the craziest thing they’ve ever heard. And yet, it’s the logical, healthy, not to mention sustainable option. We should take inspiration from Native Americans and eat nose to tail. Instead, we have taken a disastrous turn for the worse, with the explosion of industrialized food and fast food since 1950. In fact, Dr. Cate Shanahan references the year 1950 as a sort of cutoff point whereby, if you were born before then, your formative years featured vastly more nutrient-dense meals (and hence better development of brain, body, musculoskeletal system, and immune system) than the baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials who had the misfortune of coming of age during the heyday of TV dinners, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the rest. Not only is that kind of processed “food” terrible for you, but it also messes with your mind – in more ways than one. We know the affect wheat and sugar have on the brain, but what about on your perspective, your outlook?  

If you grew up eating mac and cheese, grilled cheese….(basically any kind of processed carbs with cheese) then are you really going to find brains appetizing, even if they’ve been cooked with shallots and a ton of butter? Most likely, no. Take American cheese, the cheese that is barely cheese. One humorous but interesting article in Bloomberg’s Food section caught my eye, titled Millennials Kill Again. The Latest Victim? American Cheese and reading about how the demand and sales for processed cheese are going down every year gives me great hope. Gayle Voss, who owns Gayle V’s Best Ever Grilled Cheese in Chicago, was interviewed for the article, saying, “I could buy preservative-filled cheese and butter. But I’m all-out on supporting small businesses and offering a good, quality product, and the minute people bite into it, they know – because it’s so good.” Not to mention: “People want to know where their food is coming from, and my sales reflect that.” However, Gayle admits that her husband uses Kraft Singles when making a sandwich for himself at home, because it’s “what he grew up with.” This is precisely the problem. It’s not that cheese is inherently bad, but processed cheese offers minimal health benefits and numerous health objections, while high quality aged cheese has an assortment of health benefits. Take Roquefort, notoriously smelly, with a notoriously strong flavor. It’s hardly popular in America, but this cheese is a traditional part of French cuisine, and its mold is what makes it so special. Aged in caves in the south of France, it is first thought to have been eaten in 79AD (!). Studies have shown that it’s favorable for cardiovascular health, which could explain by the French have one of the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease in the developed world. So many Americans would greatly benefit from simply being open to eating food that is markedly different from the typical cuisine they’re used to, but it can be so hard for people to break away from nostalgia and “comfort” foods they grew up with. 

In100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today“, author, professor, and biological anthropologist Stephen Le says agrees that focusing on cuisine instead of nutrition is key and that eating the tradition cuisine of your ancestors is key. And as a National Geographic article points out, that doesn’t mean this is a one size fits all kind of situation: “A Mediterranean diet wouldn’t work for the Inuit in North America or the Maasai pastoralists in Kenya, who are biologically adapted to eat more meat and dairy. They don’t have the gut enzymes to break down the starches and sugar in many diets today.” 

So, it’s time to rediscover your roots or your parents’ and grandparents’ roots and find some more nutritious foods. Start integrating organ meats into your game, especially liver, the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. If you hate liver, at least take a supplement. Click here for a sneak preview of a product for Male Optimization and testosterone support that I’m working on with my friends at Ancestral Supplements. Or, if you want to try to liver but don’t know how to make it appetizing, then you can always take some inspiration the French, and make pâté, which is surprisingly easy to make (that is, if your ancestors were adapted to eat dairy – because pâté requires about a stick of butter!). 

When it comes down to the culture of American food, chef Scott Sax said it best when discussing what ingredients he buys for the Chicago-based burger joint Mini Mott – he gets nothing but American cheese, and he buys it in five-pound bricks from a supplier in Minnesota: “There’s nothing pure or organic about it. The ingredients are very American.” A sad statement indeed, because it’s true, but let’s not forget that it is never too late to make changes. We can only learn from our mistakes going forward, and while the typical American diet may still consist of a ton of processed food, the good news is the demand and awareness for wholesome, healthy food has been increasing steadily for years, and is not losing momentum – there is still time to change what it means to eat the “Standard American Diet.” What if the SAD had a completely different definition down the line? A diet consisting of nose to tail, farm to table, seasonal, fresh food. Sounds crazy, but maybe it could happen one day… 

Until that day comes though, you can implement the change, and start with yourself and your diet. You don’t need to wait for everyone else to get up to speed – take matters into your own hands. That probably entails doing some research into your lineage and seeing what your great-great-great grandmother would have made, and starting to incorporate traditional cuisines from your cultural background. Maybe that means getting inspiration from other cultures similar to your own and trying some of their homemade staples. You could also try following what Dr. Cate Shanahan advised in a recent Get Over Yourself show, and read cookbooks made before the 1950s, which are great resources for learning about health, nutrition, and preparing food, and of course, follow the “Four Pillars of the Human Diet,” which she outlined in her book Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. The Four Pillars are simple and easy to follow: 1). fresh foods (fruits and vegetables), 2). fermented foods, 3). meat on the bone, and 4). organ meats. That’s it, just those four, which makes following them so much easier – the fun part is looking into your heritage and seeing what foods your ancestors thrived on. So take a stand for your health, and start getting pickier today. When it comes to grocery shopping, be vigilant about being choosy. Don’t let things slide when checking out what your food is made of – demand the best for yourself. You deserve to eat food that doesn’t contain added chemicals, an excess of sodium and sugar, food dyes, artificial flavoring, and bad oils. Read every single label you can, even if it seems redundant – take sun-dried tomatoes for example. Sure, that’s an all-natural food – but you’d be surprised how many packaged sun-dried tomatoes have added junk, industrial seed oils, sulfites…..  

The same principles apply for dining out: do not just blindly trust that even the “healthy” places will adhere to the same standards for ingredients that you do. Continue to research what works for you, and arm yourself with the knowledge you need to make the best decisions for your health. You can do this by being inquisitive – aside from label checking, ask your local butcher about the animal you’re eating and all of its parts, check with the waiter at restaurants about what kind of cooking oil is used, or what exactly is in that gluten free flour they bake with…Be aware of the steps you need to take to ensure you’re getting the healthiest food possible. People are only human, and mistakes happen in the kitchen. But the good news is, when it comes to the “American” diet, you can define it yourself: avoid whatever is not truly “food,” and then all you have to do is look back at your lineage – and honor it – by preparing and eating meals in the same manner as your ancestors. 



Brad Kearns
Brad Kearns
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