According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of 2015, 71% of US adults are overweight or obese. When we look back just two generations the food choices of our grandparents were very different than ours. The corner grocery store that our grandparents knew was a small store crowded with dry goods and staples like flour, rice, coffee and sugar. Several stops to the meat market, produce stands, and bakery were needed to bring a meal to the table. Planning and use of the home pantry was an essential skill.
In 1894, Dr. Wilbur Atwater published the first nutrition guidelines. Dr. Atwater advocated variety, good proportion and moderation. As the science of nutrition emerged and with the discovery of individual vitamins in 1910, it was noted that different nutrients are concentrated in different groups of foods. From these early nutrition guidelines, our grandmothers learned the basics of balanced meals and their children, our parents learned the same values in school.
Although the original Basic Four food groups and the subsequent food pyramids have been the subject of criticism and political debate, the concept is sound. A healthy diet consists of a variety of foods from different groups to insure adequate nutrient intake. And when we consume foods in the proper proportion as recommended, we get fewer high-calorie animal foods (meat and dairy at the top of the pyramid) and more low-calorie plant foods (vegetables, fruits and whole grains at the base of the pyramid). Limiting sweets and high-fat foods puts this high-calorie, low-nutrient group at the very tip top of the pyramid.
With the advent of refrigeration and the availability of automobiles the modern grocery store emerged and reduced daily trips to the various markets to weekly one stop shopping trips. But even these early supermarkets were very different from what we see today in the sheer variety of food choices and the year-round availability of what used to be seasonal foods. Snack foods, sodas, sugar cereals, pre-prepared dinners, whole sections of cheese, dairy foods and meats are high-calorie choices that simply were not available to previous generations.
These and other changes shaped our grandparents’ food choices and meals. They limited meat servings due to its expense. Casseroles were introduced during the war as a response to meat rationing. Our grandparents learned to “extend the meat” in casseroles by adding starches such as beans, potatoes and pasta. While they did this for economic reasons, they were also improving meal balance. The originators of the basic food groups were concerned with adequate nutrient intake in a day when few people were overweight. A balanced meal takes on new meaning today when 71% of our population is overweight or obese.
Let us return to eating real food in proper proportion like our grandparents. Limit meat portions in combination dishes that flavor starches and vegetables with meats. Go light on the cheese in casseroles. Stews and stir fries are more interesting because they offer variety of textures, flavor and eye appeal. Our grandparents drank skim milk because they reserved the cream for making butter. And they used that butter sparingly because it was very hard to make. Today we have kefir a modern version of cultured buttermilk. Beans, corn, potatoes were frequent players in the menu and provided satiety to meatless meals. Sweets were a rare treat. Today’s availability and variety of fresh fruits and nuts (already shelled!) provide a valuable alternative to the myriad of highly processed sugar foods. Deep fried foods were infrequent because lard was hard to make and would not keep. This was before the era of shortening which we have since learned is a highly saturated trans-fat that clogs our arteries. In addition to lean meats, we have a variety of fish with which to supplement our diet. Bring back Tuna Mac! When we return to eating like our grandparents did and employ the concepts of the basic food groups, we restore balance to a fundamental part of our lives.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.