Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Way We Eat Now

There's nothing "natural" about three square meals a day. In fact, it's quite artificial. Like everything else, is a product of industrialism. We eat around work. But like how we work, it is highly novel and probably unnatural. What is the natural way of eating? As the article below shows, it's highly variable throughout history. But it's certain a rigid 3-meal schedule is probably not the best contender.

I recall reading recently somewhere that one way to help your sleep cycle is to only eat during the daylight hours. This keeps your circadian rhythms in check, as people could not cook or eat without artificial light in times past. This would probably also restrict your eating times enough to help you lose weight, too.

I also recall reading on a Paleo diet blog that the key to breakfast was treating it like any other meal. They recommended eating leftovers from the night before. Why do we treat breakfast so differently, anyway? Why do we load up on processed carbs (bagels, muffins, cereal, pancakes, waffles)? Why eggs for breakfast but not for lunch or dinner? Why bacon and sausage, but no other meats (okay, steak and fried chicken)? One runner in Born to Run recommends eating salad for breakfast.

The Roman diet described below seems an awful lot like the Fast-5 diet: fasting except for a five-hour window where you eat as you like (within reason). I can recall KMO on the C-Realm podcast saying he lost quite a bit of weight on it. The Romans sure seemed trim. Presumably, those five hours should be during daylight, if the above is to be believed (inverse Ramadan?). Richard Nikoley of Free the Animal started eating a diet of fried potatoes and has allegedly lost five pounds so far according to BoingBoing.
Breakfast as we know it didn't exist for large parts of history. The Romans didn't really eat it, usually consuming only one meal a day around noon, says food historian Caroline Yeldham. In fact, breakfast was actively frowned upon.

"The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day," she says. "They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time."

In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate, says food historian Ivan Day. Nothing could be eaten before morning Mass and meat could only be eaten for half the days of the year. It's thought the word breakfast entered the English language during this time and literally meant "break the night's fast".

In about the 17th Century it is believed that all social classes started eating breakfast, according to chef Clarissa Dickson Wright. After the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. By the late 1740s, breakfast rooms also started appearing in the homes of the rich.

The Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th Century regularised working hours, with labourers needing an early meal to sustain them at work. All classes started to eat a meal before going to work, even the bosses.

At the turn of the 20th Century, breakfast was revolutionised once again by American John Harvey Kellogg. He accidentally left some boiled maize out and it went stale. He passed it through some rollers and baked it, creating the world's first cornflake. He sparked a multi-billion pound industry.

From the Roman times to the Middle Ages everyone ate in the middle of the day, but it was called dinner and was the main meal of the day. Lunch as we know it didn't exist - not even the word. During the Middle Ages daylight shaped mealtimes, says Day. With no electricity, people got up earlier to make use of daylight. Workers had often toiled in the fields from daybreak, so by midday they were hungry.

"The whole day was structured differently than it is today," says Day. "People got up much earlier and went to bed much earlier." By midday workers had often worked for up to six hours. They would take a quick break and eat what was known as a "beever" or "noonshine", usually bread and cheese. As artificial light developed, dinner started to shift later in the day for the wealthier, as a result a light meal during the day was needed. But it's the French custom of "souper" in the 17th Century that helped shaped what most of us eat for lunch today. It became fashionable among the British aristocracy to copy the French and eat a light meal in the evening. It was a more private meal while they gamed and womanised, says Day.

Again, it was the Industrial Revolution that helped shape lunch as we know it today. Middle and lower class eating patterns were defined by working hours. Many were working long hours in factories and to sustain them a noon-time meal was essential. Pies were sold on stalls outside factories. People also started to rely on mass-produced food as there was no room in towns and cities for gardens to keep a pig pen or grow their own food. Many didn't even have a kitchen. "Britain was the first country in the world to feed people with industrialised food," says Day.

The ritual of taking lunch became ingrained in the daily routine. In the 19th Century chop houses opened in cities and office workers were given one hour for lunch. But as war broke out in 1939 and rationing took hold, the lunch was forced to evolve. Work-based canteens became the most economical way to feed the masses. It was this model that was adopted by schools after the war.

Dinner was the one meal the Romans did eat, even if it was at a different time of day. In the UK the heyday of dinner was in the Middle Ages. It was known as "cena", Latin for dinner. The aristocracy ate formal, outrageously lavish dinners around noon. Despite their reputation for being unruly affairs, they were actually very sophisticated, with strict table manners. They were an ostentatious display of wealth and power, with cooks working in the kitchen from dawn to get things ready, says Yeldham. With no electricity cooking dinner in the evening was not an option. Peasants ate dinner around midday too, although it was a much more modest affair.

As artificial lighting spread, dinner started to be eaten later and later in the day. It was in the 17th Century that the working lunch started, where men with aspirations would network.The middle and lower classes eating patterns were also defined by their working hours. By the late 18th Century most people were eating three meals a day in towns and cities, says Day.

By the early 19th Century dinner for most people had been pushed into the evenings, after work when they returned home for a full meal. Many people, however, retained the traditional "dinner hour" on a Sunday.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Have we always eaten them? (BBC)

Some people on the comments had praise for this BBC Horizons documentary by Michael Mosley: Eat, Fast & Live Longer. I have not watched the whole thing yet.

2 comments:

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