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What Kind Of Food Should We Eat?

Source: A Handbook Of Health

Generally speaking, our Appetites will Guide us. Our whole body is an
ingenious machine for catching food, digesting it, and turning the
energy, or fuel value, which it contains, into life, movement, and

Naturally, two things follow: first, that the kind and amount of food
which we eat is of great importance; and second, that from the millions
of years of experience that the human body has had in trying all sorts
of foods, it has adapted itself to certain kinds of food and developed
certain likes and dislikes which we call appetites. Those who happened
to like unhealthy and unwholesome foods were poisoned, or grew thin and
weak and died off, so that we are descended solely from people who had
sound and reliable food appetites; and, in the main, what our instincts
and appetites tell us about food is to be depended upon.

The main questions which we have to consider are: How much of the
different kinds of food it is best for us to eat, and in what
proportions we should use them. Both men and animals, since the world
began, have been trying to eat and digest almost everything that they
could get into their mouths. And what we now like and prepare as foods
are the things which have stood the test, and proved themselves able to
yield strength and nourishment to the body. So practically every food
that comes upon our tables has some kind of real food value, or it
wouldn't appear there.

The most careful study and analysis have shown that almost every known
food has some peculiar advantage, such as digestibility, or cheapness,
or pleasant taste as flavoring for other more nutritious, but less
interesting, foods. But some foods have much higher degrees of
nutritiousness or digestibility or wholesomeness than others; so that
our problem is to pick out from a number of foods that taste good to
us, those which are the most nutritious, the most digestible, and the
most wholesome, and to see that we get plenty of them. It is not that
certain foods, or classes of food, are good, and should be eaten to
the exclusion of all others; nor that certain foods, or classes of food,
are bad, and should be excluded from our tables entirely; but that
certain foods are more nutritious, or more wholesome, than others; and
that it is best to see that we get plenty of the former before indulging
our appetites upon the latter.

Beware of Tainted Food. The most dangerous fault that any food can
have is that it shall be tainted, or spoiled, or smell bad. Spoiling, or
tainting, means that the food has become infected by some germs of
putrefaction, generally bacteria or moulds (see chapter XXVI). It is
the poisons--called ptomaines, or toxins--produced by these germs
which cause the serious disturbances in the stomach, and not either the
amount or the kind of food itself. Even a regular gorge upon early
apples or watermelon or cake or ice cream will not give you half so bad,
nor so dangerous, colic as one little piece of tainted meat or fish or
egg, or one cupful of dirty milk, or a single helping of cabbage or
tomatoes that have begun to spoil, or of jam made out of spoiled berries
or other fruit. This spoiling can be prevented by strict cleanliness in
handling foods, especially milk, meat, and fruit; by keeping foods
screened from dust and flies; and by keeping them cool with ice in
summer time, thus checking the growth of these spoiling germs. The
refrigerator in the kitchen prevents colic or diarrhea, ice in hot
weather is one of the necessaries of life. Smell every piece of food to
be eaten, in the kitchen before it is cooked, if possible; but if not,
at the table avoid everything that has an unpleasant odor, or tastes
queer, and you will avoid two-thirds of the colic, diarrhea, and bilious
attacks which are so often supposed to be due to eating too much.

Variety in Food is Necessary. Man has always lived on, and apparently
required, a great variety of foods, animal and vegetable--fish and
flesh, nuts, fruit, grains, fat, sugar, and vegetables. Indeed, it was
probably because man could live on anything and everything that he was
able to survive in famines and to get so far ahead of all other sorts of

We still need a great variety of different sorts of food in order to
keep our health; so our tendency to become tired of a certain food,
after we have had it over and over and over again, for breakfast,
dinner, and supper, is a sound and healthy one. There is no best food;
nor is there any one food on which we can live and work, as an engine
will work all its life on one kind of coal, wood, or oil. No one kind
of food contains all the stuffs that our body is made of and needs, in
exactly the right proportions. It takes a dozen or more different kinds
of food to supply these, and the body picks out what it wants, and
throws away the remainder.

Even the best and most nutritious and digestible single food, like meat,
or bread and butter, or sugar, is not sufficient by itself; nor will it
do for every meal in the day, or every day in the week. We must eat
other things with it; and we must from time to time change it for
something which may even be not quite so nutritious, in order to give
our body the opportunity to select from a great variety of foods the
particular things which its wonderful instincts and skill can use to
build it up and keep it healthy. This is why every grocery store, every
butcher shop, every fish market, and every confectioner's shows such a
great variety of different kinds of foods put up and prepared in all
sorts of ways. Although nearly two-thirds of the actual fuel which we
put into our body-boilers is in the form of a dozen or fifteen great
staple foods, like bread, meat, butter, sugar, eggs, milk, potatoes, and
fish, yet all the lighter foods, also, are needed for perfect health.

It is possible, by careful selection, and by taking a great deal of
trouble, to supply all the elements of the body from animal foods alone,
or from vegetable foods alone. But practically, it has everywhere, and
in all ages, been found that the best and most healthful diet is a
proper combination of animal and vegetable foods. Our starches, for
instance, which furnish most of our fuel,--though they give us
comparatively little to build up, or repair, the body with,--are
found, as we have seen, in the vegetable kingdom, in grains and fruits;
while most of our proteins and fats, which chiefly give us the materials
with which to build up, or repair, the body, are found in the animal
kingdom. There is no advantage whatever in trying to exclude either
animal food or vegetable food from our dietary. Both animal and
vegetable foods are wholesome in their proper place, and their proper
place is on the table together.

Those nations which live solely, or even chiefly, upon one or two kinds
of staple foods, such as rice, potatoes, corn-meal, or yams, do so
solely because they are too poor to afford other kinds of food, or too
lazy, or too uncivilized, to get them; and instead of being healthier
and longer-lived than civilized races, they are much more subject to
disease and live only about half as long.

Next: The Three Great Classes Of Food-fuel

Previous: The Journey Down The Food Tube

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