The Golden Age

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Several weeks ago, I picked up one of those health magazines they give away free at a lot of food coops. Let's face it, I'll pick up any reading matter if it's free, and this stuff always is, because the driving force behind the magazines is to get you to buy more herbs and supplements that just happen to be sold at the stores giving away the magazines.


    Well, this issue had an article that told us, "Fifty years ago, Americans used to eat plenty of whole grains with fresh fruits and vegetables."


    Huh? What planet is this author from? Fifty years ago is 1958. I can remember 1958, and we sure didn't eat a lot of whole grains with fresh fruits and vegetables. The 1950s were when TV dinners and instant coffee were considered the epitome of chic.

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    Whole grains weren't on the menu at my house. We ate red meat, potatoes, and one frozen vegetable with most meals. Maybe some salad. Fish was rarely served. Chicken sometimes. Dessert was always full-fat ice cream. Children drank whole milk. Fruits were only eaten in desperation, if we were hungry before dinner, when we weren't allowed to eat anything but a piece of fruit or a piece of white bread with no butter.


    Casseroles were considered sissy food, and my father kept saying he was a "meat and potatoes man," where meat meant red meat, preferably well-marbled steak or roast beef. I recall my sister sighing and saying, "Oh no! Not steak again." Pasta was considered an exotic foreign food.


    My mother did once acquire a cookbook featuring casserole recipes, and her first attempt was something called "ham and oyster pie." It was not received with great enthusiasm.


    I don't remember what we had for breakfast, or if we even ate breakfast. For lunch we came home from school and had sandwiches on white bread with Campbell's soup. I don't recall a lot of fresh fruits or a lot of whole grains in Campbell's soups.


    I thought perhaps my memories were warped, so I was interested in the decriptions of meals in Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in the 1950s in the Midwest, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.


    His list of "foods that we didn't eat" included "bread that wasn't white and at least 65% air," "fish that wasn't any shape but rectangular and not coated in bright orange bread crumbs," and "soups not blessed by Campbell's."


    Low-fat cheeses were not on the menu: ". . . any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us." What was on the menu did not include a lot of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. He says the state fruit was Jell-O.


    Potluck suppers included "tubs and platters of buttery mashed potatoes, baked beans and bacon, creamed vegetables, deviled eggs, corn breads, muffins, heavy-duty biscuits, and a dozen types of coleslaw."


    Where are all those whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables? Maybe the children went out into the woods and picked wild berries. Nope. According to Bryson, "Children of the 1950s didn't eat anything that grew wild -- in fact, didn't eat anything at all unless it was coated in sugar, endorsed by a celebrity athlete or TV star, and came with a free prize."


    My brother survived on peanut butter, chocolate ice cream, and Mrs Grass's Chicken Noodle Soup, the stuff with the golden nugget of chicken fat that melted so astonishingly in the hot broth. The only problem was that after performing this amazing step, you were expected to eat the stuff. Whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables were noteworthy by their complete absence.


    So I think it's clear that Americans weren't snarfing down boatloads of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables fifty years ago. Maybe the writer just had his time frame wrong. Maybe he meant the 1930s or the 1920s or something.

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    Coincidentally, the next day a newsletter from the local historical society arrived, describing a picnic from the 1920s or 1930s.


    The picnic consisted of "baked beans, ham and cheese sandwiches, boiled eggs, cake, pie, and bananas with coffee." So OK, perhaps they were fruit pies, and banana is a fruit. But I don't see any mention of whole grains there, do you? Or fresh vegetables?


    It's so easy to think of the past as some wonderful Golden Age when everyone ate the perfect diet and no one ever got chronic diseases. But it simply ain't so. Americans ate lots of saturated fat, lots of white flour, lots of trans fat in products like vegetable shortening (which made such great pies), whole milk, eggs, whatever meat they could afford, including the fat, which was used for frying instead of vegetable oils, and whatever fruits and vegetables were in season, often stored in a cold cellar and hence hardly fresh, or canned.


    What they didn't have was instant meals, microwaves, plastic containers, and a lot of restaurant meals. In the early part of the century, much of their food was organic because they grew it themselves and most of today's pesticides hadn't been invented. They also got a lot more exercise.


    But to think the recent past was a paradise of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables is as idiotic as thinking the first Thanksgiving was macrobiotic. To think that people in the early part of the past century, who didn't have access to processed foods except things like canned peas, never got metabolic diseases is equally idiotic. People got less type 2 diabetes during the Dark Ages because most of them died from infectious diseases, starvation, or overwork before they were 40. There was no Golden Age of disease-free living. The ancient Greeks described diabetes.


    When I grew up, there were fat children. The difference is that now there are more of them, and children who were "chubby" in my childhood would probably be obese today. When I grew up, there were children with diabetes. The difference is that they were mostly type 1, and there weren't as many of them. In fact, any children with type 2 diabetes in those days would have been misclassified as type 1, which was called "juvenile diabetes."


    What we need to do is find out exactly why there is more diabetes today than there was in the past. I doubt it's simply because of a lack of whole grains. There may be many factors involved, including having access to more food, having less chance to exercise in a world in which it's often considered dangerous to play outside, having greater exposure to various toxic chemicals, having less exposure to germs, eating foods grown in mineral-depleted soils, and other factors of which we may not yet be aware.


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    Alas, there are no simple answers. We need to search harder rather than dreaming of the Golden Ages.



Published On: January 28, 2008