The Spiritual Carnivore

A traditional Cuy meal, also known as guinea pig. Photo by Sattvic Planet.

A traditional Cuy meal, also known as guinea pig. Photo by Sattvic Planet.

 

I’m writing this post from a small village in the Peruvian Andes where a community of spiritually focused foreigners have either visited or settled over the years. Having arrived only yesterday I obviously have much to learn about this community, though a couple of my observations seem very clear to me already. First, they seem to gather their practices from a wide array of disciplines such as Ayurveda, Buddhism, and indigenous Shamanic culture. It seems to be a true hybrid of global spiritual philosophies. My second observation, which is the inspiration of this post, is that vegetarian and vegan diets are the preferred choice at their hotels, restaurants and retreats. I’m talking about the foreign community here and not the locals when I refer to the choice of diet, as the locals appear to eat chicken, beef, trout, alpaca, eggs, and cheese.

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How often should you snack?

I’m going back to my roots. After posting articles during November about Daylight Savings Time, the US Election, Pharmaceuticals, and Black Friday, today I’m going to write once again about my favorite subject, food. Based on my observations, people simply don’t know how to eat. That may sound like a funny statement because we all eat every day, and it is a task that is essential for our survival. Well, you may know how to eat, just put food in your mouth and chew, but do you know how to eat properly for efficient digestion and optimal health? The quantity, frequency, timing and combination of your food are all important factors affecting your digestion. Believe it or not, I could probably write an entire chapter on how to eat, but instead of that, today we will focus on a topic that is confusing to many people, snacking.

Radical snactivism

We’ve all heard the theory that it is important to snack many times per day to keep our energy levels high, but is that even true, and where did it come from? If you think about it, the frequent snack theory appears to be adapted to high performance athletes. Imagine a professional football player who spends the whole day lifting weights, running, and training for his job. The amount of energy expended by a professional athlete must be several times more than what you expend sitting in your cubicle and tapping on that keyboard. Frequent snacking seems appropriate for such a physically demanding lifestyle. Somewhere along the way sports nutrition got confused with the nutrition of the average person. Perhaps it was an improper dissemination of information through the media, or our fascination with professional athletes. Many of us obsess over our favorite athletes; we wear their jerseys and spend billions of dollars following them weekly, so it’s not difficult to imagine their diet strategies crossing over into the average person’s life. Another possibility is the source of funding for research. How much money is available to research the nutritional needs for producing a star athlete versus the nutritional needs for helping an average person reach their true potential? Perhaps the government can fund some research, but corporations heavily influence governments, and do corporations bring in revenue by selling wholesome breakfasts, or by selling snack packs? Regardless of the origin of the multiple snack theory, and the role of sports idols, money and politics; we have access to an unbiased source of information for guidance on how to eat. According to Ayurveda, a traditional preventive medicine system from India, the average person should practice a diet of minimal snacking.

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2 meals per day

To understand why minimal snacking is the suggested diet of Ayurveda, one only needs to have a basic understanding of digestion. Digestion is at the core of Ayurveda because good digestion is thought to be essential for having good health. Ideally a person would wait until their previous meal was completely discharged from their stomach before eating the next meal, but if you are snacking 3-5 times per day there are simply not enough hours in a day to do this. Generally speaking, it should take at least 3 hours for your stomach to be empty, so if you ate every 3 hours beginning at 6am and ending at 9pm that would be 3 meals and 3 snacks. With a schedule like that some problems become immediately apparent. It is unlikely that you are eating on an empty stomach if your schedule consists of eating 6 or more times per day. If your stomach is completely empty then you must be either eating small meals or easily digested carbohydrates and sugars, and we have all been hearing lately of the dangers associated with diets high in sugar. Your digestion should improve if you wait until your stomach is completely empty before consuming the next meal, and as a result your overall health should also improve. To completely digest each meal then you will have to eat less frequently which of course means less snacking. One great strategy for eating less frequently is to eat large meals containing more slow burning fuels such as oils, fibrous vegetables, and perhaps some meat if you are not vegetarian. As you are increasing the amount of slow burning foods, try decreasing the fast burning foods such as sugar, flour, grains, and in some cases fruit. For an excellent and detailed description of what this meal looks like read Todd Caldecott’s article about breakfast. A large breakfast such as this allows me to go 6 hours without eating, and during those 6 hours I enjoy the benefits of a slow sustained release of energy without the inconvenience of having to interrupt my busy day to find more food. Ayurveda recommends eating twice per day, and the only practical way for a person to do that in this modern world is to make sure your two meals are large and dense enough to power you through the day.

From Time magazine.

From Time magazine.

Goodbye low fat diets

As we emerge from the failed war on dietary fat into a world of obesity, diabetes and cancer we can look to the past for guidance on moving into the future. Ayurveda is a valuable source of traditional knowledge that is not contaminated by money or politics. People would have never chosen the frequent snack theory if the low fat theory didn’t exist. It is difficult to snack all day if you are eating high quality fats because quite simply, you will not be hungry as often. So as we say goodbye to the low fat era we should also say goodbye to the high snack era. Unless you happen to be a high performance athlete, try eating like me, a radical snactivist.

Related Articles:

Ending the War on Fat: Victory!

How to make ghee and move beyond the Low Fat Era

Our Paleolithic ancestors rarely ate sugar

 

 

Want to know the #1 place in town to eat?

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Seattle, WA

Healthy, tasty, affordable, and sustainable

Eating out at a restaurant can be a real challenge for people trying to be conscious of what they are consuming. If your only criteria when choosing a place to eat are tasty and affordable then there are endless options available to you in most US cities. Cheap, fast, sugary foods are everywhere you look, but if you add healthy to the list of criteria, suddenly your options are greatly reduced. If you take it one step further and seek a place that sources local, organic and environmentally friendly ingredients as much as possible then I wish you the best of luck. Even if you do find such a place then you are likely to trade health or sustainability for affordability.

Food as Medicine

I am a big advocate of the concept of Food as Medicine, and am also very interested in the connections between food, health, agriculture, and environment. As a result, when I go out to eat it can be difficult to find meals prepared with these concepts in mind. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are fortunate to have access to chefs and restaurant owners that are aware of these concepts, and who are passionate about raising their standards above typical restaurant food. Regardless, a restaurant that includes healthy, tasty and sustainable in all their meals is more often a novelty; a place perhaps where you go on a first date, rather than a place you go for lunch three times a week. So, what should you do?

Boring, OR

Boring, OR

The #1 place in town

Now is the time when I’m supposed to introduce you to the newest smartphone app that guides you to the closest healthy, tasty and sustainable restaurant in town. Sorry, but that’s not going to happen today. The purpose of this post is to remind you that the #1 place in town is…your kitchen. I know that may not seem very profound, but at a time when some people are eating out for a majority of their meals I think this is a message that needs to be said. Have you ever seen the episode of Portlandia where the foodies ask a thousand questions about where the chicken comes from? It’s very funny, but the reason they have to ask so many questions is because they have very little control over what they are eating. Sure, you know what chicken, tortillas, and vegetables are, but you rarely know if the chicken came from a factory farm, if the tortillas are made of genetically modified corn, or if the vegetables were sprayed with pesticides.

Take the power back!

I know that eating out is inevitable for various social occasions, and when you do I encourage you to have fun and do the best you can do while ordering from the menu. However, in our busy lives we often eat out even when it is unnecessary simply for the convenience. We don’t have the energy to cook, we don’t feel like doing the dishes after, or maybe we don’t really know how to cook. If you understand the concept of Food as Medicine then you know how important it is to decide what you put in your mouth. Some people have allergies and sensitivities, others are experiencing weight gain, and many are suffering from various diseases. The only real way to control for allergens, pesticides, GMOs, sugar, gluten, dairy, price, and quality is to cook at home. We can’t blame the restaurants; they are simply trying to survive, and are using the rules of supply and demand to do so. We demand affordable, so they supply it, often at the expense of health and sustainability. Instead, I think we need to rearrange our priorities and prepare our meals more often. If you don’t know how, there are endless resources available online now, including this one.

Ciao!

 

 

Ending the war on fat: Victory!

Time_eat butter

 

Have you heard?

Time magazine recently stated a simple, yet important message on their front cover that may come as a surprise to many Americans. The message was to “Eat Butter”, and with this symbolic action the ending of the decades long war on fat began. Time magazine may not be the most progressive form of media on the market today, but it is a very familiar source of information for the average American. When a mainstream publication like Time talks about ending the war on fat I can only conclude that the glory days of non-fat foods are coming to an end. But when will that end be? The Time magazine declaration is similar to president Obama promising to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While it may have seemed like a major change to switch from a war-starting president like Bush to a war-ending president like Obama there were still years worth of steps required to officially withdraw the troops. Despite the endorsement of the president, members of congress had to support the idea, and the generals needed to be consulted as how best to carry out the plan. Similarly, in a complicated web of scientists, government agencies, medical doctors, and food corporations, it is not easy to predict how the end of the war on fat will unfold over the coming decades. One thing seems certain, withdrawing the troops will not happen overnight. The troops in this case, the American consumer, have been receiving a no-fat, low-fat message for decades, and it may take many more decades of education to reverse that message. In addition, just as the Taliban and Al Qaeda refuse to surrender, food companies are unlikely to surrender either. They will continue to supply these products until the customers no longer demand them.

We told you so

Whole food nutritionists, Paleo diet advocates, Ayurvedic practitioners, and Weston Price Foundation members around the country were once again validated, and many likely celebrated this symbolic victory over a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Actually, it is not really clear if this is an actual victory worthy of celebration; after all, we just endured decades of misinformation that likely led to the disease and death of many, many people. Regardless, don’t expect much credit to be given to the various preventive medicine supporters mentioned above, as we are accustomed to being left out of the conversation. You see, there just isn’t much money being made in the field of preventive medicine, and we all know the big players are those that make the big dollars. Pharmaceuticals, hospitals, health insurance, industrial agriculture, and food corporations all generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. There simply isn’t a seat at the table for preventive medicine supporters whose very existence could potentially lead to the reduction of many of these business’s profits. However, be thankful for the power of information because ultimately I believe even the most powerful companies on the planet will at some time have to submit to the amazing tool that is the internet.

Eat Ghee

I’m happy to see that Time magazine, and the mainstream audience they represent, finally recognizes what Ayurveda knew thousands of years ago, that fats are an important component of our diets, and essential for good health. Hey, better late than never, right? You’re only 5000 years late, but I’m glad that you have arrived to the party! Now, I wonder how many years we will have to wait for Time to release an updated cover story that declares we should all “Eat Ghee” instead of butter. Eating butter may be a good step in the right direction, but I’m concerned about this simplistic message. Honestly I didn’t read the article because I didn’t want to pay Time $30 for a year subscription, but I suspect that they didn’t specify the difference between ghee and conventional butter. In Ayurveda, you would start with organically raised cows that grazed on green pastures rather than being fed genetically modified corn and soy grains, antibiotics, and growth hormones. Next you would culture the cream to enhance the digestive process rather than produce sweet cream as a majority of all butter producers now do. Finally, you would take the organic, grass fed, unsalted, cultured butter and process it into the health promoting form known as ghee. I know, that is probably too much to expect of a mainstream magazine, but someday that message will be delivered, and if you are reading this post then you are ahead of the herd and don’t have to wait for that day to come.

 

For some of my related posts see:

The NEW definition of comfort food (with boiled spicy milk recipe)

The “Integrity Food” Revolution

How to make Spicy Oil and take another step beyond the low fat era

Confessions of an Ayurvedic Counselor: Part 2, Meat

How to make ghee and move beyond the low fat era

 

 

 

The Season of Sweet

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“Set the gear shift for the high gear of your soul!!”

-From the lyrics for Run Like an Antelope performed by Phish

 

Locavore

Last week while I was browsing the produce section of my local food co-op I wondered what kind of fruit I should buy. Of course all the options that we are familiar with as Americans came to mind, and were definitely available to me. There were apples, bananas, pears, and oranges, as you would expect. Most of the apples and pears that we eat in this country come from here, Washington State, so that is usually a good option for me. However, this time of year most of the apples and pears we see are being imported from places like New Zealand since their harvest was likely a few months ago, while ours was nearly nine months ago. Instead of looking at these fruits that traveled thousands of miles to get here I focused instead on the many new fruits that are now available with the onset of summer. First we had strawberries, now we have raspberries and coming soon will be the blueberries. The Washington cherries have been amazing lately, and while local grapes, melons and plums are not what this state is known for, at least the California options didn’t require a plane ride across the ocean to reach my mouth. My observations continued as I passed the bulk section and saw the dried figs and dates that I normally buy, but needless to say, I passed on all these usual options and instead loaded my cart with some of the rare treats available now. As the sign on the cherry bin said, “get ‘em while you can”! And get ’em I did, in fact I have been gorging on fresh fruits lately like a black bear in an alpine meadow full of huckleberry.

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Short and sweet

Locavore was the 2007 Word of the Year according to the Oxford American Dictionary, so by now I’m sure we are all familiar with the concept. Evidence of this can be seen in the explosion of farmer’s markets across the country since then. Much has been said of the environmental motivations behind eating local, namely to reduce the miles your food has traveled, and to support smaller scale operations that may be more likely to follow organic methods. Of course there are also other social motivations such as knowing the person who grew your food, and supporting the local economy. From the health perspective we sometimes hear of the health benefits of eating fresh foods, which are much easier to acquire when they are grown nearby. I also wonder if there are even more subtle processes going on within the body; for example, if we eat a summer food during the winter, strawberries perhaps, then are we sending our body confusing biochemical signals? More research is probably needed on that one, and I’ll let you know if I hear anything on that subject. What I do know is that Ayurveda already considers the effects of eating seasonally on your health…

In Ayurveda

Summer is the season of pitta, so according to the Ayurveda tri-dosha philosophy there are certain foods that are better to eat during summer and others to be eaten only in moderation. Sweet is considered to be one of the tastes to balance pitta, along with bitter and astringent, and as we all know there is an abundance of sweet fruit available during the summer. How convenient! Some people may read that and mistakenly interpret this advice as encouragement to eat sugary foods like cookies and cakes, but that is not the intention. When I say that Ayurveda promotes eating sweet foods during the summer I’m talking about naturally sweet foods like plums, not processed foods with concentrated sweeteners added to them. Again, the other two tastes are bitter and astringent, so bitter foods like dark leafy greens, and astringent foods like lentils and beans are important components of a summer diet. The three tastes to eat in moderation during the summer are salty, sour and pungent.

What would Eric eat?

I’m happy to say that my kitchen is now free of all concentrated sweeteners including cane sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave, and even maple syrup. Not only are they absent from my kitchen in whole form, but you won’t even find these on the ingredient list of any products I buy, which is not too difficult since I buy mostly whole foods. The only concentrated sweetener you will find is some raw local honey, which is considered to be a medicinal food in Ayurveda. I know this may sound extreme, but with all the amazing produce available now, there really is no need to eat sugary foods. I’m not so disciplined as to avoid an occasional treat; all things in moderation, right? The point is that with all the sugars available in fruits, vegetables, restaurants, and social gatherings, why have more temptations in your kitchen? We are certainly getting more than enough even with a kitchen as sugar free as mine.

For further information on sugar see my earlier posts:

Our Paleolithic ancestors rarely ate sugar, should we do the same?

Agave *UPDATE* (Best oatmeal recipe ever, for dinner)

 

Sattvic Planet Tips

  • Shop at the farmer’s market, or food co-op
  • Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group
  • Eat local / seasonal
  • In summer eat sweet, bitter and astringent foods
  • Eat salty, sour and pungent foods in moderation
  • Remove concentrated sugars from your kitchen

 

Is Agave really a healthy sweetener?

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Avoid agave?

Recently a friend commented on the inclusion of agave in the recipe from my post Best oatmeal recipe ever, for dinner. She advised me to reconsider the promotion of this popular sweetener due to scientific evidence that conflicts with marketing claims that agave is a healthy sweetener. After a quick search I realized she appears to be correct. Agave is actually comprised of more fructose than the highly targeted high fructose corn syrup. Advocates often tout agave as ranking low on the glycemic index, and therefore eating it allows you to avoid the characteristic blood sugar spike and crash. The problem is that the low glycemic ranking is due to the fact that your body doesn’t know how to properly metabolize highly concentrated fructose. In other words, you get the benefits of sweet taste, and you can avoid the energy spike and crash, but only because you are eating a food that your body doesn’t know how to deal with. Since your body does not metabolize concentrated fructose efficiently researchers think it can lead to a list of serious health problems. See this post by Gary Taubes in the New York Times for details.

Who to trust?

With all the conflicting health and diet information available to us today, it is easy to understand how some bad choices could be made. Everyday we are either: given advice from the federal government, reading a new study from the university, hearing of a new product from our friends, or seeing an advertisement from a corporation. Many of these sources often conflict, so the question becomes, who to believe??? Since each of these sources is sometimes right and sometimes wrong it can be confusing for sure. Here is a brief summary of the agave phenomenon:

  1. High Fructose Corn Syrup and cane sugar came under attack after years of being added to the food supply.
  2. Marketers recognizing a rising public reluctance to buy HFCS and cane sugar advertised agave as a healthy alternative sweetener.
  3. Natural food stores began carrying agave and customers enthusiastically bought the product often advertised as “raw” and “organic”.
  4. Researchers recognized the link between concentrated fructose and multiple serious diseases.
  5. Upon learning of the high fructose content of agave, negative customer reactions begin.

One of the reasons I study Ayurveda is because it has been practiced for thousands of years. Now compare the ancient knowledge of Ayurveda to a new supplement, weight loss drug, or scientific report that has existed for only a few years. If there are negative health effects then hopefully modern science will eventually come to the rescue by revealing the truth, but do you really want to use a product for 10 years before science comes to that conclusion? By using Ayurveda as my guide I hope to avoid the hype of breaking news stories and stick to time tested techniques that are safe and effective.

Alternatives?

Despite this small misstep I think the remainder of my article was rock solid. Let’s not forget that the primary purpose of the article was to recommend avoiding sweets entirely during the morning, and to only eat them in the evening if desired. In my defense, I did mention that sweeteners were optional in the oatmeal recipe, and I also listed maple syrup as an alternative ingredient. I haven’t heard anything terrible yet about maple syrup, so this is what I enjoy on occasion. What about honey you say. Honey is often used in America as a sugar alternative in many recipes and food products, but in Ayurveda the ancient texts clearly state that it is best to avoid heating honey, for health reasons. Instead Ayurveda frequently uses honey for medicinal purposes, but always in a raw form. Agave’s success was born out of a desire to find a healthy sweetener alternative. I believe this way of thinking is where the problem originates. Instead of searching for alternatives we should be trying to minimize our sugar intake from ALL sweeteners. I’m not trying to sound like the sugar Grinch, but we clearly eat too much sweeteners in our modern diet, for a historical perspective see my earlier post Our Paleolithic ancestors rarely ate sugar, should we do the same?

Honesty counts

I posted this update because it represents the ever changing body of knowledge that is food and health science. Even after years of studying and experimenting with food and lifestyle I am still learning. On that note, if you ever see me make a statement that you think is incorrect then I encourage you to please inform me. Until we meet again…

Confessions of an Ayurvedic Counselor: Part 2, Meat

I eat meat. I know that may not be very shocking since most Americans also eat meat, but there is a perception that people following a healthy diet tend to be vegetarians, and that those who eat meat have little concern for their health. More specifically, many people link Ayurveda to beans and rice type meals, and while I do eat beans and rice that is definitely not all I eat. Before we begin I want to be clear that the purpose of this post is NOT to debate whether or not to eat meat. I know that vegetarians have strong opinions on the subject, and I respect their position, but this post is focused more on HOW to eat meat if that is the choice you have already made.

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Bitter is better, eating wilder foods

In modern times technology has played a major role in the growing, processing and cooking of our food. During growing many of the seeds we use are now genetically modified organisms, during processing we add chemicals that are meant to improve taste and lengthen storage time, and during cooking we put our frozen boxed food into microwaves that warm the food in minutes. Over the past few years I’ve been coming to the conclusion that technology is not going to bring us a healthier diet, in fact it appears that technology is ruining our health. Traditional diets show great potential for restoring our health to where it should be. A few examples of traditional diets are the Ayurvedic and the Paleolithic diets. Ayurveda is a healing system focused on diet and digestion that has been practiced in India for thousands of years. The Paleolithic diet is a diet that attempts to mimic the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors that lived prior to the advent of agriculture. When I saw that the guest of a recent Science Friday podcast was Jo Robinson, author of the book “Eating on the Wild Side”, it definitely caught my attention. For those of us who might think that there is no way our primitive ancient ancestors, lacking in the advanced science and technology that we have today, could ever eat a diet better than what we have today, this podcast may influence your thinking.

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Our ancestors rarely ate sugar, should you?

In August of this year, National Geographic magazine released a cover story called “Sugar Love, A not so sweet story”. For those of you who don’t have time to read the story, here is the part I find most relevant. According to scientists in the article, early humans in Africa had access to an abundance of sugar in the form of fruit bearing trees. As their geographic range expanded and they inhabited areas to the north, easily accessible sugar became less common. These early humans needed to adapt to relatively small amounts of sugar for survival. Millions of years ago a mutant gene that allowed the body to process small amounts of sugar very efficiently eventually became the dominant gene as those lacking the gene were less likely to survive. According to the article it wasn’t until 10000 years ago that sugarcane was domesticated in New Guinea. Sugarcane reached mainland Asia around 3000 years ago, and they began processing it in India around 1500 years ago. 500 years ago the Europeans became heavily involved as they established plantations in the Caribbean Islands and South America. It was only 400 years ago that sugar became affordable for the middle class. Imagine that, after millions of years of adapting to low sugar diets, we have suddenly been flooded with heavy volumes of sugar. Today the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually and appears to be suffering as a result. Some scientists are now going so far as to say that they consider excessive sugar to be toxic.

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What is the number one step you can take to improve your health?

I was talking to an old friend a few days ago and he asked me to share any advice I have with him to improve his family’s health. My first thought was that we would need to sit down for a few hours to adequately explain my recommendations, but he is a busy guy and probably looking for some quick and simple advice, so I told him I would think about it. Summarizing this answer is not easy since there are so many factors that determine our health. In Ayurveda, diet is considered one of the three pillars of life, and since my friend was looking for dietary advice that is where I began. This process reminded me of Michael Pollan’s attempt to summarize how best to eat in his book “In Defense of Food”. In that book he concisely concluded that the best way to eat is to: eat real food, eat mostly plants, and don’t eat too much. I find it difficult to argue with that great advice, but perhaps I could take it one step further. I decided to narrow my advice down to a single word, COOK. Coincidentally, Michael Pollan’s latest book is called “Cooked”, but I haven’t read that yet. These days most people are trying to minimize their time spent in the kitchen due to their busy schedules, and this in my humble opinion is a problem. People are trying to save time by buying frozen microwave meals, food in cans, processed food in bags, and eating out at restaurants. What we really need to do is start spending more time in the kitchen preparing meals made from whole food ingredients like carrots, rice and eggs. Stop viewing cooking as a chore that takes time away from more important areas and focus on the act of cooking as a pleasurable and necessary component of achieving optimal health. Listen to your favorite music in the kitchen, or team up with others to share in the work. I often think how nice it is to chop vegetables for dinner after a long day of staring at a computer screen at my job. These days most of us don’t get paid to actually do anything physical. Instead we sit in a chair, type on a keyboard, and slide a mouse across the desk. It really feels good to stand at the counter and chop, stir, or rinse. It can be a meditative experience to calm the mind after a day full of overstimulation. Cooking with whole foods can improve your health because it allows us to focus on seeking fresh local ingredients and to avoid processed foods that contain additives. Cooking also reduces dependence on restaurants that often prepare with an emphasis on convenience, taste and cost. Of course fast food chains come to mind, but many normal restaurants are also guilty of using excessive sugar, salt and butter to improve the taste. Cooking also allows us to know exactly what we are eating since it is usually a mystery as to what kind of ingredients a restaurant is using. Is the meat factory raised? Are they cooking with GMO soybean oil? My friend probably expected me to say his family should eat vegetarian, avoid sugar, or try some newly discovered super food supplement from the Amazon rainforest. Instead, with the need to be concise, I said COOK.