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Dietary Design: How Nutritional Science Clashes with a Cultural Food System

Three words: Bread. Speck. Cheese. During my two weeks

Knodel: A traditional cheese dumpling, this one with a sage butter sauce. Knodel were traditionally calorie-dense meals created by peasants to use up old bread that was too hard and nutritionally insignificant to eat on its own.

touring the Sud Tirol region of Northern Italy this past month, these three items were the highlight of every meal, every day of the week. Raw mountain cheese was found incorporated into a variety of warm dishes and cold plates. Speck, a famous regional cold-smoked meat could be tasted in dumplings, soups, and contributing a salty, savory flavor to almost anything you could pair it with. Bread-making is an art form in the Alpine landscape, made most often with spelt, wheat and rye flour and flavored with herbs and spices such as anise, pears and fennel. Bread accompanies any dish whether alongside cold cuts and figs at breakfast, formed into Knodel dumplings and broth as a midday meal, or used to soak up the drippings of a hearty portion of braised young sheep and roasted potatoes at dinner. As delicious and soul-satisfying these staples were, I couldn’t help but notice the composition of what was on my plate every day: fat, carbs, salt and hardly any vegetables or fruits. As I looked up from my plate and around at the local residents, I also noticed the composition of the people. and women who held the strong stature and rugged posture of artisan laborers and diverse farming communities. There exists a wide range of weights and body compositions just like in any country, but for the most part, these people looked much healthier than many Americans. Several farmers we spoke with in the Vinschgau and Dorf Tirol regions boasted how they had been well into their 60’s before ever setting foot in a doctor’s office. Furthermore, Italy has one of the lowest obesity rates and deaths due to cardiovascular disease of any country in the world. I found this odd; how could these people eat salty meats, rich sauces, and traditional breads and cheeses every day of their lives, all the while avoiding the high cholesterol, heart disease, and trending obesity that is so harped upon in American culture? From a very young age our American millennial generation learns to avoid red meat, that carbs will make us gain weight, and to eat something green with every meal. We are taught how many servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains we require in our diets each day for optimum health, all the vitamins and minerals necessary to prevent disease, and to exercise regularly to live a long, healthy life. We trust nutritional science above all else and put faith into the doctors and nutritionists who have spent years of their lives figuring out how to keep our bodies healthy.

But what if by some chance they were wrong? How can the the Tirolean people eat the diet they do, so contrary to American recommendations, and still maintain such excellent health? Brent Pottenger points out in Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life that it has only been in the last few decades that we have been given nutritional standards to

A typical start to any high mountain meal: Mountain cheese, speck (cold smoked meat), Tirolean Grey cheese, Kaminwerst, and assorted hard breads and butter.

follow based on reduction, moderation, theories, and uniform calculated daily allowances. Contradictory recommendations about criteria such as how much cereal to eat and whether or not to eat animal products, has completely disregarded how humans have reached this point in our evolution in the first place. “One size fits all is a size that fits no one.” Pottenger and author Nora T. Gedgaudas explain that nutritional science has all but destroyed our ability and inherent reaction to listen to our bodies and consume what is right for our activity levels, bodily needs, and life stages. They use the example of red meat to demonstrate how FDA and medical recommendations provide quick-fix solutions to dietary fluctuations without considering the entire picture of health. Our doctors tell us to avoid red meat, so what do we do? We naturally increase our starch and processed food intake to fill us up during meal times. This creates spikes in sugar and salt intakes, insulin overload and a tendency to crave foods that are not so good for us. Then we are right back at those doctors’ offices with perfect cholesterol, but now signs of diabetes, hypertension, weight gain, and fatigue. Dr. George V. Mann, researcher with the Framingham Heart Study has been quoted saying, “The diet-heart hypothesis (that suggests that high intake of fat and cholesterol causes heart disease) has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies, and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.” The Sud Tirolean culture is heavily rooted in regional food traditions. Their values encompass the family table, fresh local foods that support their fellow community members, and enjoying satisfying, warm meals after a day navigating the steep slopes and working hard at their trades. Their bodies and activities call for high caloric intakes. They rarely uses any processed or artificial ingredients. Their culinary techniques of non-pasteurized, smoked and fermented foods have supplied the microbes and high macronutrient tolerances their guts need to comfortably process their meals.

This diet works for them and it has held strong presence in the Alpine culture for generations. Is this wrong? Is this unhealthy? How can our American nutritionists and scientists determine that the nutrient content these people consume is inadequate, if the physical evidence proves otherwise? They are alive. They are healthy. And they are much less obsessed with counting calories and checking the nutrient contents of processed food supplements than Americans are. For a typical American, converting to a meat, cheese, and

Braised beef with root vegetables and potatoes au gratin with herbs.

bread-based diet would be a catastrophe. The way these products are conventionally produced in the States, and the low level of daily activity that most Americans conduct would not contribute the same effects of satiation and wellness that the Sud Tirolean people are able to experience with their historical traditional diets. However this observation of nutrition science vs. cultural traditions has further emphasized the value of respecting and listening to our own unique body compositions. Our diets should be made up of good foods, not chemicals and garbage. To eat well does not mean to painstakingly track nutrient intakes on your smartphone, while analyzing your caloric turnover every time you eat a meal. It means eating what makes you feel good and healthy (not stuffed and lethargic). If you feel sluggish, you probably need more leafy greens and vegetable nutrients. If you’re starving throughout the day, you should be aiming for more protein and fiber. If grains make you feel bloated, don’t freak out and jump into the gluten-free craze, simply moderate your intake and try ancient and whole grain varieties that are more palatable and less starchy. Don’t eat things that aren’t grown in nature or on a sustainable farm. What are your opinions on this? Have you ever experienced instances where eating according to your bodily functions helped you achieve wellness? What are some things you avoided or added to your diet to help your functionality? Leave it in the comments below or shoot us an email with some tips we can share.

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