There could not possibly have been a time when eating was as “unnatural” a matter as it is today.
Food Just Is
After all, for the longest time, having any food at all was a rather stronger concern than what particular food would be particularly good for you. Therefore, “You’ll eat what’s put on the table” was the usual attitude – and it must have been, since it was, for the vast majority of people, that you either ate what was available to you, or you starved.
Of course, habits and traditions still have the greatest of influence. Most people, it is rather likely, don’t ever get to eating, let alone cooking, very differently from what they got used to. Even if it is, nowadays, only junk food they eat, at least it will be the junk food that they know and like. Some exotic flavors may become popular, but as a maker of convenience foods was once quoted in a local magazine as saying, when you introduce “Chinese” food to Austria, for example, it has to taste a bit like Wiener Schnitzel.
(Other case in point: potato chips in China come in flavors such as blueberry, lemon, or cucumber because Chinese wouldn’t want to eat “heating” spicy flavors in the summer. “Local” flavors are provided in junk food everywhere… and even the “exotic” is adapted.)
Obsessing About Food
There is also a very strong trend of considering food in extremely aware ways, avoiding certain ingredients strongly out of concern about their healthfulness, for example. Diets, in this context, are no longer what people usually eat (“the diet of the …. mainly consists of”), but the ways people try to eat in order to lose weight and/or eat more healthily.
It is not bad, at least, when problems with a person’s usual way of eating are recognized. They can be a great drag on health, fitness, and happiness, after all.
The problem with dieting, as is well-recognized, is that it doesn’t usually lead to lasting change. A juice fast may be a way to quickly shed some pounds, but it’s more akin to the exercise in willpower and a “and now, for something completely different” in one’s life that participating in one’s first marathon may be. Motivation quickly wanes, and even if it doesn’t because there is a good result, enduring habits cannot be changed to that way of dieting radically. The diet stops, old habits resume, the yoyo effect is proving itself a notorious friend.
Some of the diets that have become more and more popular recently are ways of eating, at least. Low-carb, slow-carb, paleo have joined vegetarianism and veganism as ways of giving structure to how one can eat differently from and more healthily than in the unthinking consumption of whatever is easily available.
Looking at all the different foods that different human societies around the world draw their nutrition from, it is possible to eat in very different ways, keep fit and stay healthy. (Greatly recommended reading on that: “What I Eat. Around the World in 80 Diets.” article on brainpickings / book at amazon.com)
There are only two caveats:
Junk food and the general modern overabundance of easily digestible carbohydrates is not doing us any good.
People think they are just drinking, and then drink not water but soft drinks. In effect, you could just as well eat a big plate of sugar. Add in all the “quick” carbohydrates from bread, pasta and potatoes, and you could just as well be in a factory designed for fattening hogs.
From a health (obesity, that is) standpoint, a diet focused more on protein (typically: meat) may be better. It has other downsides, not least in not delivering nearly the variety of micronutrients that a highly diverse plant-based diet provides – and vegetarianism also needs to be done well, or there may be a lack of protein and B-Vitamins.
Environmentally speaking, focusing on meat is very problematic – but again, tofu from GM soy, grown in deforested Brazilian monocrop operations and shipped halfway around the world. is probably less ethical and has more of a negative impact than meat from animals locally raised as part of agroecological operations.
The point is not the usual focus on what to eat, and what to avoid, though. Eating is not a religion.
The important thing to look for is to create a fitting personal way of eating food. One can obviously have great results – health- and body weight-wise – with the paleo and slow-carb diets that lean heavily towards protein. And one can also be an ultra-endurance athlete while eating a vegan diet eschewing any animal products.
Unless you have learned to eat in a foodway that has a long tradition, consists of real food that is cooked at home and not processed in a factory, and suits your circumstances (especially levels of physical activity), start experimenting. Pick a way of eating and see what effect it has on your weight and well-being. Don’t fall for a diet that promises quick results immediately, but go in for the long haul.
Teach yourself to be aware of what you eat and learn to eat real food again rather than the junk that so many of us have become accustomed to, and that caters to the worst of human instincts about eating. Learn to listen to your body and to teach it how immediately pleasurable tastes are often much worse for you, especially in the modern overabundance catering to them, than the acquired tastes of bitter greens and the like.
Get out of the supermarket, and to the next, real, green market. In that regard, simple guidelines can provide an interesting impetus: Aim for “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.” and there could be quite a bit of change. Quit buying whatever comes in a plastic bag, and you will end up with hardly any processed foods ;)
Cook like your great-grandparents. Or check out real Chinese food. Or real anything. You’ll find lots of vegetables and leafy greens, not so few bitter herbs and “superfoods”, meat and animal fats whenever possible (which may be quite limited – or not).
Just, find a way of eating. A foodway. A way of enjoying an active life, including the preparation and pleasurable eating of said food, again getting together what has always belonged together: how you live, where you live, and what you eat. Just what a foodway is and has always been.