When I was growing up in New South Wales country towns in the 1950s, I lived in a different world. I won’t bore you all with all of my memories of that era seen fondly through rose-coloured glasses; instead I will single out two significant differences to modern times: diet and exercise.
Exercise, for children at my high school, was not optional. School buses were reserved for kids who lived on farms or in villages miles out of town. The rest of us rode bikes or walked to school. My trusty steed was fixed wheel, no brakes, no gears and served my needs well, including a period when I had a 13-mile 400 paper route. I cannot remember any of my friends being driven to school by their parents, nor did any own a car until years after we left that school. Unless the child was medically unfit, supported by a note from parents and doctor, we all had to participate in organized sport every Wednesday afternoon. As our town was almost surrounded by a loop of a big river and was near many coastal beaches there was an additional requirement: no child could choose any other sport until they could swim safely and pass a life-saving certificate. The certificate became more difficult each year, culminating in the Bronze Medallion by the third year of high school. That was in addition to two hours of physical education each week. As I did not really excel at sport, I detested it. But I did it. Consequently over my high school years I became a fairly good squash racquets player in winter, and rowed fours and single sculls in summer. I continued both sports into my early adult years in the RAAF and did not stop playing squash until my 40s, when my ankles gave up on me. Teach the child and the adult follows.
The good thing about our diet at that time was our blissful ignorance of the dangers of dietary fat. Maybe mothers in the big city had heard of the “benefits” of eating lots of whole grains and avoiding fats, but ours had not. My mother, like most, followed the teaching of her mother. We spent many summer holidays at my grandfather’s property on the western plains. When he killed a sheep nothing was wasted. The hide became sheepskin and almost everything else eventually appeared on the dinner-table in one form or another. One of my favorite treats was bread’n'dripping; dripping is the solidified fats and juices on the base of the roasting tray. Mmm…
Mum’s cooking was similar. Nothing fancy; nearly always meat and three or four vegetables, with some of those vegetables grown in our backyard. We ate very little processed food, because that was expensive. We often ate cold roast meats or corned beef and salads in summer. My favorite foods were field mushrooms we collected, cooked in butter, or fish we caught. We ate lots of eggs because we kept chooks at the bottom of the backyard, but we didn’t eat chicken unless one of the chooks stopped laying and became eligible to be dinner instead. Starches were included, but not at every meal, and were usually potatoes, corn or rice in fairly small portions. Fat was neither abundant – meat was too expensive for that – nor avoided. Our society was not as multicultural then as now, so spaghetti was a rare treat and we knew no other pasta. We ate butter on our bread. Mum tried margarine a couple of times but we hated it, so we went back to butter. We fought over getting the cream from the top of the milk for our cereal. That cereal was probably the most carbs I ate all day but often we had bacon and eggs instead. School lunch was a simple sandwich, usually salad of some sort, with a piece of fruit for morning recess. Sugared soft drinks were a rare treat, although we sometimes made our own ginger beer. Eating out at restaurants was reserved for very special occasions. Fast food was fish and chips once a month.
Looking back at the menu with today’s eyes, it was a lot lower in starches and sugars and much higher in fat than the diets advised by most dieticians today. I ate well but I did not get fat. Nor did my school-friends. There were over 1200 students at my high school. I can recall only two or three that were overweight enough to be called fat, but they would not have been termed obese in today’s society. Nor do I recall more than a handful of significantly overweight adults in my small town of 15,000.
How did we go from that to headlines like this: Australia is today ranked as one of the fattest nations in the developed world. The prevalence of obesity in Australia has more than doubled in the past 20 years?
My own history tells some of the story. As time passed and I went to the city I started changing my menu to cereal for breakfast and more pastas, rice, potatoes and corn. While I was young and active not much changed physically, but as I slowly became more sedentary and changed my menu my waistline started to expand. That became worse as my family grew and we had to economize. We found pastas, cereals and grains to be cheaper than meats and fish. We thought that was good at the time because we were being told those foods were healthier for us than meats.
The most dramatic change occurred in the mid ’70s when my father, who had never been overweight but suffered from malaria and other problems after his WWII service in the islands, became ill and eventually died from heart problems. I started reading a lot about heart-healthy diets and saw a dietician. Everything I read told me to avoid fat like the plague and to eat lots of healthy whole grains and other starches; the dietician reinforced that advice. Unfortunately I never encountered any information on low carb during that period. I followed the advice carefully and could not understand why my weight went up instead of down. I joined a gym and cut back drastically on the calories following the beguilingly simplistic – and terribly flawed – advice to move more and eat less. That was when I started a repetitive cycle of weight loss and gain with yo-yo dieting for over twenty years. I had my fat clothes, my thin clothes and my in-between clothes.
I never actually decided to change to a low carbohydrate way of eating. I sought a low-blood-glucose-spike way of eating to control my diabetes. It turns out that striving for one eventually led to the other.
Everything in Moderation – Except Laughter.