Opinion: Food cultured – what moving to Denmark taught me about real food

I never thought much about the concept of real food while growing up in America in the 1970s and 80s. But now that I’ve moved halfway around the world to little old Denmark, where food traditions remain strong, I’ve gained a new perspective on what went wrong in the States, and what it actually takes to eat healthily for the long haul.

A diluted US food culture
I come from a middle-class family in a medium-sized city in western New York State. When I was in fifth grade, I had my first health class where they told us to eat less sweets and fried food, more fruits and vegetables, and exercise regularly. But if it was so important, then why did most of my meals consist of things like peanut butter and fluff on white bread, dried fruit snacks with no real fruit in them, and over-caffeinated green sodas?

Well, it wasn’t always like this in America. My great-grandparents, who came over on the boat from Germany, would certainly have know what real food was and passed that knowledge along as best they could to my grandfather. But like other immigrant families, strong cooking traditions slowly got diluted through marriage and exposure to other cultures, making people more susceptible to new, more convenient ‘food-like’ alternatives.

My mother’s generation of the 1950s and 60s were no match for the new food innovations at the time like freeze-dried mixes, microwaves and TV dinners. Cooking became assembly. And to this day in the US you still need to differentiate between ‘homemade’ (assembled at home) and ‘from scratch’ (actually made from basic whole ingredients).

By the time I came around, any semblance of a traditional eating culture had been replaced by whatever the food industry decided to call healthy that week, and my idea of real food was pretty much non-existent. How could things have gone so wrong in just a few generations?

An invisible food force-field
Well, it took moving to Denmark ten years ago to start putting it together. And it wasn’t because the food itself looked drastically different to the ‘meat and potatoes’ I grew up with. The big difference was in how it was prepared and consumed.

Danes ate things with simple ingredients like raw oats and milk for breakfast, put effort into food preparation like whipping cream by hand, and treated food with respect by continuing to eat meals around a table. Fast food and processed snacks were as available here, but somehow the Danes were protected by an invisible food ‘force-field’ that had been passed down to them from their parents and relatively unchanged for generations.

But don’t get me wrong: the traditional Danish food culture also has its challenges. Many popular dishes contain excess amounts of red and processed meat and lack fresh fruits and vegetables. My wife and I realised that if we wanted to really get on track with our diet, we had to start questioning everything from the bottom up.

For years we read up on popular food and health research, and debated over the findings around our own dinner table. We experimented with organic food prep boxes like Årstiderne, ate more vegetarian and pescatarian (vegetarian + seafood) meals, and grew food in our own backyard garden. But even as we started eating healthier it was becoming more and more difficult to balance other important considerations like our environmental impact and concerns about animal welfare, not to mention the practical and social implications of our choices.

10 practical guidelines to healthier eating
In order to navigate this complex and sometimes contradictory food choice landscape, we needed to establish some basic ground rules. And here are the ten guiding principles (see video below!) we landed on:

  1. Never cheap out on food. Why? Because there’s an old saying that “without your health you have nothing”. We’re willing to bet on it.
  2. Eat a plant-based diet as your baseline. Why? Because scientific evidence points to vegetarians living longer, healthier lives. Luckily, when we decided to try this out, food delivery companies like Årstiderne were making experimenting a lot easier with convenient fish and vegetarian-themed meal preparation boxes.
  3. Eat a lot of the medium-sized, fatty fish. Why? Because many medium-sized fish contain loads of healthy omega acids, without the heavy metals that can build up in larger fish. That was good news for us in Denmark where herring (sild) and mackerel (makrel) are traditional favourites and easy to come by.
  4. Make meals from scratch and snack on whole foods. Why? Because your body knows what to do with real food. And when we do buy things premade we make sure it only has essential, pronounceable ingredients. This is one of the easiest rules to follow because most Danes, including my wife, grew up in households where cooking at home was still the rule and eating out a very infrequent treat. Making food at home also promotes social bonding around meals – something that has become lost in many families in the States.
  5. Stay away from red and processed meal. Why? Because whether it’s the red meat itself, or the lack of plants as a result, too much meat from four-legged animals has been shown to increase the risk of getting heart disease and cancer. Limiting red meat is also the single best thing you can do as an individual to reduce greenhouse emissions from factory farming. In Denmark, where there are twice as many pigs as people, this proved to be one of the bigger challenges. Pork is the main dish in many traditional meals, and processed deli meats (pålæg) are common lunchtime ingredients. Which leads me to #6 …
  6. That thing I said about red meat … except sometimes when it’s served by family or friends. Why? Because a little red meat won’t kill us, and the social aspect of eating shouldn’t be underestimated when trying to stick to a healthy diet. This comes in especially handy at Christmas when pork roast (flæskesteg) is the centerpiece of many family’s meals.
  7. Spend the extra money on organic whenever it’s an option. Why? Because being organic alone doesn’t necessarily mean that it tastes better, or provides better nutrition, but it certainly contains fewer pesticides that haven’t ‘yet’ been proven harmful. Luckily, access to organic choices is on the rise in Denmark like other Western countries and prices are becoming more reasonable as a result.
  8. Spend the extra money on local and in-season whenever it’s an option. Why? Because things grow locally and in-season tend to taste better and supporting our local food economy just makes sense. Some of the best places to find locally produced foods is at weekly farmers’ markets in the bigger cities like Aarhus and Copenhagen. But even there you need to be careful because some stands round out their offerings in the winter with fruits and vegetables shipped from halfway around the world.
  9. Approach eating with a 90 percent success rate expectation. Why? Because we are in it for the long game. For us it makes more sense to allow ourselves a less-than-perfect weekend here and there as part of our plan, than be too rigid and risk giving up when we can’t stay on track. Of course the trick is to not kid ourselves into thinking that 50 percent is the same as 90 percent.
  10. Try to follow the latest evidence even if it goes against a long-held belief or habit. Why? Because we don’t think any single piece of food is worth compromising our long-term health – even bacon! And even though many of the things we think right now will be proven wrong as more studies comes out, we’d still rather err on the side of existing science, and adjust our beliefs as we go.

It’s not the knowing, it’s the doing
Those guidelines are definitely not perfect. They’re probably not ambitious enough for some of you, and too rigid for others. But don’t take my word for it –most of that advice can be found no further than both the US and Danish Health Departments’ current recommendations. Man, I could have saved a lot of money on books!

For most people it’s not about knowing the right thing to do, it’s actually doing it. For me it took switching countries midway through life and marrying someone who loves to cook and thinks it’s fun to talk about nutrition.

But that’s probably not on the cards for everyone, so the most important piece of advice I can pass along is just to begin taking food more seriously, because absolutely nothing is more important than your health, and nothing affects it as much as what you put in your stomach.

So don’t wait. Start with small steps like dropping the cola from your supermarket list, spending a little more for organic apples, or trying out a vegetarian recipe for dinner tonight, and then see how you feel afterwards. Your fifth grade self will be impressed!

For more information see here.