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A Better Tasting Cookie and The Fall of The Roman Empire

By Trevor Connor, M.S., CEO
July 2, 2015
A Better Tasting Cookie and The Fall of The Roman Empire image

We nutrition geeks like to immerse ourselves in the science. We debate nutrient ratios, plant-animal caloric balance, sustainability, and the all-important question of whether the modern day cantaloupe even remotely resemble its ancient sisters. All pressing issues that no one standing around the water cooler at the local gym has ever discussed.

So I relish those moments when someone has the guts to finally stand up and state the "real" issue with the Paleo diet:

Our cookies suck!

Honestly, they do. In all our years of extolling the virtues of lean meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods, we've forgotten about the joys of mixing flour and sugar and butter in a big bowl and licking every last bit of that gooey goodness off our spatula. We offer you carrot, almond, and coconut alternatives that we slyly tell you taste just as good. But we're lying.

And we've been called out…

A few mornings ago, I was setting about cooking my usual very-Paleo and, therefore, remarkably “un-fun” breakfast. Which always reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Simpson quotes. Bart asks Marge if he can have cake (I believe) for breakfast. Horrified, Marge proclaims "No way, mister! It's just chocolate chip pancakes and syrup for you!" Get it? No one gets it. They're the same thing…

So with my Paleo no-chocolate-chip-pancakes-to-be-seen breakfast, I sat down to Flipboard and began reading the morning's nutrition news. And I came across the following article by a woman who nearly lost the meaning of life trying to cook a Paleo-friendly cookie:

I Went Paleo and Now I Hate Everything

Let me start by saying that this was one funny article.

As I read it, I of course found my mind wandering to the fall of the Roman Empire (which may also explain why people give me a very perplexed look anytime they try to have a conversation with me.) Or it could just be that I read the following line in the article:

"Remember when we cared about things? Remember when our great aunt sat us on the counter of her kitchen in Rome and we watched her fold tortellini by hand, which she made just for us?"

We’ll address that line, but first let’s get back to the fall of the Roman Empire.

In my high school history class, the big end of year project was a debate over what caused the Roman collapse. The winner of the debate found an old text by an 18th century historian named Edward Gibbons called The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.1

The gist of the book – Rome fell due to a loss of “civic virtue.”

Our winning debater talked about how the rise of the Empire was characterized by an industrial character. Roman citizens sacrificed immediate gratification for the greater good. Then he talked about the decline with a very poignant example:

In the later days, Romans would have all day feast where they would gorge themselves and then go “expel” their food so they could keep eating. Roman homes even had a room called a “vomitorium” designed solely for that purpose. Which is actually an urban myth, but hey, it was a high school history debate. You get away with what you can get away with.

He concluded with a remark that may have had some broader wisdom – great empires are marked by self-sacrifice for a higher purpose while a shift to instant gratification may spell their doom.

So let’s get back to the cookie.

Our Paleo-cookie-hater asked “remember when we cared about things?” A comment that then led to images of her great aunt making tortellini and her childhood self-eating “carbs with abandon.”

And I have to ask back, is that really what we cared about when we “cared about things?”

I never met my great aunt, but I’ve had many talks with my grandmother. She told me about how her father used to work 13 hours each day putting his needs aside to provide for his family and how during the Great Depression, her Christmas present was an apple. There may also have been a comment about walking uphill barefoot in two feet of snow to school, but hey, she’s 97. She can say these things.

It does seem that what she cared about had a lot to do with sacrifice and not the instant gratification of eating carbs with abandon.

Perhaps that’s the problem. In an age where Doritos, high fructose corn syrup, and fast food mark the decline and fall of the “healthy diet,” my high school debate friend could make a very poignant argument about the danger in making the instant gratification of a better tasting cookie the benchmark of a great diet.

So yes, our cookies don’t taste as good.

Some of us eat those Paleo carrot and almond “mushy chunks” because we do actually remember when we truly cared about something: a little short term sacrifice for a greater purpose – health, longevity, and a more productive life.

I was reminded of that fact a few weeks ago when I visited my grandmother in her assisted retirement home. She took me to their dining hall for dinner. Since you never say “no” to your grandmother, I smiled and ate mashed potatoes and cake with ice cream.

I won’t lie. After years of eating the Paleo Diet those tasty foods that give life meaning weren’t all that satisfying anymore. Not compared to a slow-cooked salmon steak or Brussels sprouts with turkey bacon… yes, I said Brussels sprouts.

More importantly, as I looked around the retirement home I noticed people who were closer to my age than I wanted to admit.

But what I thought about was all of the people I wasn’t seeing. The still-not-yet-old 50- and 60-somethings in the hospital unable to care for themselves because of decades of enjoying the instant gratification of great tasting food, cigarettes, and watching television over a walk in the park.

I’ve been to those hospitals and I can tell you one thing for sure - the cookies suck.


[1] Gibbon, E., et al., The history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire. A new edition. ed. 1783, London: Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell ...

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