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Eating Well in the 21st Century

Is it possible that our great-grandparents were eating more optimally than we are?

By Dr. Randy Bivens

Let’s begin with a puzzling thought: a recent article by a financial analyst suggests that it is now cheaper to eat at a fast-food restaurant than to cook at home. I don’t know about you, but the first thought that crossed my mind was, How is this possible? Has our food system really come down to this? 

But wait; maybe there’s more to the story. Shortly after the article was published, The New York Times published an op-ed that compared a typical McDonald’s meal for four people against a meal of pinto beans and rice for four people. Not only was the nutrition of the beans and rice (which included onion, pepper, and seasoning) much better than the McDonald’s meal, but it was also 67 percent cheaper.

Recently, I heard someone say that we should be eating more like our great-grandparents. Think about it—it makes a lot of sense. Eating the way our great-grandparents did would significantly reduce the cost of food for the average person, not to mention curtail our astonishingly high intake of preservatives and hormones.

Take my great-grandmother for example. Nearly all of the meals she created were made using her old wood stove. She canned hundreds of quarts of fruits and vegetables that were usually plucked from her own garden. She and my great-grandfather would eat a huge breakfast, a large lunch, and a fairly small meal in the late afternoon. They also ate things that they could grow and had a huge garden, a variety of berries, and a large orchard. Not only that, she and my great-grandfather could probably count on their hands the number of times that they dined at restaurants in their lifetimes. 

Obviously, eating this way would require more time to prepare meals. Over the last several decades, we’ve been trained to want a “faster” and “easier” mode of doing everything. We have time-saving gadgets and options so plentiful, that the idea of cooking a filling, healthy meal rather than driving to obtain one in a paper bag might seem old-fashioned and impractical.

The goal for those of us trying to maintain or improve our health is to prepare most of our foods from healthy ingredients. Ideally, many are products that we grew in our own gardens, or from a farmers’ market, or, at the very least, aren’t packed full of chemicals and disease.

We like to tell people to shop at the edges of the store because that’s where a lot of the good stuff lives. Things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains are often found around the edge. Ironically, the things in boxes often live in the center of the store. Usually, these are highly processed, and their origins, as well as their nutritional value, can be ill-defined.

In our fast-paced society, we need to develop strategies that reduce prep time. Cooking can be a social thing, but usually people just need to get it done and move on. By eating more of our foods raw, we can obviously reduce prep time while getting the highest nutrition possible from that product. 

Other strategies can be developed to make prep time about the same as going to a fast-food restaurant. For example, you can cook a large meal and store the second half of it in your freezer for another day. Cooking meals ahead of time and freezing them is an excellent way to provide yourself with an easy meal on a busy day. Some foods which are used in many different dishes can be prepared at the beginning of the week and stored in the refrigerator. This will save you the step of chopping, cutting, or peeling later on. 

Ultimately, time—not money—seems to be the biggest excuse. People state that they simply do not have time to eat right. They are too busy to shop for food and fix it for themselves. If you are part of this group, consider this: a 2020 study has shown that exercising for just 11 minutes a day can increase your longevity.1 Doubtless, the same positive adjustment will be found when you choose to cook and eat healthy food instead of a hyper-processed food product tossed into the deep fat fryer. In 2021, the average American was watching around three hours of television per day and spending around 13 hours engaging with all types of media.2 Take one of those hours and dedicate it to cooking yourself a beautiful dinner. You’ll be able to do it with time to spare, I assure you. The time is there; we simply need to prioritize. 

Here are some simple rules for eating healthfully and living longer:

1. Eat a large breakfast. Consume 75 percent of your calories in the first two meals (breakfast and lunch).

2. Have only a light meal in the evening with foods such as soup, cereal, or a small sandwich—mainly foods that are easy to digest.

3. Remember to consume plenty of water.

4. Consume 10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

5. Eat a level handful of nuts each day.

6. Since 20 percent of all calories now come from snack foods, eliminate snacks.

7. Choose whole grains—whole wheat bread, whole grain cereals, and brown rice.

8. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit juice.

9. Eat more legumes.

10. Learn to read food labels.

The subject of nutrition can be confusing and appear daunting, especially with the conflicting opinions people throw around on the Internet and TV. In our desire to live longer and feel better about ourselves, remember that good nutrition is one of the best ways to get there, and you can get there!


  1. Dana Santas, “You'll live longer if you move 11 minutes a day. Here are 3 ways to get going,” CNN Health, Jan. 6, 2021. 

  2. Audrey Schomer, “US adults will consume almost as much media in 2021, but TV viewing will backslide,” June 6, 2021, eMarketer.

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About the author

Dr. Randy Bivens graduated from Loma Linda School of Medicine, completing first an internal medicine internship and then a diagnostic radiology residency. In addition to serving as president of Life and Health Network, Dr. Bivens is also president of Bivens Medical Corporation, an imaging consulting service.