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Abundance is the famine of today

ON September 13, 1845, the Gardeners' Chronicle printed a Stop Press -- a story so urgent that the presses printing the paper had to be stopped to add the article.

"We stop the press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland," its reporter wrote.

Blight had spread across Europe to devastating effect, but Ireland was a special case, because the vast majority of the population lived almost entirely on potatoes and buttermilk, with a little 'kitchen' (sauce) of cabbage or, perhaps once or twice a year, meat.

This was reckoned to be a healthier diet than the English peasant's bread and cheese and ale. The vitamin C and carbohydrate of the potatoes and the low-fat protein in the buttermilk built strong muscle, sturdy bones and glowing flesh.

The famine resulted in a population drop of an estimated two million in Ireland. How ironic that today, 165 years after a famine that left a population scarred, we are suffering diseases often brought about by abundance: obesity, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes.

So should we go back to that pre-Famine diet of potatoes and buttermilk? Probably not, looking at the results of a famous study that changed ideas on diet and illness.

The 'China Project' run by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell University and Oxford University covered 65 rural Chinese counties, whose populations live wildly different lives and ate a wide variety of different diets.

The scientists found that high-fat, meaty diets were a deadly source of disease.

They came to three conclusions:

>The greater the variety of plant-based foods in the diet, the greater the benefit.

>If there is plant-food variety, quality and quantity, a healthy diet is possible without animal-based food.

>The closer the food is to its native state, and the less heating, salting and processing, the better.

Naturalist Michael Pollan agrees. His Food Rules was a worldwide bestseller -- it is a slim book of advice from a scientific background.

Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food, he suggests -- steer clear of food-in-a-tube, artificially constructed ingredients such as 'hydrolised vegetable protein', pre-packed 'meals' and breakfast cereals that change the colour of the milk.

Buy a freezer, and fill it up with fresh food bought in bulk when it's cheap and in season.

Drink a little wine, Pollan kindly advises. Pay more for good quality ingredients -- fresh and well grown. Serve your food on small plates, but only serve one, decent-sized portion. Plant a garden, or even a windowbox. Eat meals, not snacks, and eat them with your family.

Should we see it as sad that this kind of advice is necessary to us fatsos -- or a triumph over hunger? Probably both. Our ancestors would look at us in astonishment -- but in wonder, or in horror?