This Site Has Moved

I moved the blog some time ago to Please join in the discussion over there!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Food - America's Foe

A few days ago, Robb Wolf wrote a post about breakfast. In this post, he had one line that stood out for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's in bold and all caps. This line was: "FOOD IS NOT YOUR FRIEND, YOUR SOUL MATE OR THE ANSWER TO YOUR PROBLEMS." I've been thinking about this line a bit since reading his post. Now I know where he was going with this line of thought. Many people turn to food when they are sad or stressed or just plain having a bad day. He's saying to stop expecting food to make your life better, especially since the foods we turn to during these times rarely resemble a spinach and salmon salad. He's saying that Haagen-Dazs isn't going to fix whatever is driving you to need Haagen-Dazs. And I completely agree with him when we're talking about unhealthful foods.

Now I want to look at this quote from the opposite line of thinking. Maybe the problem in America is that we don't treat food as our friend nor as the answer to our (health) problems. In America, we have a very clear love-hate relationship with food. We love eating. We love eating a lot, and we love eating junk food, but we treat food as an adversary, a guilty pleasure, always something to be denied, denied, denied. We battle food for supremacy over our waistlines. And when we can no longer deny ourselves, we turn to foods that make us feel worse about ourselves. We think "My life sucks. I'll just have this bag of cookies and that'll make me feel better," and then an hour later, we're coming down from the sugar rush, cursing ourselves for being weak-willed and indulging, and life still sucks. Maybe it's America's Puritanical roots that force us to think any food that is remotely satisfying is "bad" and only the most bland, tasteless cardboard is "good". We have to make sure nary a gram of fat crosses our lips lest our food actually taste good and satisfy our desires.

What I propose is to start looking at food as your friend. You wouldn't keep friends that make you feel bad about yourself and constantly run you down, so why allow food to do so? Friends should make you feel good. They tell you that you're good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like you. If your friends said "Hey Stupid! There's no way you'll get that promotion. You're just not good enough," they wouldn't be your friends for long. We (hopefully) surround ourselves with people that build us up, not with those that tear us down. We should do the same with our nutrition plans. Why do all of our celebrations revolve around the absolute worst food available? Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Christmas, the list goes on. All of our holidays are bread and sugar fests and then the sleepy feeling after eating is blamed on the turkey, the so-called "Tryptophan Coma", as if the mashed potatoes, rolls, candied yams, and pumpkin pie had nothing to do with it. We should indulge in and celebrate foods that give us energy, not those that make us want to fall asleep.

Why can't food be the answer to our problems? Food is a powerful drug. It is the original drug and one that many people (and all other animals) use to great effect for staying healthy. By taking a proactive approach and indulging in the proper foods, foods that are friendly to your body, we can make foods the answer to many of our problems. A great majority of the health ills of our modern culture are driven from poor diet. In those cases, food is most certainly the answer to our problems. Instead of seeking foods that torment our bodies by causing all kinds of hormonal wackiness (which are often the very effects that make us feel good while eating them), we should proactively seek foods that set us up for a lifetime of health, vigor, and vitality. Sure, no amount of food is going to get you out of debt or get your kids off of drugs, but it may help you feel better so you can deal with the other issues you're facing. Perhaps if we alleviated our health problems with the proper foods, we would find that our other problems are easier to deal with, cookie cake not required. At the very least, clearing away health problems will give you that many fewer things to deal with.

Unfortunately, finding foods that are good to your body necessarily means declaring some foods to be "bad". Obviously there are foods that should not be eaten at all, namely trans fats, and those that should be eaten in extreme moderation, i.e., sugars and processed junk. Since we're thinking about food as our friend, let's look at it this way. Friends should support our life goals and help us further our dreams and ambitions. If we want to have a good relationship with food, we need to pick foods that keep us on track with our goals as well. Few of us have the goal of being overweight, diabetic, and generally diseased, yet many of us continually choose a diet that promotes those very things. I posted David Seaman's Dietary Pursuit of Disease, which touched on this very subject. The foods you pick clearly illustrate your life goals just as the friends you surround yourself with illustrate your life goals.

As Michael Pollan tells us in The Omnivore's Dilemma, a problem that we have in the States is that we don't really have a national cuisine. France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Japan, and India, to name a few, all have a cuisine that guides their food choices. Sure there are regional variations in spices and flavors, but all in all, you know an Italian or Greek dish when you see it, smell it, and taste it. As a young nation of immigrants from numerous nations, we've never had a single food identity. Are pizza, chicken wings, and flavorless light beer the United States' contribution to the world table? Perhaps our lack of a food identity is why we succumb to every diet fad that comes along. Is it low-fat or all-grapefruit this week? Or was it the cabbage soup diet?

So we're left to the whim of the food processing companies that tell us what we should be eating. The newest celebrity (always a beautiful person) calls out from that colorful cereal box, "Everybody who's anybody is eating these new Sugar-coated Chocolate Bombs for breakfast. You don't want your child to be a loser that doesn't have Sugar-coated Chocolate Bombs for breakfast do you? By some breach of the laws of biochemistry, this cereal will actually make your child think clearly." Did you know that there are some 30-50,000 products in a typical supermarket? That number grows yearly as food manufacturers find new ways to combine corn and soy and give us a new taste sensation that is all the rage. And it'll probably cure your Athlete's Foot too. In 2004, the food industry spent $11.65 billion on marketing while the "5-a-day" campaign for fruits and vegetables spent a paltry $9.55 million. That's roughly 1200-fold higher. Is there any wonder that we don't have any clue what to eat? We're constantly bombarded with ads for foods that are our adversaries. We increasingly down food products rather than real foods and then wonder why all of the wonder promised on the package didn't come true for us. "I'm just predestined to be overweight. It's in my genes." And with that, we turn over our responsibility for our health and the stage is set for an adversarial relationship with food.

So how do we decide what to eat? Simple. Walk into the grocery store and pick up an item you normally purchase and ask yourself, "Does this item have an ingredient list with more than one ingredient?" If the answer is yes, put it back and keep going until you find an item that doesn't have an ingredient list or a nutrition panel. You'll typically find these items in bulk foods, produce, and the butcher section. Don't forget the olive oil, bags of nuts, and eggs (these are the "one-ingredient" labels that I was referring to). Health will never come in a package that has to tell you that it's healthful. Isn't it ironic that the most health-giving of foods - the lettuce and broccoli, chicken and beef, onions and garlic, apples and oranges - aren't the ones proclaiming to cure our every ill, yet they are the only ones that will do so? Would you believe a claim on the package for an omega-3 infused, fiber- and vitamin-enriched Twinkie that tells you it's "heart-healthy" or "a good source of fiber"? Stick to the basics: meat, vegetables, nuts, fruit, and, if you exercise intensely, some starchy tubers and squashes. Those foods are your friends. Keep them close and they'll build you up and help you take care of your problems.