Foodbyte #2: You want to eat healthily: Poll: What’s keeping you?

One of the reasons I’m interested in highlighting information that has been written by many outstanding researchers and writers in the field of food (among other fields) is that there are many books that go unread because we’re so busy.  Like the title of the classic personal development book, Acres of Diamonds, we are sitting on gems of knowledge and insight, but we don’t have time to mine them!  So when you read a book that actually has the power to change your life, you want to share it.  You tell your friends, “You should read this book,” and they say, “Yeah, I’ll pick it up sometime.”  But they won’t because they’re too busy.  And the fact of the matter is, one of the reasons we are in the dietary fix we’re in is because of exactly that–we don’t have time to pay attention.  We don’t have time to cook, or plan menus.   We take the path of least resistance, not because we want to, but because we have to.    

But if we’re motivated, we’ll try a little harder to change the things we can to improve our health and habits.  And if you can take a couple of minutes to read this post and others like it, you may eventually be motivated to make small changes.   So, I’d like to try to unearth some of the diamonds out there about food and present the information in a way that might be helpful and maybe even motivating.  

In my mind, there are a few main reasons people want to eat better but they can’t:

  • No time to prepare food.
  • No time to plan.
  • Packaged, processed foods are convenient.
  • We all know that processed foods aren’t that great, but they taste good.
  • The things we love to eat, our “comfort foods” are tied in deeply with our memories and emotions.
  • As a family, we are all bound by a common interest in the same foods, so it would be tough to change.
  • Cravings for sugar and/or fat are just too hard to resist.
  • Eating on the run has become a pattern.
  • The perception that eating healthily is expensive.

There may be a lot of other reasons, but many of the ones I listed have prevented me from eating as healthily as I should. But over the course of the year, I’ve learned a few things that have motivated me to take some basic steps to eating healthier.   Lately, I have:

  • Built a small but growing file of tasty, easy recipes that I tested and practiced one by one.  
  • Created a pantry list to take to the supermarket so there are always good ingredients on hand.  
  • Habitually looked at labels and count how many edible single ingredients there are in each package.  If there is high fructose corn syrup in it, or a long list of preservatives and artificial ingredients, I try to find a better choice.
  • Learned to enjoy eating fresh foods, and my palate is reflecting that.   I now refuse to eat canned soups of any kind because making them fresh doesn’t take that long and they are SO much better.  This, from a person whose children do not recall a single home-cooked  meal that I made for them in their formative years (my husband, thank God, is a wonderful cook).  

So if I can do it, you can too–and I aim to help break down every one of those barriers I cited above, and then some.  To help me, please take the poll and pass it along to a few of your friends.   

By the way, I forgot to mention another author to add to the reading list in last week’s Foodbyte post.  I can’t believe I forgot, because she’s a leader in the field of food politics.  Marion Nestle is Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.  She has written several books that are dense with information and give a million reasons to think about why you eat what you eat.   To get started, read Food Politics.   She also has a terrific blog at www.foodpolitics.com.  Check it out. 

Here’s a parting quote from the Introduction of Food Politics:

Humans do not innately know how to select a nutritious diet; we survived in evolution because nutritious foods were readily available for us to hunt or gather.  In an economy of overabundance, food companies can sell products only to people who want to buy them.  Whether consumer demands drives food sales or the industry creates such demands is a matter of debate, but much industry effort goes into trying to figure out what the public ‘wants’ and how to meet such ‘needs.’  Nearly all research on this issue yields the same conclusion.  When food is plentiful and people can afford to buy it, basic biological needs become less compelling and the principal determinant of food choice is personal preference.  In turn, personal preferences may be influenced by religion and other cultural factors, as well as by considerations of convenience, price, and nutritional value.  To sell food in an economy of abundant food choices, companies must worry about those other determinants much more than about the nutritional value of their products–unless the nutrient content helps to entice buyers… Thus the food industry’s marketing imperatives principally concern four factors:  taste, cost, convenience, and … public confusion. — Marion Nestle, Food Politics; p.16

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Foodbyte #1: Questions to Chew On about Eating

4424752For my birthday last week, my daughter gave me a book by Christopher D. Cook called Diet for A Dead Planet:  Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.  I haven’t really started reading it in earnest yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  As I mentioned in my early post about Lent:  A Tool for Simplifying, reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma set me off on a Lenten challenge to give up high fructose corn syrup.  In addition, it really incited in me an interest in food politics, and it ultimately changed the way I eat.   In fact, when I quit my corporate job last year to become a consultant, part of the reason I left was because I recognized that I couldn’t change the way I eat and simultaneously work the hours I was working. 

As a person who once made instant mashed potatoes for her son believing that she was making him pancakes, I obviously do not approach this point of view from the vantage point of being a food snob.  On the contrary, my goal in eating, most of the time anyway, is to be able to check it off on my daily to-do list.  I have always been a complete failure in the kitchen and relied heavily on the nice assortment of fast food chains lining the main thoroughfare of my town.  So, I realized that if I were to take my diet into my own hands, it was going to be a huge challenge.   I had to go right back to the drawing board.  And I think that as a nation we are starting to think the same thing.   We need to get back to basics.

Undoing our bad dietary habits will not be easy.  It will be like untangling a pile of fishing line.  Or maybe it will be more like breaking up a bar fight—because food certainly is a passion for many of us.  The way we cling to our eating patterns–well, as the old cigarette commercial used to say, we’d rather fight than switch.  It’s amazing how primal our feelings about food are, and if we can’t address this fact, we are going to remain absolutely impotent before the forces that are doing us harm.

And the forces are many– to name a few: 

  • The outmoded policies of the Department of Agriculture
  • Every corporation with a vested stake in what goes on the supermarket shelves
  • Our dual income, acquisitive culture which puts time at work before healthy home-cooked meals
  • Our personal cravings and sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), which have been exploited by manufacturers for profit. 
  • The slippery slope we have been rolling down for decades which has permitted us to accept some really outrageous industrial practices, and take for granted others which simply don’t even make sense.

To effect serious and long-lasting change at an individual level, it will take a slow digestion (excuse the pun) of why are are where we are in America today.  That is, we are exploding in an epidemic of cardiac disease, diabetes, and other diseases that can be largely controlled simply by watching what we eat and exercising.   And we really aren’t aware of the silent puppeteers pulling our strings and making our efforts doomed from the start.

Last year (around the time I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma), I was conducting an interview with an endocrinologist, who, when asked if her patients are unable to control their diabetes simply because they are non-compliant with their therapy, she said, 

“The patients want to do what’s right.  But they are sabotaged by the supermarkets.  They pick up bread that says ‘whole grain’ but they don’t read the labels to see that they are really highly processed.  I’ve had to literally write a list of the specific products that they should be eating.” 

Because of the complexity of this issue, and also because I am not a nutritionist or a policy analyst– just a concerned citizen–my intention here is not to teach, but to ask questions, and provide possible resources for answers.  So, I will be writing ongoing bite-sized pieces of information that may be helpful in building awareness and understanding about eating as well as tools to aid in making changes.  

Here are some questions that I have been asking myself for a year now:

  • Does it make sense that most of the farms in the US have become monocultures, when crop rotation has multiple economic and environmental benefits such as avoiding the build-up of pathogens and pests, balancing the fertility demands of various crops; avoiding excessive depletion of soil nutrients and improving soil structure and fertility?
  • If we are such a compassionate society, how can we tolerate the deplorable lives millions of sentient beings spend in factory farms and feedlots?    
  • Why are farm subsidies actually hurting our farmers?
  • If factory farmers “finish” cattle (i.e., get them up to proper weight for slaughter) with corn and corn byproducts to make them fatter faster, what do all these ubiquitous corn products in our food, such as high fructose corn syrup, do to us?
  • What do we have to gain economically and physically by investing time and money in  “real” food?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions for sure, but I’m trying to learn.  So I will be sharing information.   My goal would be to try to come up with solutions that are forward-looking–not: all women should quit their jobs and go back to the kitchen, but solutions that are relevant for the culture we now find ourselves in.   To that end, I welcome dialogue for brainstorming, so please feel free to comment.  Look for “Foodbytes” blog entries about once a week.

In the meantime, here’s a great reading list from Treehugger.com:   9 Must Read Books on Eating Well

If you only have 20 minutes to spare, here’s an interesting Ted Talk given by Michael Pollan.  You can watch it at work while you’re eating lunch.

Bon Appetit!