Friday, July 29, 2011

Eating food: how to tell if you're doing it wrong

In my first post, I wrote that when it comes to food, many people are doing it wrong. I imagined the defensive hackles this could raise. How can I say “your diet is wrong”?

It boils down to this: Whether you have goals or not for your diet, if your diet isn't supporting your well-being, if your diet is poisoning you, and you don't feel well as a result, then you are eating wrong. A well nourished, healthy person not only feels a greater sense of well-being, but is also more sensitive to the body's cues, making it easier, over time, to choose well for continued good health.

There are reasons why we eat what we do. We eat for energy, to satisfy hunger and cravings. We eat to feel well. Before humans even knew what a vitamin was, we knew enough to seek out the foods we needed to be healthy and strong, just like all other living things do. We eat what is available to us to eat, and what we know from experience will satisfy us. It’s a quality of successful organisms, being able to find and eat the right kinds of food.

Besides the physical cues, there are social reasons for our food choices that can seem more important, especially if we’ve been conditioned to assume our bodily processes are beneath our notice. We eat because it's dinner time, because we have company, because we're watching TV and want something to do with our hands and mouths. We eat what we have learned to eat to be healthy or to lose weight, as well as what to eat in celebration and pleasure. We eat what we think we deserve. There is the food we eat that reflects our favorite views of ourselves, and what we are ashamed to admit to eating. We eat in a hurry, with no regard, while doing something else, and we eat in rituals. We eat alone, and with family and friends. Sometimes we don't eat, even though we are hungry: we fight our urges because we want to appear, to ourselves and others, more beautiful and strong-willed, more worthy of blessings.

Somehow, as a species, we all managed to eat sufficiently good diets that we’re still here. Wherever we lived, humans found a way to prosper on the local wildlife. If a diet worked, the person thrived; if it worked less well, the person made it, but not so comfortably; and if someone was truly getting diet wrong, the person was soon dead. Over the millennia, humans came up with ways to make it easier to satisfy our hunger. We grew energy-dense plant foods, and herded animals that we also ate from. We learned to preserve food, make it more dense for transport, cook and culture food to make it more nourishing.

Today, economic pressures have replaced hunger as the driving force behind innovations in food production. Companies flourish, not by making their customers healthy, as humans have done for themselves for thousands of years, but by making them want to buy more of the products the companies sold. Other “health” industries flourish by making nutrition seem difficult to achieve by eating food, or the knowledge of what you “really” need so complicated that you end up "needing" an advanced degree to understand why you need it.

Maybe you’ve heard, as I have, that if you present a very young child, such as a baby who is just starting to eat something other than milk, with a variety of healthy foods, the kid will naturally select enough of the right kinds of food to stay healthy. This kind of practical guidance has kept many a parent from stressing out too much about the occasional all-carrot or all-chicken diet that children will rotate through.

It’s true that this sort of approach works very well, as long as you start with a healthy body free of addictions and damage, which can express its needs in a way you can perceive and respond to, and only as long as you don’t stack the deck and include foods that contain psychoactive properties, like the vast majority of industrial foods do. In fact, you can define what a drug is by looking at what people choose that is out of balance. Add sugar to the buffet, and no one—not the children or the adults—will make the best choices. Make sugar most of the choices, and you see what we get: lifestyle diseases, the most widespread of which can be directly traced to a diet high in refined carbohydrates. Not just diabetes, but heart disease, and even cancer, can be caused by the Standard American Diet. It’s appropriate that what most Americans eat is described by an acronym that means “unhappy.”

Now we are sold food that has been broken down and rebuilt, with each nutrient that we discover catalogued in a nutrition facts label that does not distinguish foods by breed, soil, time since harvest, flavor, growing method, or any of the other factors that people who know how to produce food have used for hundreds of years to assess food value. And drugs have been added to our food: chemicals meant to replace vitamins that have been leached out by processing, or meant to mimic flavors and textures of the foods they imitate, as well as chemicals known for their psychoactive properties, like caffeine and sugar. The total effect of industrial food is of a simulacrum of food.

Modern industrial foods have been engineered to hack our biochemistry, and the balanced systems that regulate our bodily needs and urges. Just like recreational drugs, highly available food energy overwhelms us with too much of a good thing. Yet we call these drugs “food,” and eat them according to cultural and bodily cues as if they were equal in every important way to the real foods they replace. They crowd out what we used to eat, satisfying our pleasure centers, but leaving us feeling vaguely ill. Another bump of the same drug becomes the only conceivable way to feel better.

The ways that we sin against ourselves in the realm of our diets are in denying ourselves, and accepting the lies we hear and repeat to ourselves about what we eat. If we don’t acknowledge all of our drives, and all of the food that we eat, we keep from ourselves the tools we need to change our lives. Denial—of what we really want, as well as of what we actually eat—is a blind spot born of defense. What we aren’t prepared to deal with, we don’t look at.

The most obvious way to interpret "you're eating wrong" is to assume that our conscious goals in selecting what to eat are not being met by our food selections. We may seek food that is hot, cheap, and tasty. Or we may tell ourselves and others that we're "on a diet," meaning we’re intending to reduce our net energy levels through caloric restriction. Or we may have yet another class of conscious goals for our diets: to avoid animal cruelty, injustice, or environmental degradation, or to conform with a spiritual practice. These are only a few of the dietary goals that we know how to talk about. There are others that, once we become aware of the lack in our lives, can take priority. If you are used to feeling run down and tired, expect that rashes or migraines are just a part of life, or regularly suffer in some other way that is not adequately explained, perhaps your diet is responsible. You may never have considered that good health is to be expected, that your suffering is exceptional, and that it may be alleviated by eating properly. Whether you seek pleasure; energy deficit; allergen avoidance; good health; communion with family, friends, or a higher power; or to save the planet by your food choices; if you find, upon examination of the evidence, that your diet is in opposition to your fulfillment, then you must change your diet, or remain unsatisfied.

I don’t waste time beating myself up for having eaten white pasta for twenty-five years; I simply became a convert to whole wheat. Now, I prefer the taste of whole grain, and find white bread pasty and unappealing. I wasn’t ready to make the switch on first taste, and that’s understandable. We’re creatures of habit, but we also have free will, and with some effort we can impose will on our habits. I wouldn’t ask you to do it for invisible, indiscernible reasons; I wouldn’t do it for reasons I didn’t care about, feel, or understand. It was only when I had my own moment of epiphany that I felt any urge to change how I ate.

Perhaps you've heard something like this already: that a diet should be something that you eat all of the time, not something you get on and fall off of, like a wagon. Diet is a part of lifestyle. There’s no guilt in this definition. We can describe diets. We can change diets. We can even eat bad food. But we cannot irrevocably fail at dieting, unless we stop eating long enough to die at it. Karen Carpenter? She failed at dieting. You? Not a failure at dieting. Because diet is an inescapable part of being alive. And like everything else that's really important in life: sleeping enough, clean water and air, having good sex, and moving around, finding good things to eat is easy enough for just about anybody to do, and well worth the trouble for the reward.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why I eat meat, and other living foods

In essence, I eat meat because I really, really like to eat meat, and see nothing particularly wrong with eating meat. I’m a living thing, a cow is a living thing, and so is a tomato plant. All of our lives are precious to ourselves, I assume, while knowing that consciousness is subjective and that I can’t ever really know what it is to be a plant or another animal. We’re all going to die, and death is not the enemy: without death, there wouldn’t be life. If no living thing ate another living thing, there would be no room to evolve. We’d all be single-celled organisms that live on sunshine until either we cover the Earth and smother one another—to death—or we rely on some of us to die off so the rest of us can get enough sun. While we all have the right to try to thrive—to pursue life—there are limited resources, including the limits of our own bodies.
And we don’t get to choose to be amoebas or trees, anyway: we’re humans, a different animal, one designed to thrive on a diet with regular inputs of animal protein. There are cultures where the people live on animal products almost exclusively; there are people who are allergic to dairy, or wheat, or nuts; there are no vegan societies, and there are no people who are allergic to meat. I accept these as scientific facts: that humans thrive on a diet that includes meat; that all human diets result in the deaths, directly and indirectly, of plants and animals; and that death is a necessary part of individual and collective life on Earth. Based on that, eating animals is fine. To say it’s okay to kill thousands of plants and insects, but not a single vertebrate, is a perversion of respect for life. And while I respect the desire to avoid killing, it’s impossible, because it defies nature. We should do what we can to limit suffering in the world, but we should not try to limit death: the 1:1 ratio is sustainable; life without death is not.
A happy life is one in which you are in concert with your desires. Pretending you don’t have a desire, always subverting and tricking it, shoving it underground, and never satisfying yourself—none of that is healthy behavior. You’d know it about any other area of your life, so don’t play games with your food. Respect your animal body, the vigor of drives that keep us alive, and the pleasures that make life worth living. Feed it properly, and listen to it.
We’ve made changes in our diet and lifestyle over the course of human history. The people I know, by and large, do not ever squat, and squatting is arguably the most natural human movement; before chairs and indoor toilets, it was something we each did, many times a day. But the people I know, they don’t do many of the kinds or intensities of exercise that humans have historically done, and hardly even any walking. Our bodies are heavier: we eat much more food, which is much more energy dense and much easier to get: we rarely fast or endure periods of deprivation. Most people pay no attention to their cravings, indigestion, or bowel movements, and these are all irrelevant to how most people choose what to eat and when. They don’t sleep enough. They live and work in isolation from other people, nature, and their own bodies. They worry too much, and are exposed to all kinds of toxins: prescribed medications, chemicals in the food, water, and air; they carry devices that emit tetratogenic rays.
Our bodies may be incomparable to what they were in our beginnings as a species, despite the genetic similarities. It’s not a given that what made a human healthy even 10,000 years ago will work on an adult raised in a post-industrial society.
We’ve made compromises to our ideal diet, and adapted to them: somewhat. Many people can tolerate dairy and wheat, recent additions to our diets. Some people don’t get sick on industrial diets, either. You may not realize you’re even sick, if everyone around you feels the same way. I take a much more conservative approach to the more recent innovations to our diets like refined foods, than to agricultural products some of our ancestors have eaten for millennia. The agricultural compromise early farmers made in leaving the nomadic lifestyle and adopting as staples foods like potatoes, lentils, corn, and rice brought some costs with them that, as a society, we’ve accepted with not too many problems. We’re shorter, and if we don’t include enough animal products we become malnourished and deformed.
By comparison, the Standard American Diet, the latest revolution in human diet, has brought an epidemic of disease that threatens to overwhelm society. Maybe there’s a compromise suitable to the 21st century, an amount of plant-based food that is ideal, not just for me, but for ensuring everyone has enough to eat and that the Earth can sustain our food production. I’ve been researching it for months, trying to determine the costs to health and available resources required to make enough high quality food for everyone. I am just not buying the line that we can’t feed all of us if we don’t go GMO, or all go vegan, or adopt Quorn or Chickie Nobs or whatever actually does come next. We agree on many points about what qualifies as food, but I don’t even necessarily agree with Michael Pollan’s famous dictum to eat “mostly plants,” when historical evidence suggests a meat-based diet is more natural to us.
So I keep reading, trying to get to that place of deep knowledge, so I can confidently tell you to go eat meat and, as well as knowing that it’s the best thing for you and me, know that it’s the best thing for everyone: today, into the future, for people, other living things, and the whole living world.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Food (in)security

“Food security” is one of those buzzwords organizations throw around when they’re fishing for grant money. Now that I think about it, I might even go fishing, myself, because one of the most important ways that I flex my giant humanitarian love is by teaching people how to become more food secure.

“Food security” means different things, depending on your perspective. The average policy wonk thinks “food security,” and immediately starts thinking infrastructure, cash crops, and preventing terrorists from taking pictures of feedlot cows. Your locality might be concerned with its food deserts, and their costs to the state. And your own idea of food security might be to wonder what there is to eat within delivery range.

If you rely on industry to serve your food needs, you are less food secure than if you can feed yourself from alternate sources. This means finding your food in the places that aren’t represented on government food locator maps: farmer’s markets, your own garden, the woods. It means genuine freedom of choice among actual foods suitable for human consumption, not from a dozen varieties of the same ultraprocessed product. It means drawing on a personal encyclopedia of knowledge and experience in recognizing foods, wherever they are, and knowing their qualities: what they taste like, how satisfying they are, how to cook them. It means valuing the rituals of preparing and enjoying food with others, not just the numbers on the side of the package.

By contrast, the American standard is eating the meal that is served to you, in restaurants that rely on deliveries of frozen provisions. It’s supermarkets, the one place where even food desert denizens know they can go for real food, are mostly full of pre-packaged, highly processed food products. Even evidently natural foods have no seasonal availability, or provenance. Milk is pasteurized, meat is stripped of recognizable animal origins. Squeamishness, fear, and ignorance are encouraged: industrial food promises to be free of dirt, raw flesh, and microbes. This is the food of denial: denial of ordinary human desires, of our connections to the Earth through what we eat, of the importance of quality food to our well-being, of the differences between food produced in harmony with nature and food that strenuously opposes nature. This is how American food insecurity starts.

People who are insecure will cling to the mob. It makes a certain kind of sense: in our confusion, we think, “all those people can’t all be wrong.” But sometimes, they are. Sometimes the landscape is controlled by forces too large for the mind’s eye to encompass. Consider the food desert, and why it is a pernicious environment. When all you see are a certain, limited range of choices, wherever you go in your daily travels, day after day, it eventually limits what you think of as your choices. After all, this is your actual, imperfect, modern life, not a stock image of breezy, healthy living. This is where you live, and these are the only things you see to eat. If you live in a food desert, all you see are unhealthy choices, but they’re normalized. Eventually, you believe things that allow you to make the same, poor choices: that this is how other people in my situation eat, it’s all I can afford, all I can drive to, and that it’s not so bad. Defenders of bad food are technically correct when they claim that people are free to eat what they want, and that they should be allowed to choose good food or bad. The danger of the food desert is in growing to accept its offerings.

It takes conviction and sustained effort to break away and do things differently. You have to have confidence in what you’re doing and why, to buy vegetables you’ve never eaten before, to go out of your way to buy food, to be the only one who brings a boxed lunch to work every day instead of going out. And it has to be rewarding to live like that: not only do you have to like this new image of yourself, but you have think the extra effort is worth it.

Most importantly, you have to like the taste of your own cooking. The very last thing I would ever lie to you about is whether something tastes good to me. I care about gustatory pleasure, and do not waste my time eating things I don’t like. I don’t like beets or beef liver, so I don’t eat those things, and that’s okay. If you like them, you should totally eat them, because they’re really good for you, but it’s not worth it to choke down disgusting food.

If you want to learn to enjoy real food, I can help you with that. The first step to enjoying natural foods is to wean yourself from industrial food. The salt, sugar, and chemicals mask toxic elements, off flavors, and even rancid oils, in industrial foods, drugging you instead of supplying a genuine food experience. When you get away from the cycle of craving and release, and you can begin to appreciate the foods people have eaten and enjoyed for thousands of years. You’ll finally be able to clearly understand what your body knows about what you’ve eaten and what you need.

Real food is your birthright as a human being.

If we don’t take a revolutionary step in favor of embracing our animal selves, rather than denying ourselves and trying to fake ourselves out, we stand to join the stampeding mob into what amounts to the shittiest virtual reality that industry can manufacture. Too many of us have surrendered already, choosing “Farmville” over u-pick tomatoes, Wii Bowling over rental shoes, and “chocolate pudding” flavored soy protein isolate meal replacement bars over meat and pudding.

Don’t do it anymore. Don’t volunteer for “The Matrix.” I swear, the food is much, much better out here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Welcome to the Tin Foil Toque

Someone on the internet is wrong... about food. Here on the Tin Foil Toque, everything you learned about food (and we know that most of what you learned, you learned on the internet) is wrong. But it's okay: we're here to help.

First rule of Tin Foil Toque Club: Do not don the Tin Foil Toque. It is not for wearing. It is also wrong.

The "Tin Foil" part is wrong. We call them "tin foil hats," but they're actually made out of aluminum. And far be it from me (not) to start an internet religious war, but the "pastafarians" (or at least this one) are also wrong. You should never wear a metal colander on your head, or a metal hat of any kind. They conduct heat: no good in a kitchen. They also conduct electricity and other electromagnetic waves, allowing the government to control your thoughts. It's like the black helicopter thing: a fringe culture united in paranoia is represented by the symbol of the feared entity. So put the foil down. We're not afraid of food, here, or of being wrong.

The "Toque" part is also wrong. Chefs wear toques, like nurses wear those nurse's caps. It's like a uniform, or a coat of arms: it is a garment that means something, and a toque means you are a chef. I am not a chef. I am a home cook. Chefs and home cooks have different concerns. A chef wants to lure a well-heeled crowd to his dining room. A home cook has a captive audience and a (usually) more limited budget. A chef is not concerned with your nutrition or health. A chef just wants you to enjoy your dining experience. A home cook does not offer limitless choice, but a home cook will also cater to your special needs without spitting in your food. A home cook just wants you to clean your plate: the ultimate expression of approval.

What I serve company is the closest I get to what I chef does, and the skill set I cultivate in the kitchen is the one I use daily, to feed myself and the people who are at my dining room table most nights. I'm concerned with my pleasure, and with what my husband likes. I'm also concerned about gout, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, depression, and every other disease that does or could affect us, and over which I exercise what power I have. And being a comfortable American with a laptop and a college education, I read a lot of articles and recipes, and cook the foods I want to eat, with few practical limits on what I can afford to eat. Most Americans spend a very small percentage of their income on food, compared to other countries and to all people, historically. This is not an unalloyed 'good thing.' For starters, even with all of that information, so many people are still anxious about what they eat, are doing it wrong, or both.

I don't have a degree in a health science, or in any science at all: my undergraduate degree is in technical writing, so when I have a burning question, I use the tools in my toolbox, and I research the answer. I've been researching food for years, and my inquiries have led me to walk a line that acknowledges many truths without embracing one gospel with full faith. I started this blog to share some of the ways that people have been told to eat, and the many bizarre, earnest, fraudulent, insane, and amusing ways there are to be wrong about food. The number of wrong things people believe about red meat and potatoes could keep me blogging for weeks. This is going to be the special place I have for poking stupid ideas with sharp sticks.

I'm not really a mean person; it's just that I'm scathing when I know I'm right. I come from a place of love, not just for food but for people, and I want to make you laugh and also, over time, make you consider eating better. I've always wanted a little cult of my own, and I imagine being a sort of cross between Jon Stewart and Jamie Oliver, reporting on the so-called news and spreading some empowerment tools around, since I have lots, and a desire to share and be listened to. If you just want to read about tasty things that I put in my mouth, and occasional good news about local food in the Pioneer Valley, read my food blog: Justin Wants to Feed You. If you like tart humor and black cynicism, put the Tin Foil Toque in your blogroll. But please, note the second rule:

Second rule of Tin Foil Toque Club: We recommend that you do not chew the tin foil toque, as it is an unpleasant sensation.