Think about your dinner plate. Maybe its not a plate.. maybe its a Lean Cuisine in a plastic container or a fast food sandwich wrapped in paper or maybe you didn’t get around to dinner so you just skipped to the ice cream. You can see what your food looks like, but do you really know what it contains? Where did it come from? What IS high fructose corn syrup? What does “all-natural” mean? Diet soda is healthier, right?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) just published the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which are updated every five years. Mark Bittman, the New York Times Minimalist columnist and food guru, reviews the new guidelines:
We’re told to eat “less food” and more fresh foods; wise advice. But aside from salt, the agency buries mostly vague recommendations about what we should be eating less of: we’re admonished to drink “few or no” sodas — hooray for that — and “refined grains,” Solid Fats and Added Sugars. And there’s our fabulous acronym: SOFAS.
The USDA had a real chance to tell Americans to stop eating processed, unhealthy food and demand whole and fresh foods for healthy living. Not wanting to upset any powerful people or corporations, the guidelines fall short in telling people what to eat “less” of, like meat and sugar. Its difficult to access real foods in our communities but we don’t all need to rush out and become farmers to eat real food. We also need to take care not to fall into the trap of fake-healthy foods like imitation chicken nuggets.. who even wants to know whats in there?
Bittman mentions Oprah’s challenge to her staff to go vegan for a week and while this is a great idea in theory, many fell into the trap of merely substituting meats and cheeses with alternatives. What about instead of having a meat alternative pasta sauce and dairy-free cheese, we look for locally grown, organic tomatoes and make our own pasta sauce?
The truly healthy alternative to that chip is not a fake chip; it’s a carrot. Likewise, the alternative to sausage is not vegan sausage; it’s less sausage.
Try keeping a list of what you eat for a week. You’d be surprised how much of that food contains corn and how many of the products we use in our daily life contain corn, like batteries. This isn’t corn on the cob you get from the farmer’s market; this is inedible field corn that we process into high fructose corn syrup and other corn byproducts. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules and others, has a simple rule for eating wholesome, good-for-you, good-for-the-planet food:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
In his article Unhappy Meals, Pollan recognizes another inherent break in our food system: our current generation spends less of their income on food than any other generation before us. But this doesn’t mean we aren’t paying in other ways, like our health and the impact on the environment. Did you know we are dubbed “The Obesity Generation” and one in three children is obese or overweight, while one in two adults is obese and this is highly likely to lead to diabetes and heart conditions. I came across a trailer for a documentary today called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead; it chronicles a man’s journey from being overweight to finding freedom in choosing a healthier lifestyle. What did it take to get to a point where we have to make movies and documentaries about our broken food system that we plop down in front of, slurping down diet sodas, processed candy and butter sogged popcorn? How do we fix this broken system?
We’re going to have to demand to pay more for more whole foods. (I don’t mean Whole Foods. But they’re trying.) We have to make healthier choices in the food we put in our bodies and bodies of our children. So you drink diet soda because it has less calories and like to snack on “baked” chips, but do you have any idea what in the heck is in them? We’ve been bombarded with shiny wrappers, tantalizing food artistry and “value” meals; what value? One of the most important lines in [the documentary] King Corn is: “We subsidize Happy Meals but we don’t do the same for healthy ones.” We have over a trillion corn plants that we grow each year and yet we still have a growing problem of global hunger and hunger in our own communities?
There is no easy answer to fix our broken food system. Michael Pollan has some pointers for being more mindful of what goes into our bodies:
Choose whole grains, vegetables and fruits that are in season.
Avoid processed and packaged foods.
Get out of the supermarket and into the farmer’s market.
Pay more, eat less.
Eat more like an omnivore; diversify the species and types of foods you eat.
Cook; plant a garden and herbs, if you have the space.
Curt Ellis, one of the creators of King Corn, is launching a new program with some partners called FoodCorps. It is something I have been researching ever since I heard about it:
The program addresses this multi-faceted epidemic with a mechanism that, as philosopher Wendell Berry says, “solves for pattern.” The simple tool of a schoolyard garden positively addresses six of the eight contributing factors to obesity identified by the CDC. Gardens that engage children provide better food choices, encourage physical activity, reduce sedentary behavior, and lead to healthier environments at home, at school, and in the community.
By bringing healthy food infrastructure to schools that are facing challenges of “diet-related disease” FoodCorps members will be able to educate students about nutrition, engage them in the building and maintenance of school gardens and help the community to promote and sustain partnerships with local farmers. THIS is the type of step we need to take to ensure a healthier food future.
Challenge yourself to eat real, whole foods for a week. See how you do, see where your community needs to step up in providing access to locally sourced foods, see how much healthier you can feel and be. Eat real food.
***Added 11 Feb: New study of 100 children between the ages of 4 and 8 showed significantly reduced symptoms of ADHD when their diet eliminated processed foods for five weeks. 78% of the children had reduced symptoms of ADHD when placed on the new food pattern. Researchers “reported “a substantial relapse in behaviour in 63 per cent of children” when previously restricted processed foods were put back in the diet.”
Though this study doesn’t necessarily prove that ADHD and behavioral patterns that are plaguing our children are a direct cause of a processed diet, it certainly makes us wonder how much of an affect our food can have not only on our physical health but our mental health as well.