What is food?
An important and surprising lesson that I’ve learned while undergoing this major diet overhaul for the past couple of weeks has consisted of readjusting my understanding of the word “food.” Growing up in these United States through the ’80s and ’90s, my understanding has been rather simple: food is anything you can put in your mouth, chew and swallow that will not instantly kill you or make you ill. I would say I sustained myself through most of college and medical school eating with this understanding. My dietary staples were generally obtained from a can, frozen package, or a fast food restaurant. And having grown up in a religious culture that prides itself in a focus on health, as long as my choices were meatless, I assumed that what I was eating was good. Carbs were the staple, protein and fat were minimal, vegetables I took for granted as being in my diet since at the time I was “vegetarian.” Although in retrospect, I really didn’t consume too much fresh produce. I honestly just didn’t think it was necessary.
It was only during fairly recent attempts to revamp our diet as a family that the phrase “processed foods” kept coming up. I really didn’t know what it meant. Food is food, isn’t it? If you can eat it, you call it food. Dinosaur nuggets, instant mac & cheese, frozen pancakes and waffles… Why shouldn’t these provide the basis for the kids’ diet? At least they’ll eat it. After all, I grew up on this stuff. I think I’m pretty healthy. Besides, why do we have to be different from everyone else out there? Of such were the contents of my protests. I was so strongly opposed to becoming a “Whole Foods family.” I consider myself a woman of the people; not a fan of being different if I can help it.
It’s pretty ironic how much convincing it has taken for me to consider just how much the staples of one’s diet can influence his/her health outcomes. I think in theory we all know this, but as long as we have healthy claims all over the packages of our ingredients, it seems to make sense that we are eating healthy. But it’s somewhat of a frightening farce. Of course on display in huge letters and bright colors are the things inside of the package that may actually be good for you. However if you look at the tiny print in the most imaginably inconspicuous part of the box or bag — hidden under a seam if they can get away with it — are all of the true ingredients that need to be listed by law. Take a moment every now and then to eyeball these lists on your favorite “foods,” keeping in mind that, the longer the list, the higher likelihood that there are more things in the package that are NOT FOOD.
So back to our original question then: what qualifies as “food”? How about anything that you might consider eating in it’s pure form completely isolated, not mixed with anything else? For example: apples, strawberries, celery, zucchini (you get the picture with produce), eggs, beef, chicken, fish, etc. these are items that cannot be broken down any further into “ingredients.” The only “process” they go through between primary harvest to your digestive tract can be only what you do to it, (although many meats pass through alarming processes at slaughterhouses, but that’s a different discussion), and should never have seen the inside of a factory. Regardless of how they taste, these are the items which completely unfettered, other than perhaps the application of heat, are suitable for human consumption. Centuries ago when life was more simple, sustenance depended on consuming foods that would otherwise decay quickly. They did not have and therefore did not eat preservatives. Just food.
So ask yourself now, how much you would like to partake in a bowl of maltodextrin? High fructose corn syrup? Ammonium bicarbonate? If it sounds like something that does not belong by itself on a plate, think twice about whether it belongs in your diet on a regular basis. Then maybe take a look at how frequently it shows up in the “food” you consume on a regular basis. Sure, you’re not having cups or bowls of it every time you eat from a package, but consider how over the course of a year for example, intake of undesirable substances can add up. At that point it may be worthwhile to ask yourself whether you might feel differently — less weakness or fatigue, less mental fogginess, less dry skin or brittle hair — if you had less chemicals and more FOOD.
I also want to take a moment to point out that there is a difference between Food and Nutrients. I suppose there may be a scientific way to determine the Perfect Nutrient Balance for the human body and to cram it all into powders, shakes, and supplements. There is a whole industry dedicated to this effort, I am aware, although I have stayed away from it thus far. My wager is still that the best all-around health — physical, mental, emotional and interpersonal — cannot be concocted in a test tube of any sort. There is joy to be had in understanding, preparing, and sharing Food, just as there is in sharing movement (e.g., sports) and other meaningful activity (take your pick: music, gardening, quilting, bird-watching…). When it comes to habits, as a way of life: eating actual pomegranates has more value than drinking a handful of vitamin pills in the same way hiking in the mountains has more value than sitting in a biofeedback machine. It’s a matter of perspective about what “health” really means, I suppose, and I guess you can say that is my personal perspective.
I’ve come a long way in what has now been the last three weeks. There has been a night-and-day change in what I consider my staples, and as much as I hate to admit it the difference is palpable. With great joy I indulged in “cheats” through the weekend, and despite momentary bliss several times over, it became glaringly plain that my body and mind were functioning poorly today compared to the past two weeks. As I basically spent the whole day in one giant sugar crash (birthday party followed by cocktail party hosted by neighbors = plenty of cake and dessert), no amount of caffeine could seem to bring me back. But after a bowl of basically rice, beans, and vegetables (vis-a-vis Chipotle®) I perked right up, at least for a little while.
That said, I enjoy quoting an adage coined by Oscar Wilde (but which I heard from Michael Pollan, please see my entry “In Defense of Food” for a link to the video) which goes: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” In other words, no matter how well you do with your health habits in general, it is acceptable and even worthwhile to indulge once in a while.
The trick is figuring out what is meant by once in a while (i.e., “I haven’t had a donut allllllllllll morning” daily at 9am does not wash). Think it over. Stay tuned for a list of my old vs new dietary staples. See you soon.