Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Good Food, Bad Food

Why is food I love bad for me, "junk food" that rots my teeth and makes me fat, and nutritious food so bland or offensive I have to force myself to eat it? That's a question I wondered all my life. I always chalked it up to "The Fall". Part of the curse that plagues mankind, a result of sin entering the world. Good food tastes bad, bad food tastes good.

I'm learning that it's actually not the case. Could it be that our food system is flawed, and that by escaping my own food culture I can enter a new (old, really) way of life where all food, all real food that comes from the ground, preferably from my own yard or else my home town, is both finger-licking good and will keep me strong and healthy?

This new approach does require a shift away from all junk food, some of which I have loved my whole life (Cheetos! and in My Hero's case, Mountain Dew). The switch has been surprisingly
painless, but two factors have helped with that. 1) I've been so focused on learning what kinds of good things I can be eating, and how to make meals based on actual real food, like real potatoes rather than a boxed stuffing mix full of additives and preservatives, that I haven't given much thought to the things I used to eat. And I view grocery shopping as a challenge to see how well I can avoid boxed and packaged foods and stick to basic ingredients like flour and cheese and fruits and veggies. 2) My Hero and I have been faithfully monitoring our weight since late December on our new Wii Fit. It's amazing to me how much an evening of snacking on something extra, especially something from a box or bag, matters immediately. Next morning I can be sure my weight will be heading upwards instead of down. Does each tiny food decision really matter that much? Apparently. So it has been encouraging to note that my home cooked meals from real food are much kinder to my waistline than traditional American fare, even just a frozen pizza.

Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food sheds light on recent research that shows a low fat diet doesn't seem to help prevent heart disease or even obesity. What?? How can something I have been taught everywhere all my life be false? It seems a lot of what we're told about nutrition may be false. At the very least, only a small part of the whole truth. We were told for years to use margarine instead of butter because it was better for us. And now we see that the trans fats in the margarine are actually much worse than the saturated fat in butter. How many years were we steered wrong by that advice? I came away from Pollans's book with a new approach to food. I'm not afraid to cook food in a way that makes it delicious (cook my asparagus in real butter). Fat isn't bad unless you eat too much of it. And for some reason, it hasn't been hard to keep from overindulging in things like asparagus or even rhubarb pie. Well, maybe a little hard in the case of pie, but it's not the mindless eating of an open bag of chips in front of the tv.

Our western diet offers us cheap, convenient food, but the diseases of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are part of the package. These diseases are unheard of in cultures untouched by convenience foods, white flour and store sugar. Our bodies also gain natural defense against cancer by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and meat from animals that feed on green plants.

Still, much of the grocery store produce leaves a lot to be desired. I can't get excited about nectarines that never ripen or hard strawberries. I just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and her family challenged themselves to eat only local foods for a year. They started in April when only rhubarb was ripe, soon followed by greens, and lived on food from their own garden, farmers market food, and meat from local grass fed beef and lamb. They also raised their own chickens and turkeys for eggs and meat. This is the other piece to the puzzle. Eating local food when it's in season ensures that fruits and vegetables will be bursting with flavor and goodness, not swallowed with a grimace and washed down with milk. Eating meat from grass fed animals means the meat will contain the nutrients from the plants they ate all their lives rather than contain growth hormones and antibiotics from feed lots.

I have a long way to go, but my feet are planted firmly on this path, and I couldn't be more encouraged by the benefits I have experienced already. I passed up sad, wilted lettuce at the grocery store (yes, my store's produce is worse than most) and found bags of fresh baby lettuce and mixed greens at the farmer's market not a half hour later. Yay!! I have converted some of my favorite recipes to be made from scratch rather than from packaged ingredients, but I'm looking for more recipes and ways to cook starting with the fresh things I find at the farmer's market and can grow in my garden. Every step of progress I make feels like a victory, and I'm paying attention and actually enjoying my food more than I ever have before.


Autumn said...

I'm so glad you wrote this post! I think I am beginning on the same food journey. I was just thinking yesterday about how I want to avoid prepackaged foods and stick with things that I can explain what each ingredient is. I haven't read Michael Pollan's books yet, but I've placed a hold on The Omnivore's Dilemma at the library and should be getting it soon. I have a long way to go in understanding all the benefits of choosing natural foods, but its definitely something I am interested in!

Sue said...
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Sue said...

I just picked up both Michael Pollan books yesterday and have the Barbara Kingslover coming to the library. Like I told you, I started (sort-of) on this "food journey" a couple of months ago, but it faded a little and I didn't really understand "why" I was choosing to begin eating that way. I DO love to get a bargain, so buying organically or local can sometimes interfere. However, my zeal has been renewed and refreshed after spending the weekend up there! :o) It was so encouraging to see how you and D & M are eating more naturally, that I've purposed to start again...for real this time! I've noticed that often the cost is not much different. Thanks for being so encouraging and helpful to me on this topic! I think I am going to take the same approach and see how many pre-packaged foods I can NOT buy! Thanks for the great post! Be sure to share any tricks or recipes! :o) I think I might make my own cleaner, too!