Sunday, March 16, 2008

You Are What You Eat

I ate dinner at Burger King tonight. I blame it on the crazy day I had – eating a late breakfast and working feverishly all day on too many projects, all of which seemed equal in priority, skipping lunch for an afternoon hair appointment which ran late, so that I was rushing back home to get my things for a meeting across town. It was only as I was sitting in traffic because of an accident that I realized how low on gas I was. I shifted the options back in forth in my mind: I can probably make it to the meeting and then get gas afterward. Followed by: I am already 20 minutes late because of the traffic, five more minutes won’t make that much of a difference, and I have an ironclad excuse. I got to the meeting 30 minutes late after stopping to put $5 in the tank – which barely moved the needle above E – only to find that the person I was meeting had also gotten stuck in the traffic and didn’t show for another 20 minutes. Meeting complete, it is now 7 p.m. and even though I had a pretty substantial breakfast for once, it had been ten hours ago.

I know that was a long story to justify my fast-food fix, and that what I described is familiar to many of you. The truth is, I feel the need to justify those now, whereas before I ate fast-food or delivery pizza 3-4 times a week without even thinking about it. Now, once a month seems like too much. As I was sitting there in the drive-thru looking at the menu, I realized why, with the triple-stacker staring me in the face – three beef patties, six strips of bacon, and three slices of cheese on a sesame seed bun – 800 calories, nearly 500 of them from fat. Suddenly, I understood why this country is having an obesity epidemic. These counts don’t even take into consideration the fries and drink! My double-cheeseburger kid’s meal – at 410 calories – paled in comparison to the other mega menu items. Since when did a triple anything become necessary?

As a cancer-survivor, I am more concerned about my diet than I was before, though I still wouldn’t consider myself a fanatic about it. I know other survivors who eat almost entirely vegetarian or even mostly raw vegetables now. I admire them. I don’t know how they do it – especially when traveling limits the options so much. Now that I work from home, it is easier for me to eat healthier with less planning ahead. I have never eaten a lot of junk food – potato chips, snack cakes or candy bars – though I do love an occasional hot fudge sundae or Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll. But now I am eating much more broccoli, less meat, and I have even added kale to my diet. I didn’t even know what that was until a few months ago!

I did used to have a serious addiction to Coke. Mom wouldn’t let us drink it very often growing up (thank you Mom), and I rebelled in college by drinking about a six-pack a day. The zits and freshman 15 soon broke me of that habit, but it wasn’t until the past few years that I have been able to give it up almost entirely. (I did have one tonight as part of my kid’s meal, though milk and apple juice are now options too.) I mostly drink water now, rarely having anything else with meals – milk sometimes, and iced tea in restaurants.

The thing is, I believe that our overly-processed food is killing us. It is causing diabetes at staggering rates, obesity-related diseases through the roof, and yes, even cancer. I have been reading a lot about food lately, and we should all feel indebted to those authors who are exposing the problems with the corporate-driven, agri-business food supply and terrible eating habits in this country. Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Kris Carr to name a few. Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation were also enlightening on the film front.

Ever wonder why there has been such a sharp spike in ADD and ADHD rates among children? Look no further than their sugar-laden diet. Who wouldn’t be hyperactive after eating sugared cereal and super-sweet juice for breakfast, drinking soda during the day, Twinkies in the lunch box, a mid-afternoon candy bar snack, and a huge bowl of ice cream after dinner? Sugary treats even masquarade as quick breakfasts on the go now in a variety of “bars” – cereal bars, breakfast bars and even granola bars pack in the high fructose corn syrup. In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock highlighted one Wisconsin school that eliminated all of its student behavior problems with one change. Instead of serving buy-in-bulk processed lunches, they bought locally produced food and made healthier meals from scratch. That’s it.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan notes that proportionally, Americans spend the same amount now as they did in 1960 on two major budget items – food and healthcare – only the percentage in each category has reversed. We now have access to cheaper and cheaper processed food-like substances, but we are spending much more on the diseases that this type of eating causes. As Pollan says, “Right now you have the food industry creating patients for the healthcare industry.” Doesn’t it make you kind of sick just thinking about how corporations are making large profits at the expense of our health? Pollan also suggests that if the government were paying for healthcare in this country, it would be far less likely to cave in to the food industry in making eating recommendations and setting policy.

We do have free will, and it’s time we exercised it by making better food choices. I have begun reading labels for the first-time ever. Pollan recommends we don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients or any ingredient we can’t pronounce. I also joined a CSA – these community-supported agriculture programs are popping up all over. Buy a “share” in the spring to support the seeds and labor of planting crops, possibly donate a little of your own sweat equity in weeding and watering, and reap the benefits of a big box of fresh produce every week through the summer and fall. Go in with friends though, as the shares yield large quantities of veggies.

It is very difficult, and often more expensive to eat healthily in today’s America. Choosing wisely from the menu is hard, and portion sizes are out of control. The large beverage of my youth is now smaller than the kid’s size at the movie theater. Many places don’t even have a small size anymore – it starts at “medium” or “regular” on the menu. Organically and locally grown produce is more expensive, and not everyone can afford to avoid processed and packaged food. Their price and convenience make them staples in lower socio-economic groups. However, farmer’s markets are growing in popularity, as are CSAs. Buying directly from the source has several benefits – you know where your food is coming from and can ask questions about how it was grown, you eliminate the middle-man, which can save money and also means your food wasn’t packaged and shipped for days to reach you, not to mention you are supporting the local economy and farmers with sustainable practices while creating a smaller carbon footprint at the same time. Win-win-win.

Finally, the slow food movement is catching on around the world. Started in Europe as a response to western fast-food creeping into their culture, slow food suggests that our eating should be based on quality, taste, environmental sustainability and social justice. It draws us back to a time when families sat down at the dinner table together to eat the same thing (and not individual meals nuked in the microwave). I have some friends who have hosted slow food events for groups of friends, and think it is a tradition worth continuing. If we truly are what we eat, we all need to be more intentional about what that is.

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