Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can Food Be Simplified?

One of my goals as a radical steward is to cultivate a life of simplicity. I don't want to get bogged down with material possessions, over-scheduled with unnecessary activities, that sort of thing. I also don't want to be over-thinking every decision and spending hours on the internet researching other people's opinions and viewpoints.

That's why it's a bit ironic that this post on making sense of the food debates has taken me four days to put together. I'm trying to simplify here, not confuse myself further!

From organic vegetables and superfoods to modern agriculture and Federal oversight, from milk to meat and back again, food is a national conversation. Everyone has an opinion, but no one really agrees. There is some consensus on a few key points, however, and the laws of nature and science aren't being altered no matter how strongly people try!

1. Make food important, but strive for balance. Many Americans are actually malnourished even though our country is suffering from an obesity epidemic because processed foods are devoid of essential nutrients. The amount of food we eat, the way we grow it, and the trade relations we have with other countries affect people's lives on a global level. Food is important. We need to pay attention to it. But, we must not let it not become an obsession or a form of control. We must do the best we can in our individual situations, and let go of the rest. Neither the quest for perfect health nor the desire to promote a fairer standard of food production should ever overshadow our quest for holiness or our ability to create meaningful relationships with our fellow man.

2. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. This is Michael Pollan's advice and it is one of the best ways to ensure you are eating what God intended. "Food" means anything that is recognizable as such. Nothing with day-glo colors, like blue oatmeal, or things that are processed past resemblance to their original state, like corn syrup or soy protein granules. Don't overeat, or eat simply for something to do. Try a bread and water fast to determine how little we really need to eat in order to get through the day. If we feel the need to snack on something, we should make a cup of tea or get a glass or water, and offer up our hunger pangs for the less fortunate. Plants should form the foundation of our diet. Occasional meat is good (the sick, pregnant, the very young and the very old probably need meat every day,) some fish is beneficial, but we can get every single thing we need from the vegetable kingdom, with the addition of a few animal proteins like eggs.

3. Avoid additives and processed foods. We always seem to have a scapegoat to blame for our unhealthy conditions. First it was salt, then fat, then sugar, and now carbs. The truth is, all those things are bad for you in excess, but they are also all part of the natural foods God intended us to eat. This article on sugar does a great job discounting some of the myths and presenting the facts in a scientific and complete manner.

To summarize: your body breaks down the food you eat by extracting all usable vitamins and minerals and converting the rest into glucose, a simple sugar. Your liver then converts that glucose into energy or fat depending on your body's needs. Refined sugars and simple carbs, however, are already broken down into their simplest component and stripped of vitamins, so instead of nourishing your body, they are either converted directly into excess fat, or worse, quickly enter your bloodstream and mess with your blood sugar levels. The problem is not with sugar or starches, per se; it's with foods that have unhealthy amounts of these ingredients, or that are made from ingredients that have been overprocessed, stripped of their natural vitamins, minerals, and fiber and reduced to nothing more than empty calories. Besides being a ridiculous waste, it's incredibly unhealthy.

The biggest perpetrators of such food crimes? Packaged goods and ready-made meals. And these foods also tend to contain the largest amounts of trans fats because hydrogenation gives oils a longer shelf-life. One piece of advice I received years ago has made the most difference for me in my attempt to avoid sugar, additives and simple carbs: Shop the outside edge of the supermarket. On the edge is where you find meats, produce, and dairy items, which should make up the bulk of your diet. Enter the aisles only for goods in raw form (whole wheat flour rather than box mixes) or for canned goods that say "low sodium." Buy fresh whenever possible, make it at home rather than getting it from a store, and drink only milk, water or tea (and beneficial alcohols like red wine.)

I am very easily frustrated when faced with too many sides to explore. It's so easy to get lost and discouraged, but it doesn't have to be so complicated. Sometimes simplifying means turning off the outside noise and just getting back to what we know works. Cooking a meal for your family using whole, natural ingredients, and then sitting down together to eat. What could be simpler than that?

Photo credit.


Anna said...

I would include manual laborers in the list of people who should probably have meat every day.

I was going to ask you what you thought of this article, but if you're feeling frustrated or discouraged because of too many sides to the issue, then maybe you should ignore it. :)

Milehimama said...

I hopped over here from Jen at Conversion Diary, and imagine my surprise to see my own two patron saints on the sidebar! (One a name saint, one my birthday saint). How nice to be greeted by old friends!

I started paying more attention to our food out of necessity - I was at my wit's end with our oldest son, and embarked on a Feingold diet out of desperation. Now I wouldn't go back!

BTW - my husband is in construction, but right now we only eat meat about 2x a week for budget reasons. If there is an ABUNDANCE of plant proteins, it's okay! I've found that abundance - allowing people to have seconds, thirds, or more - of a main dish legume helps satisfy big appetites.

Tienne said...

Anna, Yep. That article is part of what prompted this post. I actually posted about it on LJ in the natural living community and unfortunately wasn't too impressed with the conversation it prompted.

I found the article really informative and very well written. It underscores my belief that excessive government interference is a bad thing (that's partly why we're in this mess anyway, what with all the subsidies and gov't encouragement of single crop farming etc.)

I thought that his fearmongering was kind of obnoxious, though. The bit about how we've only enough sunlight to feed 4 billion people worldwide just doesn't make sense to me. Are we honestly feeding that many more people simply by growing an early corn crop in April in the US? And most of that is feed corn anyway!

I definitely don't agree with him that factory farming is the only way to prevent mass starvation, but I do think that policy makers need to take into consideration the difficulty of switching over the systems and have something in place to either train people to eat less meat, provide low-income workers with an easy way to cook, and/or ensure that inner cities have easy access to fresh produce.

I also agree that legislating this stuff from the top is a messy proposition and that most people aren't fully informed about the repercussions of such changes. I always think about housing projects whenever any large-scale movements start gaining momentum. When they were built, they were touted as the perfect solution to slum dwellings and inner city overcrowding. Nice, new buildings where people could maintain a sense of community while being close to public transportation etc. Well, they turned into hell holes and exacerbated every inner city problem they were meant to solve. No one saw it coming, but putting together a nice new housing unit doesn't do much to touch the real problems lower income communities face. If there were easy answers, we wouldn't have any hard questions.

Have you read Papa Benny's latest encyclical? He has a wonderful theme in there of development operating at the human level. It's not something that can be affected by government programs, or even by multi-country government cooperation. It can only be done in a human heart with the inspiration and guidance of God. Food is like that. Regulating the method a farmer can use is not going to change the hearts of the 60% of this country who eat out of boxes and it's not going to cure a food industry based upon the maxim that animals are commodities to be developed at maximum benefit.

I'm not really sure what is going to change things, but I do think this sort of thing is a slow process and that it needs to come from a widespread groundswell that incorporates most sectors of the American public.