Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Way to Eat

Throughout my life, I have been on many diets – or eating plans as I prefer to call them – trying to find the most efficient and pleasant way to balance one of my favorite things, eating, with the ever-pressing need to maintain a healthy body and svelte-ish figure.

It started in high school when I became a vegetarian. Then after college and the requisite weight gain I became a calorie counter and lost 40 pounds over two years. From there I went dairy-free and then moved into the most Draconian of them all: raw. This last eating plan (which I actually really enjoyed) lasted a mere six-weeks and ended dramatically when my doctor told me I was anemic.

At that point, I think I’d had enough calorie counting, food choice monitoring and Erewhon-shopping, and fell into the much easier and far more exciting All-American eating plan called “I’m going to eat whatever I want!” Which was super fun and liberating – until the eventual realization that I’d gained 10 pounds eating our All-American shit. I also felt pretty crappy.

After that wake up call, I quickly sprang into action – headed back to the gym, ate and drank less and monitored my calories. But the most exciting outcome was that I realized I needed to become more connected to the whole practice of eating once and for all.

It was during my raw-foods period that I really began to think more thoughtfully about food: what exactly it is, where it comes from, and how it’s produced. As with anything I'm interested in, I dove in head first, doing a lot of reading and research.

I became familiar with philosophies of the “real food” movement gurus including Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Food, Inc.), Alice Waters (Food Activist and Owner of Chez Panisse) and Bill Niman (Sustainable Rancher and Owner of BN Ranch), and tuned in to more mainstream media reports about organics, the slow food movement, and “eating green” by reducing meat intake.

And so I learned what constitutes high-fructose corn syrup (cheap, Government-subsidized corn in a super-sweet liquid form) and its contribution to modern day nutrition (its empty calories make us fat and increase our sugar cravings); how the chicken breast arrived on my salad (an unfortunate chick endures a horrible life at a cramped slaughterhouse, is pumped with hormones and fed a diet it would not eat in nature, is then inhumanely plucked, killed and butchered and packaged and shipped all across the country in a semi-truck); how food producers easily dupe us into thinking that food products - like GoGurt and Kraft Singles – are actually real food (FDA regulations no longer require them to label foods as “imitation” if they are chemically altered); and the negative side effects of food dyes and additives (Red Food Dye #40 may contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness, and attention problems in some children).

Um... no thank you.

When you really think about the myriad of non-natural things that make up the food we put into our bodies, it really starts sounding quite awful – and certainly can’t be healthy. Fifty years of food innovation and chemistry have created a separation of what is food and what is a slick combination of chemicals, dyes and preservatives. It can only take an industry so far, and for this now-educated eater, it has gone far enough.

So I am reverting back to the “retro” eating plan employed by anyone born before 1950 – one that comes from our earth (not a lab!) and offers nutrients, complex flavors and useful fuel for the body.

And it looks like this:

  • Eat only unmodified, whole foods that are grown on this earth; and combination foods that have very short ingredients lists that are understandable and recognizable. As Michael Pollan says, "Don't eat anything that can't rot.")
  • Eat fewer servings of meat and fish. When possible, these meats should come from farms and ranches that use sustainable methods, use no hormones or antibiotics, feed animals their natural diets, and treat animals with dignity.
  • Eat foods with no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or derivatives – this includes most fast food, processed food, any unnaturally colored food and high fructose corn syrup.

This “diet” is the most natural – and responsible – of all, and really it’s not that hard to do. It is basically reverting back to the native diet of our ancestors; the way people have been eating for generations before we were blessed with food chemistry and its cheap and abundant offspring.

And because the "bad" stuff gets ruled out and is replaced with the more satisfying, healthy stuff, this idea works as a natural weight-management tool as well.

So although I will miss the convenience of grab-and-go food, Splenda in my coffee, and Diet Coke and Baked Lays with my Subway 6" Veggie, I am more excited to be fueling my body with the real things it craves.

This realization has also put an end to my twelve-year "eating plan” experiments: turns out all I need to do is eat like a normal human.


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