Last year, I was truly unhealthy in mind and body. It was a rough, emotional period, and I lacked the motivation to eat well and live well. I stopped caring about certain activities that used to matter. I stopped writing (for awhile). I stopped exercise, cooking, and physical activity. Toward December, I was ready to put an end to the many “stops.” Dear Sugar once said that the way out of a hole is to climb out. So I dug deep and began the hard work inside to begin the steady climb.
By the new year, I vowed to pay more attention to my health and diet. I signed up for a gym membership with my husband. Slowly, I began to incorporate a healthy habit of exercising three times a week. I also started to plan out some of my meals more in advance, including a daily, hearty breakfast of toast, almond butter, and a protein smoothie. I cooked large meals to have leftovers to bring as lunch for work the following day. I wanted to limit the number of times my husband and I went out to eat at restaurants or buy take-out food, which can get expensive.
I also read a book that changed my entire perspective about healthy living. I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. He starts with the conundrums of our time: How is it that a health-obsessed nation such as ours is one of the highest in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates? Why are magazines, books, diet fads, and celebrity culture saturated with information on healthy living and yet we still don’t know the right answers? It seems that the entire, confusing industry of healthy living has been defined and dictated by a select few –nutritionists, the food industry, medical professionals, and journalists. Pollan’s book shows that we as a society have greatly overcomplicated and disconnected ourselves from the root issue of health –eating whole, natural foods that our families and culture have cultivated and cooked for generations. He distills healthy eating down to a simple food philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
At first I thought the reasoning Pollan proposes seemed far too simplistic. On a common sense level, I assume most folks know that eating vegetables and fruit is good for the body. People even know that diet and exercise are suggested. Why is there such a huge disparity in our country? As I read, I start to see the dots connect. Our culture’s response to food, health, and diet are constantly in conflict. Our culture’s priority on convenience and fast-paced lifestyle puts a high value on fast foods, restaurants, and processed food items. With the evolution of our working families and booming economy, it was a prime time to industrialize food en masse.
We cook less at home and have less control over what we put in in our food; we are letting the food industry decide what to create for us to eat. To maximize profits, they are constantly tinkering with new ways to give us the greatest amount of artificial and cheap flavors and textures for the lowest cost. And we keep buying it.
While we do eat fruits and vegetables, we also eat plenty of other “food-like substances” such as processed breads, sugar bowls of cereal, yogurt, and oatmeal for breakfast, and snacks with an astonishingly high shelf life. We eat “light” versions of things in the hope that we are making healthy choices, and we don’t realize that foods with health claims are cleverly packaged and contain greater amounts of processed, artificial ingredients to maintain flavor and texture.
We are expected to read confusing nutritional labels because the discourse of food revolves around invisible nutrients, not foods we can easily recognize. We are told to eat a diet rich in proteins, fiber, good fats, and Vitamins A – Z, which the food industry exploits by enhancing and labeling their products with those nutrients. The language of nutrients remains confusing so that average consumers can’t decipher them and must rely on information from food industry experts, scientists, and nutritionists. Instead of eating a diverse diet of meats, vegetables, and fruits, we pick and choose based on the current fad nutritional diet such as low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar, etc.
We are also eating excessively. We mindlessly eat when we are distracted –usually in front of a television, in a hurry, or grab onto whatever is front of us. In a culture of more, portion sizes are larger and cheap, super size options are the norm. We also stop paying attention to when we are satisfied and when we are full. We stop listening to our bodies.
In the Information Age, with countless articles and videos on proper work-outs, diets, labels, and new X factor nutritional ingredients, we become paralyzed with the inundation of information. We see extreme reality shows and celebrity diets and think that being healthy is too difficult without a personal trainer like Jillian Michaels or a food program like Jenny Craig. As we shop at larger convenience stores, we become further disconnected from the food we consume — including the knowledge of our foods’ origins and growers. We become passive recipients to our health and nutrition because of fear, uncertainty, and a lack of knowledge. When I see how complicated and contradictory our culture’s answer to the health problems is, I can understand why so many people are defeated. I was the same way. If only we realized how much control we truly had –that we already possessed many of the resources that we need to live healthier and better.
Pollan ends the book with a message of hope and empowerment. We can be the ones to change the tide and demand a new way of eating and living. We can vote with our forks and choose an alternative to the default stream of fast, convenient, and unhealthy eating. We can make small, everyday choices on what we buy and support. We can decide how we want to eat and live, and how we want our families and communities to eat and live. There is a better way out of the hole.
I liked that Pollan’s book is not about the latest trends or exact set of rules. It is not a diet to follow, a list of bad foods versus good foods, the latest gadget to buy, or even that I should never eat at a restaurant again. Much of what our society looks for is a quick-fix solution to our health concerns: this over-simplified and immediate-gratification approach is part of the problem. Pollan’s goal is to provide guidelines and a new philosophy of eating –eat everything in moderation, cook more, learn about where your food comes from and who grew it, eat slower, savor the food, eat a diverse range of natural whole foods, and eat enjoyably. This is not a revolutionary philosophy. Many cultures in the world already eat this way. We used to at one time, but have forgotten how.
After Pollan’s book, I started to read a few other books and resources throughout these past months such as Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Cooking Light magazine, and Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks website. I educated myself on the consequences of a diet based on processed foods, the difference between real food and food-like products, the industry and supermarket’s subtle, powerful influences on persuasive selling tactics, and an array of other healthy, delicious alternatives that exist. Hungry and inspired, I am ready to eat healthier. The possibilities are hopeful and fruitful.