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Friday, April 26, 2013

How to Eat

I'm finally finishing up my "book report" on Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.  Sorry it's taken so long.

I'll start with what may be a bit confusing.  We look at some other cultures and wonder how they are healthier than we are even though they seem to eat foods that would cause health problems for us.  The French, for example:
What nutritionism sees when it looks at the French paradox is a lot of slender French people eating gobs of saturated fat washed down with wine.  What it fails to see is a people with a completely different relationship to food than we have....They seldom snack, and they eat most of their food at meals shared with other people.  They eat small portions and don't come back for seconds.  And they spend considerably more time eating than we do....[T]he French consume fewer calories than we do, yet manage to enjoy them far more.
Serving sizes in restaurants in France are much smaller than they are in this country.  And that, in itself, is a psychological problem for us.  We have been raised to think of the amount that's given to us as the proper amount to eat.  In one study that Pollan describes, soup bowls were rigged to refill from the bottom.  Those who had those bowls, ate 73% more soup than those with regular bowls.  Some ate as much as a quart.  When asked what he thought of the soup, one subject with the bottomless bowl said, "It's pretty good; and it's pretty filling."  No kidding.

With that said, here are some of Pollan's tips on how to eat.
  • Pay more, eat less.  This tip is not for everyone (unfortunately).  In a country like ours, it should be.  But the point is, if you can afford to buy higher quality food, do it.  And in many cases--in our part of the country especially--that means eating fresh, local foods.  Does it cost more money?  In some cases, yes.  But aren't you really paying for it anyway even if you eat crappy, lower-cost, processed food?  You'll pay for it in medicines or doctor co-pays or higher insurance premiums.  Plus, if you spend more on your food, you'll be more likely to eat less--another healthy bi-product.  Americans spend less of our income on food than any industrialized nation.
In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care.  Since then, those numbers have flipped:  Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income. 
  • Eat meals.  Duh, right?  No, not really.  I think I mentioned in another post how a recent study has shown that about 19% of American meals are eaten in the car.  Think about that for a minute.  That's a lot of meals on wheels.  Not to mention distracted drivers.  Family meals are so important--to kids, to family relationships.  (I won't give stats here--read my previous post for the details.)  The social value of eating together is becoming lost and will be completely if we don't change.  Another problem in this country is snacking.  We snack so we're not hungry for meals.  Foods are marketed to us to make it faster, easier, on-the-go and on and on.  It's actually pretty sad.
  • Do all your eating at a table.  Not a desk.  Not your lap.  Not balancing something on your dashboard. 
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.  "Gas stations have become processed-corn stations: ethanol outside for your car and high-fructose corn syrup inside for you."
  • Try not to eat alone.  Some of us don't have a choice, I guess.  But once again, the social aspect of eating is so important to who we are.  Not only do we lose that part of a meal, but we usually eat more when we're alone. 
  • Consult your gut.  I eat way too fast.  It's really something that I try to work on, but I've done it for so long, it's hard to change it.  And I'm sure that it causes me to eat more than I should.  It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it's full.  When you scarf down your food in half that time, you don't realize that you're getting full and overeat.  Pollan tells of a group of French people who were asked when they stop eating.  The answer: "When I'm full."  What did Americans say?  "When I finished what was on my plate."  or "When the food was gone."
Serve smaller portions on smaller plates; serve food and beverages from small containers (even if this means repackaging things bought in jumbo sizes); leave detritus on the table--empty bottles, bones, and so forth--so you can see how much you've eaten or drunk; use glasses that are more vertical than horizontal (people tend to pour more into squat glasses); leave healthy foods in view, unhealthy ones out of view; leave serving bowls in the kitchen rather than on the table to discourage second helpings. 
  • Eat slowly.   With this tip, Pollan doesn't only mean what I wrote of above, but to be knowledgeable about food in the way of the Slow Food movement.  This was started in the '80s when fast food came to Rome and started to threaten what food was all about in Italy.  It tries to combat industrialized foods that are engineered for us to eat fast, on the go.  If we knew what went into that fast food burger--the slaughterhouse, the grain-fed animals, the artificial flavorings, etc--I'm not sure we'd want to eat it.  Knowing that our burger is from grass-fed cattle in a beautiful pasture helps us enjoy our food even more. 
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.  I recently was part of a panel at a local daycare center that had a program about child nutrition and eating.  I told them how my son, Jake, is a great eater and is extremely healthy.  Why?  I believe he eats more "real" food than many of his peers.  But I think one of the reasons he does eat so well is that he was raised appreciating food--going to farmers' markets, growing things in our garden, being a CSA member.  At the risk of sounding sappy, he has learned to commune with nature and with those who raise our food.  He understands how cool it is to pick something from the garden and turn it into a meal.  Too many kids think that beans come from the freezer section at the supermarket and not a field.  And cooking helps us with that relationship with food.  As Pollan explains, there are studies that show that cooking tomatoes in olive oil allows the tomato's nutrients to better enter our bodies.  If you cook, though, you just know that cooking tomatoes with olive oil is a good idea.  It tastes good!
So that's it.  Maybe I took too long going through all this stuff, but I really think it's so important.  If we don't change the way we eat, we will lose so much--our health; our relationship with each other, with those who produce wonderful food, and with the food itself.  Read In Defense of Food.  And try to make some of these changes--appreciate and enjoy your food!

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