If I told you that you could make one lifestyle change that would improve your health, reduce your carbon footprint, and support your local economy, would you trust me?
First of all, don’t worry: I am not selling anything. I am not asking you to sign a petition. I will never advocate any kind of fad diet.
These days we are inundated with an information overload about health, nutrition, weight loss, disease prevention, etc., often from widely disparate and conflicting sources. The field of nutrition itself is young, as far as the sciences go. It’s incredibly complex and researchers have a long way to go – which is why the tidbits that make it to the general public are so confusing, inconsistent, and frequently contradictory. As if that wasn’t enough, we are drowning in a sea of advertising, public service announcements, USDA “MyPlate” posters, trendy diets (is Paleo the new Atkins or what?), and media messages on every electronic device we own, every billboard we drive past, every wall in the subway on our commute.
It’s hard to know what to believe. Most of the entities spreading these disorienting messages are out to make a buck off your confusion. Sadly, I can’t even say that the government always holds public health as a top priority. (Another topic for another time, but with groups like Monsanto and the Corn Refiners Association in their pockets, the USDA and FDA have a conflict of interest.)
But here it is: I believe that the single most effective choice we can make, with the farthest reaching impact is to simply cut out processed foods. Like many things, this is easier said than done, but the payoff more than justifies the effort. If you could reduce your risk of obesity, diabetes, and cancer; limit your impact on the environment; support small businesses and family farms; and remember what real food tastes like - wouldn’t you? What’s stopping you?
I think I know the answer to this one. We’ve grown up in a society obsessed with convenience, where hitting the drive-though or throwing something frozen in the microwave is called “dinner”. We just can’t be bothered to think about recipes, write down a grocery list and actually cook a meal. We’re “too busy” to cook food from scratch, to sit down for a communal meal with friends or family, or to lazily browse the farmers’ market on a Sunday afternoon. I might be young, but I’ve learned one thing quite well in my 25 years: you have time for that which you make time for. It doesn’t matter what it is: exercising, reading a book, gardening, playing with your kids, walking the dog; it’s not going to happen unless you make it happen. You are the only person who can choose how you spend your time. Sadly, too many of us have allowed our food choices to slip to the bottom of the list.
I am not coming from a place of judgment. Rather, I am coming from a place of learning, growth, and change, and I’d like to invite you to join me. This is no holier-than-thou speech. I visited a friend recently, and made a couple of grocery requests before my arrival. I asked for organic milk and free-range eggs. Unfortunately, she perceived this as snobbery and became defensive, thinking that I was judging her food choices. At the same time, I felt like she was judging my choices and making all sorts of assumptions about the attitude behind my diet. I don’t want to argue with anyone about food. I believe that food should bring people together, not drive a wedge between them. Nobody is perfect, least of all me. I, too, sometimes have a 12 hour day at work, come home exhausted with a headache to a bare pantry, and eat frozen pizza for dinner. It’s okay.
To be fair, I probably spend way more time than the average person thinking about food. My work and leisure both revolve around food; I read articles about nutrition, sustainability and food politics daily; and cookbooks are probably my favorite kind of book. I’ve invested a great deal of my time into learning about food and the impact it has on our bodies, our families, our communities, and our planet. I love to cook, and planning my weekly meals is actually a pleasure to me. But I know it’s not so for everyone, and that most of us would like to simplify. That’s one reason we fall back on easy answers.
Unfortunately, as our society has become more fast-paced, consumerist and convenience-driven, our grocery bills have changed to reflect this: shoppers now spend nearly 23% of their grocery money on processed foods - almost double compared to 30 years ago. In 1982, we allocated only 11.6% to such foods, reserving the majority of our budget for real food: fruits, vegetables, grains, meats. Even if you consider yourself a healthy eater, and even if you take time to cook, it’s worth a look into your pantry and a good hard think about what you’re putting into your body. Many processed foods are dressed up as “healthy”, and many items we drop into our grocery cart without a second thought.
A little experiment: pull a selection of foods out of your pantry or refrigerator: salad dressing, cereal, canned soup, etc. Read the label. If you take any advice about food from anyone, take this above all else: Read the Label!! Chances are, what one might consider a simple product, such as chicken broth, has a 17-item ingredient list with many unidentifiable or unpronounceable words. How much of the food in your kitchen can you identify as a whole food, or take a good guess at its origins?