If you've ever spent any time, or discussed food, with me you will have heard me say, "just eat food!", usually accompanied by jumping up and down and waving arms to emphasize this point. Just eat food. Stop eating junk and just eat food. Stop with the diet fads. Eat food.
It seems like a simple concept. Eat food that is actually food, that is as close as possible to its natural state. Food. But this idea needs a little unpacking. To me food means, fruit, vegetables, meat (if you are so inclined), dairy (but not too processed) and other edible items MADE FROM SCRATCH. That's an old fashioned term. Lately, this idea of food made from scratch has been re-termed as slow food, clean food, the no bottle rule, etc. But really, all of these movements mean making other food items, such as salad dressing, for example, from scratch.
Why is this important? Well, for me, it has always boiled down to the idea that just because you can eat it, doesn't mean you should. A lot of what is processed, packaged and sold as food in food stores is really not food, in my opinion. And if we want to avoid obesity, heart disease and diabetes, then we need to avoid these foods like the plague. It also comes down to taste. Home made food tastes better. Hands down.
It used to be that if you shopped the perimetre of the grocery store, you could avoid the processed food horrors contained with the aisles. This is not really the case any more in some stores. Grocers have gotten wise to that strategy and food stores are reorganizing the arrangement of food. Buyer beware.
Lately I've been reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollen and he has solidified, expanded upon and researched this very primal and intuitive idea that I have been ranting about for years. His book is an amazing explanation of how we are eating ourselves to death through the over-complication, over-processing and over-chemicalization of our foods. What struck me about Pollen's investigation is that a lot of his conclusions call for an indigenous, holistic approach to eating instead of a scientific reductionist approach to eating. As he says, "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." It doesn't get any simpler than this. Read this book. It will help you change your approach to eating for the good- both physically and psychologically.
Buy why? What's the difference? Well, as many of us know and have observed, a well-grown strawberry free of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers not only tastes better than the farm-factory equivalent, but also, we know intuitively is more nutritious. When food is locally produced and "lightly processed" (as in milk being made into cheese and butter, local grains being milled), the food tastes better and maintains more of its nutritional integrity. Local farmers who raise grass-fed cows and free range chickens produce better tasting and healthier meat. When people eat these foods they are healthier in important ways: less, obesity, less chance of heart disease and fewer if any cases of diabetes.
We don't need to follow special diets unless we have food allergies or gluten intolerance, or some such medical issue, or unless we are an elite athlete in training. Most of us are not. But we should eat a broad range of foods in clean forms. And this can include fun food too. Like home made cakes and cookies. However, home made means that- it means from scratch, not simply made in your home. It means using the best ingredients possible. The made from scratch cake has fewer ingredients than its ready to make version in a box. The scratch version also is less likely to lead you down an unhealthy post-apocalyptic path that includes preservatives, flavor enhancers and food stabilizers. Home made foods are more satisfying and therefore we tend to eat less of them than we do when we consume less than satisfying pre-fab versions. Eat well, and you will eat less. Our palate really does know the difference.
Speaking of which, I have lately been driven crazy by marketing campaigns for various fast foods. One in particular was the McDonald's billboard promoting its new "Real Fruit" Smoothie. If it is made from fruit, then why do you need to qualify that it is "real"? Not surprisingly, this smoothie made the top five list of worst smoothies in Canada. Again not surprisingly, the McDonald's version was second only to Tim Horton's fruit smoothie, Tim Horton's being the King of non-food eateries. Well, it turns out that it is not really "real". McDonald's Strawberry banana smoothie contains no real fruit, but rather puree and concentrate, with cellulose added for fibre (huh? why not just use fruit?). It also contains 70 grams of sugar. WHAT? That's the equivalent of more than 18 teaspoons of sugar. EIGHTEEN! In one serving. No one should ever eat 18 teaspoons of sugar in a week, let alone in one serving. And just so McDonald's is not singled out as the pariah of nasty food, the Second Cup's Strawberry Chiller contains 135 grams of sugar- that's the equivalent of 33.5 teaspoons of sugar. In one serving.Yikes.
But the horrors don't end there. The yogurt McDonald's uses is not really yogurt; it is a weird dairy -like substance that doesn't actually have any "yogurt" in it, but instead has both sugar and fructose added to it, as well as corn starch and gelatin, none of which are needed to make yogurt. These are not healthy drinks, in fact these are worse than soda pop. Compare what you would put in a smoothie if you would make it at home. I would put about a 1/3 of a cup of plain organic yogurt (with no added starch of gelatin), a can of coconut milk, a banana, a handful of whatever other fruit I have on hand (mango, raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, etc.), a couple of ice cubes. I might add a little flax seed oil for added Omega 3. I would not add sugar. I would not add cellulose (what exactly is cellulose? Wood pulp.). I don't know the exact break down of calories in my smoothie, but I do not that my serving size would be smaller than a store bought one- this recipe would yield several servings of smoothies-- and it does not contain even one teaspoon of added sugar! Why would it? It already actually really does have fruit in it which is sweet enough. I know that the yogurt and coconut milk are good for me and my kids.
Does this sound like a lot of hassle? Well, it is. It's true. But for me it comes down to this: a little hassle now can avoid the big, life-altering hassle of obesity, diabetes and heart-disease. The extra time we take to avoid fast food, pre-made food, pre-mixed food and various non-food edible items will ensure that we will not fall prey to the unholy triad of dietary-related illnesses.
But it is more than just health to me. It is about learning, about self-worth and about pride in knowing how to make something, of coming up with an idea and making it. It is about growing food and making food from scratch and enjoying the food. It is about socializing around food and taking pleasure in the process, not just the end product, but also enjoying that end product immensely. And in the end, that process can't be quantified in any reductionist manner, but it can be experienced in quality of life.
Michael Pollen's advice about eating food, mostly plants and not too much is solid advice. Take it. I would add to that: make it yourself, read the labels on packages (look at sugar content in particular, but also look for words you've never heard of before and put the package down and back away), don't buy food with labels. ;) Make it yourself and have fun doing so. Get the kids involved, even if all they do is turn on the blender. It's a start.