More food for thought…

31 05 2013


For those of you who don’t know me, I guess I’m a bit of a “foodie.” I wouldn’t consider my take on food & eating radical, but I suppose that assessment has more to do with the metric being used. Since we seem to be surrounded here in the burbs by people who live on a diet of highly processed, pre-packaged food, and frequent trips to fast food restaurants, perhaps my notions on food are radical, at least by comparison.

Here’s the simple version of my eating philosophy.

Highly processed foods are bad for you.  The vast majority of the packaged stuff in the supermarket is designed for our industrialized food system. It can be mass-produced, easily transported over long distances, and stored for extended periods. It is highly marketable for it’s convenience to the consumer. It is made from commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which once again, fit well into an industrialized system. Being subsidized also makes them dirt cheap, which makes for greater profit margins. Unfortunately, all of these issues take priority in the marketplace over the one thing you, as the person eating it, should be concerned with; it’s nutritional value.

The healthiest foods are recognizable. A healthy diet consists of lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, lean meats, and nuts. Some whole grains are o.k. The more processed, or hidden in sauces and breading it is, the less it’s got to offer, at least in terms of nutrition. The rule I’ve taught my girls is easy to remember. If you have to read a label to know what it is, it’s probably not very good for you, and if you can’t understand what you’ve read, it’s poison. Of course, they know that the poison part is an exaggeration. It is meant, however, to be a reminder that such highly processed foods should be treated with a bit of skepticism, eaten as an exception to a healthy diet, and not as a staple.

We eat to live, not the other way around. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone state, “I deserve this,” “life’s too short,”  or some other equivalent. If one’s consumption is justified by some sense of entitlement, perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation of priorities. Food is about sustenance, not entertainment. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t enjoy the food we eat, or that we can’t ever go out for an over-the-top meal. Our happiness simply shouldn’t be the main deciding factor in our daily consumption choices.

Let’s face it: fast-food and pre-packaged foods are convenient, and by definition, fast. These benefits have enabled people to spend much more time participating in activities other than food acquisition and preparation. Parents can go to work while the kids go to school, and their evenings/weekends can be filled with baseball, soccer, track, piano lessons, taekwondo, troop meetings, and the drama club.

Is there a trade-off for all the convenience? The answer is simple; your health.

This diet, which is high in calories and low in nutritional value, is also created to leave you wanting more. Remember the Lay’s Potato chip commercials pitching, “Bet you can’t eat just one”? It’s no joking matter. The industry has spent plenty researching what it takes to get sales up, and when we’re talking about food, that translates to increased consumption. They have manipulated the use of salt, sugar, and fat to get us eating more. These three nutrients are vital for our survival, thus our bodies are hard-wired to crave them. These same vital nutrients that were not readily available in the natural setting of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, are now killing us in their over-abundance. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David A. Kessler is an in-depth look at this issue.

The fast food I grew up with was always an exception, an occasional special treat. (except for my last three years of high school, during which time my friends and I alternated daily between McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.) Now this has become the norm, part of many families’ daily routine. Someone eating an otherwise healthy, nutritious diet can occasionally deviate without catastrophic repercussions, however, what’s the result of continually consuming too many calories without enough required nutrients? The answer should be obvious, but to make a point, let’s look at the poor souls at the far end of the spectrum; to the morbidly obese, who are, amazingly enough, simultaneously malnourished. The majority of us, however, don’t show such extreme symptoms. Those who fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve may be only slightly overweight, may experience yo-yoing energy levels, or may not have any noticeable symptoms at all. Sadly, this lack of any apparent symptoms is more a testament to the resilience of the human body, than evidence that such a diet is indeed unhealthy.

How long can our resilience save us from the very food we eat?

Food for thought…

11 09 2012

Welcome home!

After an amazing three days of backpacking with my two eldest daughters, I returned to the suburbs rejuvenated.  Life here can be a bit overwhelming, surrounded in all directions, as we are, by Malvina’s “ticky-tacky.”  I feel the need to escape on a regular basis in order to avoid slipping into the mind-numbing role of complacent, zombie-esque consumer in this superficial, material, and very beige suburbia.  As John Muir so eloquently pointed out,

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” (Our National Parks , 1901, page 56.)

I jumped back into our daily routine Monday morning, getting the girls off to school, and taking a brief moment to re-engage the outside world through a cursory scan of the headlines and Facebook.  The first one to grab my attention was an NPR article on yet another study regarding diet.

Low And Slow May Be The Way To Go When It Comes To Dieting

This also reminded me of another one I’d read last week, just before I headed for the tranquility of the mountains.  I posted this one from the BBC on Facebook:

People can be fat yet fit, research suggests

These two studies help clarify a few health related issues.  The first addresses the relationship between the glycemic index of food and weight loss, and is one more in a long list that indict the highly processed foods that have become so prominent in our lives. The second notes that cardio-vascular fitness has little to do with body-type, and everything to do with activity level.

Although there are continual advancements in our understanding of the food/body/activity connection, the fundamentals have not changed.  When you read all of the studies, there are a couple consistent threads throughout.  They are summed up in the saying, “calories in, calories out.”  This is simplistic at best, but a good place to start.  The quality of the two factors is of critical importance.  This is where all of the studies continue to separate fact from fallacy.  Here’s a simplified version of what we know, definitively.

  1. Highly processed foods, are bad for you, period.  A healthy diet consists of lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, some lean meats, and nuts.  The rule I’ve taught my girls is easy to remember: Healthy food is food you recognize.  If you have to read a label to know what it is, it’s probably not very good for you, and if you can’t understand what you’ve read, it’s poison.
  2. Regular, physical activity is vital.  The more sedentary your daily routine is, the more important a fitness routine.  For exercise to be effective, it needs to be regular, frequent, and intense.  If your workouts aren’t challenging, you’re probably not accomplishing that much.  They should include a cardiopulmonary response (increased heart rate & respiratory) and resistance training, which is proven to be not only good for the muscles, but for the bones & joints as well.

Good news, right? Given the severity of today’s growing obesity epidemic and the subsequent cost to society at large, two more pieces to the puzzle is welcome news.  Once again, science has confirmed what health/fitness professionals have known for years.  Now everybody is going to start eating more fresh, whole foods, and exercising daily, right?

Probably not.

One thing I’ve learned over the past 30 years of teaching and coaching is this: logic is of secondary importance.  A little secret sales people have known for years, is that people buy based on emotion, and then justify the purchase through logic.  That’s why they’re always trying to get you to sit in that new car, feel those leather seats, and imagine yourself screaming down the highway.  Watch a few advertisements on t.v. – it’s all about emotional triggers.  Any logical facts are just thrown in as an afterthought.

Whether it’s a new car or a new idea, emotion is the driving force that initiates change.  Tony Robbins, the well-known motivational speaker, talks about this in his books.  People are uncomfortable with the unknown (change) and tend to be lazy.  Therefore the impetus to change must be greater than the comfort of the status quo.  The two strongest forces for change are emotional: the fear of pain and the desire for pleasure

I’ll use the diet/fitness example to illustrate.  Everybody I know who’s out of shape and eating improperly (it’s usually both) would admit that their diet could be better, or that they need to exercise more.  They might even read the above articles and chuckle about how they should “work on that.”  Yet they don’t make the change.  They’ll wait until the doctor tells them their LDLs are too high, or they have a heart attack, and then fear will motivate them to start.  Or perhaps they’ll start to be embarrassed by their physical appearance (fear of ridicule) and they’ll join a gym in anticipation of eventually looking like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. (anticipation of pleasure)

In addition to our natural resistance to change, it’s difficult  to sort through all of the choices available.  There are so many health studies, “lose weight quick & easy” diets, and  ULTIMATE fitness routines out there, that it can be overwhelming to decide which would be the best.  Furthermore, since these various schemes often contradict one another, they undermine any faith an individual might have otherwise had in their effectiveness.  This just adds to the difficulty already inherent in effecting change.

All of this adds up to a whole lot of people living unhealthy lifestyles and feeling like it’s just too hard to change, if they’re even aware of it.  For those of us who already recognize the importance of these choices, and are trying to live accordingly, it can be hard to understand how anyone would choose otherwise.  I, for one, feel obligated to share my experiences in an attempt to help others make healthier choices for themselves.  Here’s to living well!

p.s.  Here’s how the conversation often sounds (at least the list of excuses) when talking to someone “struggling” with the BIG decision.


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