what to eat

vintage Hall China bowl set, resold

The last month or so, I've been obsessing yet again about what to eat. Am I eating the right things? Should I be adding something or subtracting? What am I doing wrong? I must be doing something wrong. . . . Right?

For the record, "diets" as such make me wary after experiencing America's ridiculous nonfat craze I dove into headfirst while in college in the early 1990's when I first went vegetarian, losing at least 20 pounds within a few months, while many others in my dorm were gaining some of the "freshman 15." (What else can one's body do but suck out stored fat cells when a person isn't eating any dietary fat?) Some youth rebel by partying every night and opening their legs to strangers; I gave up God and fat. My grandmother, mother, and great-aunts all kept shaking their heads at me: "The body needs fat." But society was saying I didn't. The advertising message was right there on every label on the grocery-store shelf: no fat, zero fat, skim, nonfat. Fat is bad. Fat makes you fat. But, as always, life is more complicated.

After claiming fat was bad for a decade, nutritionists and health care officials then modified the claim, scientists having further analyzed types of fats and their effects, finding the hydrogenated trans fats corporations had been stuffing consumers with since the 1950's downright toxic and now hidden away, tucked down at the very bottom of the pile. (Poor Crisco, once king.) Saturated animal fats became sandwiched between trans fats and polyunsaturated vegetable fats, with monounsaturated fats like olive oil used in Mediterranean cuisines now sitting atop the fat pyramid. I suspect the real hierarchy should instead be mono, then saturated, then poly, then trans—or even saturated before mono—since humans have been eating animal fats like lard long before processed vegetable oils. Regardless, all the grocery-shelf options have since modulated, becoming low fat rather than nonfat, where they've more or less stayed. So most Americans still believe fats are bad, except in small quantities, and eat them guiltily.

Jeff's homemade pecan pie with whipped cream, Thanksgiving 2013

At the same time as all of this, the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy, began to reclaim whole, real fatty foods that included local eggs, organic dairy (cream, butter, milk, buttermilk, cheeses), liberal amounts of extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts, and wild and locally raised organic meats. Many Americans began to learn or relearn that the real stuff simply tastes better and is in fact healthier than the fake stuff in moderation—which means one can't go around eating whole sticks of butter and dumping cream on everything. But who'd want to do that, anyway? Moderation is key. Plus, as Julia Child said ages ago, "fat carries flavor," making proteins and complex carbs even more pleasurable. Just ask the French.

vintage French Villeroy & Boch "Delicious Apple" creamer, resold

I've lived in Europe and Asia where people are generally much slimmer, walk more for daily errands, and eat smaller portions than Americans. The Koreans I lived among, for example, don't historically eat any dairy or sugar (other than the gummy, barely sweet steamed rice balls served on holidays and special occasions as dessert), eating far less dietary fat and processed foods overall and many more vegetables, while Europeans do eat dairy and more meat, but, like Asians, also tend to eat less processed foods and more regular home-cooked, family meals. My friend, Stephanie, who lives in London and lived for years in Switzerland and France says "Americans are weird about food" and that "the French have got it right." From her observation:

They eat when they are hungry, they eat food that is absolutely delicious, and if they indulge, they allow themselves, and then the next day or so they eat a salad to make up for it. They don't deprive themselves, they don't gorge, they eat reasonable portions. And they don't exercise—the way we Americans think of it—they just walk everywhere, all of the time.

For the most part, cultures with longer, more rooted histories than ours seem to have found easier balances with food (and exercise). They simply eat, communally, what they've always traditionally eaten, rather than following the latest fad diet based on the latest scientific studies—which are typically funded and marketed by corporations vested in turning cheap agribusiness commodities into huge profit makers, both at the grocery store and the pharmacy. As a result, eating a variety of whole, home-cooked, minimally processed, plant-based foods in moderation—long touted by food experts such as Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, and Michael Pollan—has seemed to me the healthiest, most logical diet, though I still haven't wanted to return to eating animals, despite all the studies showing, for example, major health benefits accrued from regularly eating wild fish.

miner's lettuce, school garden, winter 2014 (iPhone photo)

Then a year-and-a-half ago, I was diagnosed with rosacea, my then-doctor suggesting an anti-inflammatory diet, which meant I virtually became vegan for six months (excepting honey). But it was difficult to completely give up Western staples like wheat and corn, dairy, eggs, potatoes, and tomatoes, let alone sugar, which also made dining out or eating as a guest nearly impossible, the inconvenience making me eventually give up the diet after not seeing significant changes in my skin or physique.

Then I had the weird heart-racing episode this past October, with many subsequent lab tests and even a trip to a cardiologist, none of the doctors able to pinpoint a cause. They claim it's neither something I'm doing (like eating too much salt or fat) nor avoiding (strenuous exercise) and that I'm actually very healthy, other than the iron anemia.

But that doesn't make sense. Why would I be experiencing symptoms of inflammation, the body's sign that something is out of balance, if nothing were amiss? I know I should be aerobically exercising more. I should be avoiding sugar. I should be eating more vegetables and raw foods (even as a vegetarian). I should be eating more protein. I should be taking more supplements and returning to exclusively organic food. I should be having more sex. I should be socializing more, having more fun, feeling more connected and loved. I should be writing more. I should avoid so many "should's." And I should otherwise be reducing stress with yoga and naps and meditation and avoiding such things as twelve-hour workdays. Most of these I've been consciously working on. But what if I've also been poisoning myself without knowing?

vintage chemical bottles with glass stoppers, resold

picnic tables at Pier Park (iPhone photo)

A few weeks ago at the library I picked up neurologist David Perlmutter's The Grain Brain, which cites recent study after study (many of which he claims haven't yet been adequately publicized) arguing the contemporary Western carbohydrate-rich, low-fat diet, particularly wheat, gluten, and sugar—combined with inadequate aerobic exercise—is making us sicker than ever as a society, spiking diseases and inflammatory syndromes from head-to-toe, including all the top skyrocketing diagnoses, from diabetes, obesity, various autoimmune disorders, depression, anxiety, and heart and vascular conditions to ADHD and Alzheimer's—even likely impacting autism.

sunbathing sea lions, Astoria, Oregon, September 2011

The guy is dead-serious (he's even had his own PBS special), and the book is downright scary—if everything can be believed. He wants everyone to give up all gluten, all processed carbs, starches (including corn, potatoes, and yams), sugars (even honey and maple syrup) other than limited quantities of whole fruit, and all vegetable oils and soy products. He recommends seven supplements: alpha-lipoic acid, coconut oil, DHA, probiotics, resveratrol, turmeric, and vitamin D. He wants the majority of one's diet to be fat (!) since the brain lives on fat. And he wants everyone to commit to regular, increasing amounts of exercise and good sleep. Plus, he also advises that people get tested for food intolerances and self-check for reactions to non-gluten grains.

doe with fawn, southern Oregon, August 2011

He certainly has his critics, even from the Paleo crowd, primarily that no one in prehistory could ever have been eating as much fat as he recommends and that modern hunter-gatherer diets vary widely due to geography and available resources. What I scratch my head over most is what I remember from Anthropology 101 about all the roots and tubers that modern hunter-gatherers eat. In other words, surely humans have been eating starches for tens of thousands of years, as well as dairy for semi-nomadic herders and disparate seasonal amounts of foraged fructose—just not our contemporary highly processed starches and sugars. After all, we're cousins of chimps, and chimps, too, are omnivores. But unlike many Americans, chimpanzees—who eat primarily fruit, leaves, flowers, seeds, berries, and then smaller amounts of small animals, even baby monkeys—are not exactly picky eaters.

chopped raw Swiss chard stems & garlic, Thanksgiving 2013

A few weekends ago, while over at the Southeast Sixth Avenue Goodwill (this particular store having the largest and best thrift-book selection in town), I passed through the diet and health section. I stopped and scanned the titles, essentially running the gamut of fad diets from the past twenty-to-thirty years: Macrobiotic, Jenny Craig, NutriSystem, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Raw, Dr. Phil, Dr. Weil, Dr. Oz. (See here for a broader historical perspective on fad diets, and note particularly the riffs on cigarettes, sleeping pills, and cotton balls as weight-loss methods.) For the record, Dr. Perlmutter, his book published just last year, wasn't in evidence yet at Goodwill. But the trip was a reminder about perspective—seeing the bigger picture. Theories and health proclamations, like clothes, go out of style. Remember when eggs were deemed evil? Sorry, but these latest extreme gluten-free, no-carb, mostly-meat, mostly-fat trends all seem like yet more picky, frenzied, hyped, unbalanced fad diets that will one day be proven unsound.

garden sunflower, September 2012

I've been vegetarian for over half my life (which, granted, is its own version of picky), after veering away from the flavorless, stringy, cud-chewy slabs of meat in the college cafeteria and gravitating over to the salad bar with all those pretty colors and textures. And I've never looked back, never missing meat (though I admit at the grocery store, I sometimes glance twice at a log of hard, dry salami and I did enjoy dipping lobster tails in clarified butter). I've long known I personally function better and weigh less if I eat more protein and fat and limit—but not completely forgo—the complex carbs. Most of the snacks Perlmutter recommends, I already eat and love as main-course vegetarian ingredients—eggs, cheese, hummus, avocado, nuts, and olives—with dark chocolate for dessert (p. 247). He's right that Americans usually find it much easier to grab a sugar-loaded grain snack than something more nutrient-dense. Societally, we're eating too many refined, processed carbs. And he's also correct that most of us should be getting more exercise and sleep.

honeybee on bloom, June 2012

But another critique I have of both Perlmutter's high-fat diet and the high-protein Paleo argument is that most traditional cultures around the world, like the Koreans I lived among, don't eat nearly the amount of meat or fat he or other low-carb diet proponents recommend. Koreans use meat mainly as a flavoring, which is why as a vegetarian I had the hardest time eating there of anyplace I've ever traveled, despite the many vegetable dishes: small amounts of meat or seafood were bobbing or mixed into almost everything, from soups to sauces. Also countering his argument, the Japanese (and I've traveled there, too) eat plenty of fish but little dietary fat and are considered as having one of the healthiest food traditions based on longevity and disease statistics.

Because animal flesh is generally much more expensive than plants and grains, it is used in many world cuisines more as a flavoring or celebratory treat—like killing a goat or chicken when company comes. Koreans, for example, don't eat their famous specialty bulgogi barbecue every day; it was originally meant for royalty. That's why people around the world, more often than eating meat, eat cheaper yet highly nutritious proteins like legumes and eggs. But as countries develop, meat consumption rises. Everyone wants to be king.

backyard chickens, Eastmoreland, June 2012

Here's a little secret. I ate a serving of fish a couple weeks ago for the first time in over twenty years. My meat-eating friend Jeff cooked it for me, and he's an even better cook than I am. However, it took three meals to swallow that single serving of fish down, and I hated . . .  every . . . bite—the taste, the texture, the very idea of it. I felt sad and guilty that some poor, deep-Arctic wolfish was killed just so I could gag it down as an experiment.

Because I've been worrying so much about my health the last several months, I'd been wondering if perhaps I should start eating fish again occasionally, thinking maybe I've been missing some key nutrient only available in animal protein that isn't showing up on all those expensive blood tests. And fish and shellfish, lacking legs, are thereby the least "animal," so to speak, meaning fish tacos are a known gateway drug back to meat-eating for vegetarians whose doctors tell them they're anemic. (Mine, though, actually said my being vegetarian will be beneficial in the long run and to just pop a daily iron pill instead.)

However, happening with students upon some pictures at school last week of certain kinds of fish with awfully human-looking teeth—so human they could almost be posted in a dentist's office as a reminder to floss—it's much easier now to imagine our fishy ancestors who first crawled out of the swamps onto land on their fin-legs, making me even less interested in eating fish again. The eyes-like-mine issue about eating animals that used to get to me most, doesn't anymore; now it's their teeth.

Oregon alpaca farm, July 2010 (Kodak Easyshare photo)

Plus, what would happen if everybody in the world, billions of people, started eating large quantities of meat daily, especially eating exclusively grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish and organically raised pigs and chickens and so on as Dr. Perlmutter and the Paleo proponents recommend? It simply isn't sustainable. In fact, it's laughable. The oceans are already close to being fished out and rain forests—the planet's lungs—chopped down in part to raise cattle for beef. This is essentially the argument Frances Moore LappĂ© made in Diet for a Small Planet forty years ago. Unfortunately, according to long-term thinkers like Stephen Hawking, humanity's only real solution is to find another planet to consume. (I'd prefer Homo sapiens died off as a failed branch of the evolutionary tree, like the Neanderthals, letting the dolphins, whales, elephants, chimps, and octopuses vie for world supremacy—or rather, for what's left of it.)

old rusty truck in overgrown Brooklyn driveway, Portland, June 2013 (iPhone photo)

But returning full-circle back to weight, few people in developed countries, even in America, used to be obese. Just look at any old photos from thirty or more years ago, even the ones in our own family albums. Fat people were the exception, not the rule. The underlying reasons Americans are so large today, with increasing rates of disease and food allergies, are likely just twofold: most Americans no longer cook primarily at home from scratch with whole, organic foods and don't walk or move around enough—simple as that.

In fact, two of the "nine lessons" of longevity learned from Dan Buettner's cross-cultural research done in the so-called Blue Zones—locations around the world with high concentrations of healthy, active centenarians—are "eating less" and eating more beans than meat, while another lesson is to "move naturally" throughout the day in work and play (in gardening, walking, biking, cleaning, and so on), rather than scheduling an exercise session. The other takeaways from healthy elders involve regular relaxation and stress release, having a sense of life purpose, practicing some form of spirituality, and maintaining a close-knit social and familial network. (And living in warm, mild, beautiful climates on islands or coasts—from Okinawa to Greece to Italy to Costa Rica to the Seventh-Day Adventist pocket in southern California—surely doesn't hurt.)

Berry Good Produce & Nursery, Portland, Oregon, April 2012

vintage French mouli-julienne vegetable shredder, resold

Sadly, eat from scratch and move around a lot isn't sexy and doesn't sell many books or push any products. In our sped-up computer culture, when most jobs require sitting at a desk all day and everyone who can is working forty-plus-hour weeks, often with long commutes as the cherry on top, aiming for that shrinking middle-class lifestyle—or simply, like me, to keep afloat—it's also easier said than done. Americans are not just fat and inactive, but fat, inactive, and increasingly lonely. More tragically, these unhealthy dietary, stationary, and isolating habits have been spreading around the world like a virus. So the future just might look like the subversive Pixar film Wall-E, with balloon-like people hovering over a trashed planet, wheeled about in automated chairs while sipping Big Gulps, eyes glued to giant, pulsing screens.

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