[If you haven’t read “Feeding the Family, Part One,” you should start there.]
Not being a dietitian or nutritionist or farmer by profession, I knew I was going to need help if I was going to answer this question: how can an ordinary guy like me reform my eating habits and improve my overall health? In my writing work, I would normally go to a library or the Archives to begin any kind of research, but this time I started by checking Netflix and Amazon Prime first. (I know better than to browse the internet for anything related to health or wellness, since those rabbit holes can lead first to a self-diagnosis then to a panic attack.) I’m not looking for anything radical, so much as something transformative, and I still don’t know enough about food and eating to put my faith in any diet plan. Nor do I ever intend to ruin my enjoyment of food by counting calories, carbs, fats, or anything else. Starting slowly, with a nice documentary, seemed adequate.
On either of the two streaming services, there were a couple of films I’d seen and some I hadn’t, and since I like writer Michael Pollan particularly, I settled on one of his. In the PBS documentary In Defense of Food, released in 2015, Pollan brings his foodie wisdom from the pages of his book onto the screen – which I appreciate since I read a lot for work – and shares this simple modicum: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’ve been a fan of Pollan’s approach for years and already try to stick to another bit of advice that I once heard him give: eat things that look like what they are. He is saying basically the same thing in both cases, that we should eat naturally occurring foods rather than processed foods. Eating a chicken breast or leg is better choice than eating a chicken nugget.
Pollan also suggests in the film that we avoid the middle aisles of the grocery store. As I watched, it had never occurred to me before how the traditional and naturally occurring foods – fruits and vegetables, milk and bread, meat and fish – are typically arranged like a U on the outskirts of the store, while the processed foods tend to be in the middle. This sense of how to shop for groceries isn’t a total solution to the eating conundrum, and it doesn’t carve a direct route to a guarantee of perfect health, but it does seem to be a good guiding principle.
One other takeaway from In Defense of Food improved my understanding of the term whole grain. In the film, Pollan explains how and why white flour came to dominate the market, yet with consequences. Though white flour is more easily preserved, reducing spoilage and increasing shelf-life, it achieves that by removing the most nutrient rich parts of the grain. So, whole grain bread is made from flour that keeps and includes those nutritious parts that white flour lacks. Moreover, with white bread, manufacturers then “enrich” the bread with artificially produced vitamin supplements to put back what was taken out, and they also typically add sugar. Once again, the simplicity of Michael Pollan’s approach is appealing— bread should be made from four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. I’m a guy who loves bread, and there’s an easy move in the right direction.
After I watched In Defense of Food, one of the recommendations that followed was another documentary titled simply Sustainable. This relatively short film from 2016 offers a seasonal look at one family-owned farm that shifted its production away from a corporate, high-yield model and into being a local supplier of local goods. The owner Marty Travis thus became an important figure in the food movement in Chicago, and he also organized a cooperative of local farmers who now help each other by planning ahead to meet demand and consolidating orders.
Though Sustainable was more about farming than eating, it was good to see that there’s a proven way for an ordinary family farm, or a group of them, to become a source for people in cities to access healthier foods. I tend to think about small-scale urban agriculture and local farmers markets as the sole sources for suburbanites like me, but the Travis family showed a way to have that happen on a larger scale. It was also good to see not only his son taking an interest in the work, and also seeing the cooperative’s meetings where people were being asked, what do you want to grow?
What I’m learning about food as I look into ways to eat better and to support sustainable practices while I’m doing it is: somehow, we ditched the simple way in favor of the convenient way, which is unfortunately more complicated and more wasteful. Processed foods that have longer shelf-lives tend to achieve that by removing what is most healthy (nutrients, vitamins), adding what is most unhealthy (chemicals, preservatives), and utilizing the most nonrenewable energy (gasoline in trucks, electricity in freezer cases). These foods also appeal to our taste-buds with two things we shouldn’t eat much of: salt and sugar.
So far, two of the most difficult aspects of this effort to change my eating habits have been: giving up some of the ease and convenience, and avoiding processed foods that I’ve eaten for a long time. However, a bright side is there, too: my tastes are changing. These days, I like to eat a honey crisp apple, a banana, or both nearly every day, and the last time I fixed myself a can of Chef Boyardee, it didn’t even taste good. However, I’ve not achieved foodie sainthood just yet— I’d still take a Reese’s cup over a block of tofu any day. But at least I’ve recognized that I can’t have one every day.
Interestingly, while I was working on this post, NPR’s The Salt published an opinion piece that caught my eye: “Why Ditching Processed Foods Won’t Be Easy— The Barriers to Cooking From Scratch.” Even more interestingly, the piece, which was written by three sociologists, was about Michael Pollan’s seven-word advice, and how a “recent study now offers hard scientific evidence in support of Pollan’s message.” A few paragraphs in, there was this:
The study confirms what we’ve been hearing for years: Cooking from scratch and eating “real food” is better and healthier. The problem is that knowing this doesn’t make it any more doable for the average family.
Below that, the three authors explain that we typically get about 60% of our calories from processed foods, and for low-income families, that percentage is even higher. And that has a lot to do with two things: time and money. I know that, for my family, which has two children playing two sports, when we get home in the afternoon, there’s not a two-hour window to cook and eat a good meal before practice or a game. This often means that my children scarf down a Hot Pocket at 4:15 rather than sitting down and calmly eating a freshly cooked meal at 6:00. As for the money, post-recession wage stagnation accompanied by higher food prices hasn’t made it impossible for my family to have healthier foods, but that scenario has meant that it is a decision to make.
In a way, that’s true. When, as they put it, “inequality is baked into our food system,” choosing to spend a greater portion of a limited household resources on better food can become a moral issue: if I do this, what will I have to do without? That decision becomes even more difficult when we’re thinking about our children, who may like processed junk food, but the facts tells us that minimizing its presence in their lives is imperative.