My Evolving Thoughts on Food

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.  ~Hippocrates, ~400 BC

Only eat things that nourish your body and make you feel wholesome – you are what you eat.  That is my latest and hopefully forever philosophy about food.  But it’s hard when there is so much confusion about what is actually good for my body.   Since I put a number of recipes on here and talk about food a lot, I wanted a post about how I feel about food to help frame where I’m coming from.  My thoughts on nutrition have always been evolving, as I document in this post.  I like to think I have landed at a place I will no longer waver since I am now using what I feel is common sense, but I’m not naïve enough to think I have figured it all out.

My thoughts on food have pretty followed much the same path as American society over the last 30 years.  I’m lucky not to have any allergies or digestive problems.  I have never yo-yo dieted.  In fact, I find it pretty ridiculous to follow a “diet” with the objective to lose weight because what happens when you go off the diet?  Why not just commit to eating better food as a way of life?  I have tried things for the occasional month, just to gather empirical data.  I am a scientist by nature and profession so I’m often curious to see what happens to my body and psyche by adding or eliminating certain foods.  I remember my seventh grade science project involving cholesterol tracking of my best friend and I.  I read a lot of books on the science of nutrition, both the hyped stuff and the tried and true stuff.  The book that best matches my own thoughts is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, which I highly recommend.

The origin of my food journey was Fargo, ND in the eighties.  It was a good place to ease in to the whole food thing.  My childhood was meat and potatoes-centric.  One of my absolute favorite meals was mashed potatoes and Jennie-O “turkeyloaf.”  To this day, I’m not really sure what turkeyloaf is and I think I am better off not knowing the details.  Generally, the questions to answer about dinner were 1) which meat, 2) which potato, 3) which type of bread, 4) what type of boiled vegetable and 5) which type of Jell-O or Jell-O pudding for dessert?  Some nights all these things were combined in to one in a “hotdish” or “casserole” (minus the Jell-O!).  Tater Tot Hotdish was one of the best!  On a lucky night, I might get my favorite – Orange Fluff.  If there was a salad, it was either Ranch or French dressing  from the bottle on iceberg lettuce.  It was a very typical Midwestern diet and my family was great about putting dinner on the table and catering to my favorites and trying to feed me a well-balanced diet.

As I graduated high school and began college, I decided to do an experimental cleanse/fast.  It was the infamous Cabbage Soup Diet.  By the fourth day of it, I was sweating this interesting vegetable smell and felt like I was on a high.  This high was more than likely due to dizziness as a result of starvation, but I deduced that it was from the elimination of meat for four days so after the cleanse, I swore off meat.  That lasted for about four years and I have dabbled in different forms of vegetarianism since.

Those four years occurred during the height of the low-fat phase. I shudder to think I ever thought there was some sort of scientific evidence to back this!  The idea was that eating fat of any kind made you fat.  I remember dutifully scanning the nutrition information on the back of packages and filling up my backpack with boxes of macaroni and cheese and non-fat sugary yogurt, and low-fat cheese with bread, bagels and fat-free cream cheese, and Popsicles.  I didn’t have a car so had to fit all my low-fat selections in to a backpack I could bike with.  This phase culminated with a bang.  Literally.  Explosive farts and anal leakage caused by Olestra in fat-free Dorito’s.  I began to re-think whether or not fat-free was good for one’s body.

It was about this same time that I met my former husband who introduced me to a whole new world that a girl from Fargo had never experienced…Indian food, shellfish with shells on them, and sauces made with ingredients that didn’t come from a can.  We ate absolutely everything that tasted good to us and I slowly began to add meat back in to my diet.  Peppered with the occasional healthy meals were copious amounts of Ruby Red Squirt, Tostito’s nacho cheese sauce (which we thoughtfully added fresh jalapenos and tomatoes to), marinara with Italian sausage, jars of Alfredo sauce poured over noodles, and pizza (also with fresh jalapenos), biscuits and gravy.

The chubbies happened slowly enough not to notice the transformation.   I was in grad school at the time and writing a thesis all night and showing up to crush rocks in a lab didn’t really require tailored clothes.  Upon moving to Houston, I realized we were looking a little pudgy.  The timing of this realization was coincident with the discovery of gourmet health food stores in the big city.  We slowly began transforming our eating style focusing on fairly lean meats and, following the carb phase that everyone was going through, began to limit our carbs and got back to a less puffy weight.

I don’t still follow a “low carb” diet but am very conscious of the proportion of carbs I eat relative to the rest of my diet and am quite choosy about which ones I eat.  I resisted the movement that began to happen which starred gluten as the devil as well as the paleo-type diet.  I felt that perhaps our bodies should have learned to evolve with the crops we had learned to grow.  It seemed counter-intuitive to me that our smart species was destined to remain listless wanderers, killing mammoths and plucking fruit and seeds off trees forever.

I have reconsidered my thoughts on gluten and eating more of a paleo type diet as of late and think it’s a great philosophy though it’s hard for me to adhere to it at all times.  Really, I think any type of special way of eating is hard because it often makes social gatherings where food is consumed feel odd.  You don’t want to feel high maintenance or left out.

I started to reconsider based on a book I read recently called Wheat Belly, which had quite an impact on me.  The idea is that wheat has been completely bastardized since the original crop.  Back in the 1960’s a new variety of wheat was invented to help combat the problem of world hunger.  This wheat was basically a Frankenstein wheat that was more of a dwarf plant bred to increase yield.  Because of its heartiness for harvesting, nearly all our planet’s wheat that is being grown has been transformed to this type.  Its effects on humans were never tested though.  It has lately been accused of producing very detrimental effects due to inflammation and interactions it has on brain chemistry and is being blamed for everything from heart disease to arthritis to high cholesterol to diabetes.  And then, of course, the ADA’s recommendation to all people with these conditions is to eat more “healthy whole grains” which most of the population consumes in the form of wheat, so this further exacerbates the problem.

I hate to be a conspiracy theorist worried about what the government is allowing in regards to the food we eat.  But there is a lot of information available regarding how many of these people are in bed with the large pharmaceutical companies and government nutrition agencies.  It’s hard to trust that there is no self-serving relationships among all these organizations and companies.

Along these same lines we now have GMO’s or Genetically Modified Organisms and the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, etc. (non-organic food) to deal with.  This is such a huge problem in our society and I can’t even begin to express how worried it makes me here.  I find it very scary though that we really have no control over this food, that it is not regulated and that we all may be consuming it inadvertently.  I feel it has the potential to have a seriously bad impact on the health of our people and our planet and the biodiversity it supports.  It bothers me that so much of our population is either unaware of these issues or can’t afford to eat organic food.  It just doesn’t seem right this food is not regulated or not available to everyone.

I have also had major struggles with how I feel about the consumption of animal products.  I consider myself an animal lover but have tried vegan and I feel like I am doing something negative to my body.  I don’t feel or look healthy and I don’t feel balanced.  It’s also difficult socially.  So I try to be very choosy about which animal products I eat.  It’s important to me that I know where it came from and I try to really limit my meat consumption.  I don’t eat factory-farmed meat and I am trying to be very careful about the type of dairy I consume as well.  I’ll put in some posts later about local family farms I visit to find meat and animal products.  In a perfect world, I’d raise all my own animals or a friend would hunt meat for me.

I also think westerners are just deluded about how much meat we need.  I think a little bit of meat once or twice a week is quite sufficient and a great way to reduce our impact on the globe and to allow for better animal welfare.  I don’t think we need to be killing 10 billion animals per year to feed our population of 300 million.  When each of us feels it’s necessary to consume up to a pound of meat every single day, there is no chance for reforming the welfare of these exploited beasts because of the sheer number that must be slaughtered to support this unhealthy habit.  I actually shed tears at times thinking about these animals.

So in all this wandering, this subscribing to new philosophies and discarding others, I feel like many of us are back where we started, as we are in so many things in life.  I’m going back to the way of my great-grandparents.   I try to eat a well-balanced diet with no refining, processing, extra sugar, or artificial additives.  I try not to eat too much of any one food group (except vegetables).  I eat limited amounts meat from ethical and sustainable sources and try to use all the parts in stocks, etc. I try not to eat anything that has been altered or produced in a factory from ingredients that aren’t food.  I consume mostly organic and local, when possible (I know I’m spoiled for living in a place where fresh food is grown all year round).  If I’m going to indulge in something like milk, cheese, etc. I go for the full fat satisfying stuff instead of the stuff that has been altered and processed.

So, that’s where I’m at.  I know this is a long post but I wanted my philosophies somewhere on this blog.  Chief feels the same way I do, though he is much more of a meat eater but I think my habits rub off on him a little.  As his do on mine – he is even better about avoiding anything “convenience” or packaged.  We want our family growing up appreciating the culinary tradition, understanding where food comes from and how to cook it.  We recognize humans preparing and sharing food together is one of the greatest and most ancient pleasures and where a sense of community evolves.  Feeding a family healthfully is a way of showing love.  So I hope all our recipes and experiments in here continue to adhere to these philosophies.

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