Monday, September 5, 2016

Eating is Extreme

The title above is a bit of a misnomer. The act of eating is not actually extreme but the attempt to eat healthy seems to be an exercise in extremity these days. In Sunshine and Structure, I referenced the article, Excuse Me While I Lather my Child in this Toxic Death Cream, written by a tired mother fed up with proclamations of toxicity against everyday goods. But, in my opinion, the reality is that we're surrounded by convenient foods and products that do pose potential health risks down the road. I never really wanted to say this on my blog but I do believe we live in a toxic food environment.

D.C. represent...

Growing up, I remember a sort of infomercial which claimed, "with new information coming out everyday about food, it's hard to know what's healthy." Being raised in a family that put a premium on health, I was lucky enough to know that, yes there are trends but, in general, a balanced diet of fruits, veggies and meats was pretty much the standard bearer of a good diet. And this is essentially true. It might not make you look like Gisele (which leads to an alternate issue in our food-culture) but it likely keeps you healthy barring any unforeseen circumstances. However, even with a balanced diet, there are certain limitations and sacrifices we generally make to be truly healthy. There are also alternative avenues proselytized by the media which sound nice (or like a quick fix) but really lead nowhere. So, in an effort to clear things up, I've drawn up my own plan for health as far as I know - so, you can totally disregard it if you wish. I start with foods that I've found can be completely eliminated from the diet and then get narrower. Along the way, I've tried to point out food trends which are relatively bullshit so as not to make eating so elitist and unappetizing. Like political correctness, it's good when eating works for everyone and doesn't seem too overwhelming. So, below are my (amateur) findings. Enjoy!

Processed Foods
In Candid-dida, I spoke about cutting processed foods from my diet for about a week. In short, the experience was truly eye opening. All of a sudden, my body had the nutrients it needed to get by. My sugar cravings went down as did my anxiety and constant need to go to yoga. Instead of my body shunning food it knew was not good for it, my appetite increased as did my good mood. It wasn't always easy but the results were worth it. 

Of course, with processed foods, there's often the question of price (and access). Food deserts or areas without easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables tend to exist in urban areas with lower socioeconomic means. While I believe I've heard the argument that processed foods provide a high amount of calories per dollar the movie Fed Up has told us that not all calories are created equal. And processed foods do possess elements our bodies don't necessarily need. While a lemon simply provides the goodness of a lemon, lemon juice (at least of the Sicilia brand) can contain lemon juice, lemon oil and sulpher dioxide (a preservative). And it is these preservatives which can contribute to adverse efffects on our health including issues with asthma, hyperactivity and heart damage (accoring to Furthermore, since processed foods are not exactly concentrated in nutrients (it'd be unprofitble to be so), one often eats more to gain a sense of satiety.

In Candid-dida, I also talked about eating meat and that it became a necessity when I relied more on whole foods. As they say, variety is the spice of life and as you feed your body more natural items, the more it seems to crave a new diversity of foods and nutrients. So while I was raised in a family with a high percentage of vegetarians, I know I need meat. However, meat eating seems to be where we get on the tight-rope wire and become extra careful of our habits. While (I think) one should be free to eliminate processed foods entirely according to circumstance, there have been some trends in the meat industry which can make our heads spin.

Going along with processed foods, processed meats are reported by the World Health Organization to, "increase the risk of cancer," according to the BBC. So this seems to be the first extremity in eating. For you goyim, bacon and sausage are part of the culinary landscape and for school children everywhere, so are lunch meats. However, there are luckily other delicious meats to eat. According to the WHO, however, the next step is to be cognizant of...

When it comes to meat, size matters (hehe). Scientifically speaking, both adult males and females are advised to consume about 6 oz. of meat on the daily (according to the American Heart Association). This, to me, is the second area where eating can become extreme. While 6 oz. of meat generally equals the size of two card decks, restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory, Arby's and Chili's pride themselves on their large portions for less. In order to reduce this amount, however, the above Association advises building meals around vegetables...

Fruits and vegetables are delicious (I think). Vegetables provide a whopping percentage of nutrients and fruits can satisfy our sweet teeth and make bland dishes more palatable. In one serving of broccoli alone, one can finagle 220% of his or her vitamin C intake. One potato (the unhealthy stepchild of vegetables) possesses B6 to help our hormones and potassium for our muscles. But, within this category, there are concerns as to how such plants are grown and where they are distributed.

As stated in Eating Locally, Religiously, I was at first confounded by the locavore movement (from a dietary perspective). Of course, locavores like Gwyneth Paltrow seemed to love eating food grown within a 60 mile radius for environmental reasons but we don't all have access to the undisturbed farms of East Hampton. Plus, researchers have shown that eating locally doesn't have a large impact on environmental healing. I do wonder at times however, if it can have an economic one.

As I get older, I like to think more and more about where my dollar is going (probably because I have so few of them). It's not about eschewing Capitalism, it's about using my power as a consumer within the system. Like I said in Techo-Traps, I'm a bit old fashioned and, I guess I enjoy Adam Smith's idea of capitalism where a vendor feels a sense of obligation to a consumer partially because he or she has to "look you in the eye." These days, such an arrangement is hard to find (I know the worker at Chipotle doesn't give a fuck if I like my sandwich) but, at the farmer's market a farmer tends to stand behind the product they've worked to nurture and often develop relationships with the yuppie patrons who like to stop by. For me, eating locally is great but it's also important for me to spend locally. Plus, the idea of eating locally can sometimes give one more to think about in an already complicated process of eating health.

If I was originally confused by the locavore movement, I was a little miffed by the organic one. Eating fruits and vegetables in a sea of more tempting but less healthy options is an achievement in itself. And yes, the presence of pesticides can be harmful but, as I see it, it is just one factor of the farming model. 

When scouring the Internet for seeds several years ago, I came across the fact that farmers often prize soil as their main "crop" from which all other crops derive. Maintaining healthy soil will generally give way to healthy plants the way quality ingredients will give way to a quality dish. To some extent, a small farmer, will be able to tend more to the soil of his or her land than the expansive landscapes of the agribusiness industry. Also, both the small farmer and agribusiness alike must shell out copious amounts for the organic label, causing some to farm organically while giving an FU to the government. So, at the end of the day, pat yourself on the back for eating fruits or vegetables, organically or inorganically.

But while fruits and vegetables are healthy, they're not always tasty on their own (there's a reason kids have to be incentivized to eat their broccoli). And this is where items such as oils, vinegars and other condiments come in although, sometimes, at the expense of our health.

Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids which can help lower one's risk of heart disease (according to The Mayo Clinic). Oils, however are processed and not all are created equal. Recently, some speculation has arisen surrounding vegetable oil. After analyzing the substance again, researchers found that vegetable oil, specifically, could lead to rather than detract from heart disease (according to Time). Furthermore, while olive oil has been shown to provide a myriad of benefits, it has also be shown that not all olive oils are what they seem. 

Vinegars are great, but like oils, they are processed. This is not necessarily a bad thing but they are also sold for around 3.99 (a gallon). This often makes me wonder what's in them and how they're made. A book I'm looking to buy is Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila Latourrette's Twelve Months of Monastery Soups. While poking around Amazon for the tome, however, I stumbled upon a New York Times article covering how he made vinegar. Stationed in his kitchen at the Ressurection Monastery in Millbrook, New York, Brother Avila detailed how he began the vinegar making process by boiling a pot of wine. At $3.99, however, I'm skeptical most food companies use the brother's process (or base of wine). And even if they did, wine has its own issues as well.


Every few weeks, my father sends me an email detailing the latest food recall. I kind of can't stand them but I always ensure I reply politely. In one email, however, it detailed that trace but worrisome amounts of arsenic were found in many popular wines. To go back to my point in the introduction, we often pay a price for mass produced products... just not at the register.

When I began to "eat natty", I began to rely more on salt for flavoring. Taking well to anything from meat to vegetables, salt is a natural alternative to heavy dressings or dips. The issue, however, is that our bodies don't need much of it. 

Don't get me wrong, our bodies need salt, just about 1 teaspoon per day, according to the FDA. Beyond that, issues with blood pressure can occur. So, while foods are great salted, if we stick to recommended guidelines, they just won't taste that great. 

Cooking Methods
In the Spring, Shape and a bunch of other publications reported that the healthiest method of cooking food was... steaming. Unfortunately, such publications were followed by summer - the season of grilling. But exposing foods to high temperatures can be detrimental to both the foods and ourselves.

According to Eating Well, "[t]here's no evidence that grilling causes cancer. But cooking meat at the high temperatures you use to grill... causes heterocyclic amines [HCAs] and polycyclic amines [PCAs], compounds linked with some cancers." When we don't reach for salts or oils to season our foods, heat can be the next best thing to bring out flavor. High fluctuations in temperatures however, are just as problematic for foods as they are for other materials. I remember watching a video in which Jamie Oliver claimed the best way of searing meat on the stove was to first let one's pan reach a really high temerapture, and then allowing the meat to form a caramelized "crust" while its internal flavor remained "locked in". While, Oliver did instruct the viewer to not cook cold meat over high heat, it was said more for the sake of textural over health-related reasons.

"Lots of salt and lots of pepper," according to Mr. Oliver.

When meat browns, it undergoes a process called the Maillard Reaction, which is responsible for providing many browned or "toasted" foods such as breads with a, "favorable flavor," according to Wikipedia. The issue, according to the same source, is that when temperatures climb too high, "a potential carcinogen called acrylamide can be formed." (The same process can be indirectly used to create artificial flavors). Acrylamide is found in many things, not just food. Paper towels and food packaging are just a few of the goods which possess the substance. Accoring to the National Cancer Institue, however, while, "the [FDA] regulates the amount of residual acrylamide in a variety of materials that come in contact with food... there are currently no guidelines governing the presence of acrylamide in food itself." And, at this point, I'm starting to get depressed by my own blog post.

Despair not, young'uns, there are superfoods that can save the day! Only, in my opinion, many superfoods in stores today are stupid. As stated earlier, while I certainly had my confusions as a youngster, I was generally aware of what was healthy and what was not (usually it was the things I was eating). With two parents who preached the value of common-sensical health, I never once heard the words "ashitaba", "astragalus" or "cordyceps". Perhaps they weren't of the hippie-variety or perhaps they didn't want to drop $50 on a single food item but they always maintained that relying on natural foods was the way to go.

Last Spring, I actually wrote about superfoods in a post (Compararive Curiosities), noting their reported benefits. As I see it now, an emphasis on superfoods is a little like the organic movement with women in Lululemon pants touting the benefits of Eucommia bark (which retails at around $55 a pop). I'm not saying such products don't maintain their reported benefits, it's just that I wonder if they provide a way of consuming nutrients sans calories. Additionally, many benefits and nutrients we can obtain just fine from whole foods (the product, not the store). Spending a fortune on specialized goods is fine if you can afford it but should not stand in as a substitute for good habits. Again, if we pay collectively for health care as a society, we should make healthy eating available to everyone, not just the elite.  So, this is where we return to balance. Simply eating when we're hungry, foods that are naturally and nutritious, help our bodies and minds (and maybe the economy). As I referenced in Techno-Traps we often become our parents and, I've found their endless preaching to be true: that we don't need fancy remedies or unique trends to be healthy, we (conversely) need what's simple... just what the Earth and farms give to us. As Occam's razor tells us, "the simplest solution is often the right one."

So there you have it... a long winded way of saying that yes, there are many temptations out there and ways to eat unhealthy are both tasty and convenient but can generally harm us in the long run, both as individuals and as a collective society. So where does all thing information leave us? The truth is often found in the middle and, to no surprise, the foods featured in the middle of the article are the ones that seem best for us. One not need rely too much on processed food for survival but can eat meat and produced not dressed too heavily in sauces and condiments. And one eventually notices the complexity of natural foods that have a depth well beyond the immediate hit of a sugar-laced item. And there are food trends that come and go, but at the end of the day, I've found our own bodies have way more knowledge than the evening news and can, on its own, inform us what's right and what is not. Trust Thyself and treat yourself well. 

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