State of the Field

Over the course of the semester, I have done a lot of thinking about how people decide what food to put into their bodies. Turns out, the answer, if it can even be boiled down to one answer (spoiler alert- it can’t), is quite complicated. Furthermore, choice actually has very little to do with why we eat what we do. There are so many outside factors including financial restraints, education and access limitations, familial influence, societal/ cultural influence, and even chemistry within the food itself. There is however, definitely choice involved also. I have come to understand that there is a sort of scale that determines how much of what you eat is determined by choice and that scale has a lot to do with socio-economic factors. That being said, people do have agency with regards to what they consume to some degree. If I were to attempt to boil it down the most important factor in a word, I would say health is what drives many of our (educated eaters’) food decisions (or at least what we try to make drive our food decisions).

 My definition of health in this context, however, is multi-faceted. Additionally, I can’t speak for anyone else’s choices. I can, however, analyze my own choices as a somewhat informed/ conscious eater. I can also generalize based on trends I observed throughout the process of writing this blog. Health, to me, in terms of food can refer to nutrition, sustainability (health of the land and health of the workers), social health, and financial health (for the farmers and yourself- shouldn’t buy food you can’t afford).

 As far as nutrition goes, I like the idea of eating a variety of simple, whole foods. I think Michael Pollan has it right in his philosophy, “don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Processed foods like Cliff bars for example, more closely resemble animal droppings than anything my great-grandmother would have eaten, and she would have most definitely been concerned by the radio-active color of Cheetos. In many ways Cliff bars are deemed much healthier than Cheetos, but they still come in a package, are processed, and are still pretty unrecognizable as whole foods. I’m trying to avoid both, but when I have no other choice, I’d definitely choose a Cliff bar over Cheetos.

This choice of mine is probably based on the idea that has been ingrained in me since I was really young, that Cheetos and other snack foods are bad for you. That is the way I was raised. When I was little, juice boxes and snacks like goldfish were only for emergencies. Seriously, we kept juice boxes in the trunk of the car incase the car ever broke down (before cell phones). It only happened once and that is my only memory of a juice box for years. I still don’t ever drink juice or even really snack- it’s just not how I grew up eating.

 This aspect of how family impacts food choices has always been really interesting to me. As a veteran babysitter, I’ve witnessed a lot of parents have food rules (no gluten, please sprinkle fish flakes over food at every meal, child cannot leave table until all vegetables are gone, nothing but vegetables allowed after 7 p.m., etc.).  This can be known as food policing. Thinking back to my own childhood, I realize that I was raised in more of a food-policing environment than food pushing (see here for a discussion of both). The idea of food-policing is a troubling one. After lots of discussion and reflection about eating disorders, I have observed that many people who struggle with disordered eating come from food-policing households. Food pushing households can be equally detrimental, though, as connecting food to comfort and love can tip the scale from nurturing to unhealthy pretty quickly.

 Why is it so hard to strike a balance in parenting kids about food? Well, probably because food is such an impassioned thing! It is often connected to emotions in ways we can’t untangle. Parents want to provide the best food and nourishment for their kids to help them grow up healthy.

 There is a lot of societal pressure for mothers to feed their kids the best of the best. They are judged by their peers if they feed their kids apples with too many pesticides or on the other side of the spectrum, if they are “that” parent that provides their own meal at birthday parties because they don’t want their child eating unhealthy pizza unlike the other heathens. This article has an interesting perspective on the intricacies of this debate. That brings me back to the image from my first post- a PostSecret post card from a parent admitting to feelings of guilt for purchasing fewer organic ingredients and therefore lying about it.

 

 Image

 

There are other societal factors at play besides mothers judging themselves and each other. Religion, gender, and culture also play a role. This video highlights the basics about religious involvement in food choices, but what it addresses in more depth is the idea of gender norms in food. The speaker strongly conveys the masculine pull to eat what will make you strong- often red meat. This article also details the man’s plight in food choices (unfortunately only the abstract is free, but it still gives a good summary).

 I strongly disagree with the last statement, however. The author argues that “Women, on the other hand, appear to be less concerned with making gender-congruent choices.” This is based off the fact that women’s choices didn’t vary with the amount of time it took them to decide what they order. I want to argue that it is even more ingrained in women that they are supposed to eat a certain way. I think it has just become automatic for women to order what is appropriate on the menu. When they are on a date, I assure you it is rarely ever a burger. I don’t really have any scientific data to back this up, but I have had conversations with friends about this for years. In fact, I don’t know any woman who can honestly claim that she doesn’t look at the salad section of a menu first. It is not just that women are so incredibly lettuce loving as a gender, but rather that is what society dictates we should eat. All dieting commercials, all health food advertisements, yogurt advertisements, and chocolate advertisements (anything “sinfully” good) are directed towards women. Anything meat or pizza oriented is directed towards men.

 Culture plays such a role in how we think about food and eating. In this blog I have brought in the Spanish perspective and although I am not a native Spaniard, I did live in a very small city in Spain for five months surrounded by Spaniards and very few tourists. I observed their eating habits to be entirely different than ours. There were large differences between what we ate but the major differences lay in how we ate. Nothing was labeled organic or local, no one talked about sustainability- food was just food. There was only one variety of carrots in the grocery store so if you wanted carrots you just bought those. No one in my small city even understood what vegetarianism was or why you would ever choose that lifestyle. There were a few girls on my program living in homestays who were vegetarians, and really struggled because their madres would serve them tuna not understanding that tuna is considered an animal and therefore not eaten by vegetarians. They just don’t really divide food in the same categories we do. There was less of a focus on the food in general. They return home from work or school for lunch every day with their families because meal time is about socializing and catching up rather than fueling your body. They meet up with friends for a snack in the mid-morning or after work. The Spanish are not people who would ever eat lunch or a snack at their desk. In fact, there are even very few restaurants that offer take out options. It is all about sitting down and eating together. When deciding what to do for dinner- what restaurant to go to- the question was always asking more about what atmosphere are you in the mood for than what do you want to eat.

 Perhaps the Spanish have no version of this “new food activism” because they don’t need one. Outside of cities, everyone is a farmer. All the olives, olive oil, oranges, grapes, and wine come from local farms just because there are so many farms. They pride themselves on their jamón because their pigs are free to roam around and graze on acorns all day (which apparently makes for the tastiest meat and happy pigs). These aspects of what they eat are not really up to choice- that is just the way it works. Big Ag has not really left it’s mark on Spain yet, and the people are happy with that.

 Big Ag in the U.S. however, is another story. This awesome 11 year old kid already knows all about Monsanto and what we need to do to escape it’s grasp. New food activism is a large movement here and growing because there is a clear need for it. People are investigating the origins of their food because it actually does make a big difference. I think we are at a point now where if price was no issue, everyone would buy organic when possible.

 The unfortunate reality is that price is an issue. The famed Dr. Oz took a cost-benefit analysis position on the organic food phenomenon and found that the costs (of the actual ingredients plus time involved to prepare them plus time involved to purchase them more frequently) are not worth the nutritional gain. I’m sure this was comforting news to guilty middle to lower class mothers, however it is concerning to me. This proves once again that our food system is unjust. Dr. Oz even calls it “undemocratic”. This injustice affects what many put in their bodies. The injustice can stem from lack of education to lack of access to lack of funds and most often, a combination of all three, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone is able to be so “choosy” with their “chews”.

The state of the field, in my opinion, is improving. We have a class at Tufts called “New Food Activism”, news sources such as Time Magazine and The New York Times are bringing this dialogue to the mainstream media, 11 year olds are standing up against Monsanto, and there are policies trying to combat the injustice surrounding food and education in the U.S. It is important that this push continues. The more mainstream this becomes, the more choice can be a factor, and ultimately that is what I want. I want to see everyone have the freedom to choose their food and the education to really make that choice with all the facts in mind. While childhood/ familial food influences, religion, culture, and chemistry (the addictive nature of junk food) will most likely continue to influence what we eat and why, I hope that personal agency will have more to do with the story as time and this movement progress. The way things are headed, it seems as though, this increased choice will lead to increased health of the whole system: the individual, the mentality, the economy, the farmers, the land, the air, and the future. 

Are We Addicted to Food?

There was a New York Times magazine article last week that gave a fascinating behind the scenes look into the junk/ processed food industry. The amount of money spent on perfecting food that is horrible for us is astronomical. On the research and development end, there is so much thought (and money) that goes into every ingredient, every hint of flavor, how everything feels in your mouth, and every ounce of force required to bite a chip. Just imagine if all that money was put to a culinary cause that could benefit us rather than harm us. Even financially that could make sense- if your customers live longer they buy your product for longer, but in reality, it is in the best interest of these large corporations to steer customers as far from moderation as possible. In that article it even mentioned that CocaCola doesn’t target people who may have a coke on occasion, its primary audience is the “heavy user” who drinks three cokes a day!

Image

This article also likened marketing junk food to kids (like this Lunchables commercial) to marketing tobacco to kids: they are both unhealthy substances that young brains are not developed enough to make their own decisions about. That Lunchables commercial is especially disturbing because it encourages kids to use food as a way to escape from their parents’ rules and expectations- it uses junk food as a method of rebellion and independence. Personally, I think it is dangerous to use food as a method for anything other than fueling your body.

Image

As I am very interested in marketing, all of this really piqued my interest. Is there no limit to how much junk food these “heavy users” (heavy being the key word here) will buy? As more research comes in, apparently not. There is more and more evidence surfacing about the addictive qualities of junk food. The amount of salt and sugar overwhelm our senses and cause us to crave more, much like a drug. Also much like a drug, we continue to buy it and eat it when we know it is bad for us. This article from Prevention gives great research, testimonials, and even advice for breaking a food addiction. I had never really heard of the concept of food addiction before, but that article makes good sense. It explains how our brains are not equipped to handle the incredible amounts of sugar and salt that food industries have poured into our food in the past few decades. The internal response is very similar to that of a drug: it is soothing and pleasurable. Perhaps the most telling evidence is that if one were to ask drug users and food addicts similar questions about their habits such as “do you know it is bad for you and consume it anyway?” the answers are strikingly similar.

Image

Just like so many other issues in our society I just keep thinking this has to be a bubble like the housing/ mortgage bubble. It just has to burst at some point. How can we keep eating this junk to excess? How can we keep letting this food control us: control our brains? When will enough be enough? Sadly, I think the answer is when all this junk food stops bringing in such a profit.

Do we choose to eat nutrients or food?

For this week’s post I read this fascinating article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan entitled “Unhappy Meals”.

Pollan discusses the rise of the ideology “nutritionism” in which scientists dissect foods down to their nutrient components and share this information with consumers who then use this information to make decisions about what they are going to eat. He explains that we have fallen prey to this idea that it is the nutrients that matter and not the food. That is how boxes of frosted flakes fly off the shelves and parents justify it because they have “calcium”. In reality, spinach is a much better source of calcium, but because it doesn’t have a label that specifically tells consumers that, they are often apt to go with the frosted flakes or [insert any processed food here].

I have never read anything by Pollan before, but I think this idea is absolutely revolutionary as well as logical- a wonderful, rare combination. When we talk about health or a balanced diet we usually speak in terms of nutrients or categories rather than whole foods. We take supplement after supplement to add to our daily intake of vitamins and minerals. Choosing foods has come down to a check list for many. Have I gotten my vitamin C in today? No, better have some orange  juice- hey look that will give me vitamin D and calcium also! Don’t have to gulp down that glass of milk later-phewf!

I particularly liked the section when he discussed eating in other cultures and the baffling anomaly that is the French diet: fats, alcohol, cheese, bread, and yet they’re all so beautiful!

When I spent a semester in Spain, I could not believe what everyone was eating: French fries at LITERALLY every meal, ham, sausage, eggs, potatoes, and no vegetables except the occasional white asparagus, all paired with glass after glass of wine. I went weeks without eating anything green. Worst of all, when I tried to order a salad I was horrified to discover salad translated to a head of iceberg lettuce covered in canned tuna swimming in mayo. I felt as though my arteries were clogging up, my skin was breaking out, and I could not figure out why Spain was not the most obese country in the world. However, much to my amazement, my clothes weren’t fitting that much tighter.

431608_10150717984374874_742437273_n

 

For example, this was a sandwich I attempted to eat in Spain- it had 7 different kinds of meat between some pieces of bread, grilled covered in cheese and topped with an egg and gravy surrounded by french fries. It is a local classic: the equivalent to a burger and a heart attack.

It’s a completely different lifestyle over there. They spend hours strolling around, talking to each other: enjoying life. One thing that really stuck out to me was that no one ever ate while walking. People sat on the side of the street, in the middle of the plaza, on a bench, wherever, to enjoy their food and never alone. Eating and food was part of a lifestyle that is so opposite from ours. The Spaniards are not checking off their vitamins and minerals everyday, but they are active and social and make food and eating synonymous with pleasure and enjoyment. They don’t over indulge, they don’t stuff themselves, they don’t take 800 supplements a day, and they certainly don’t sweat it if they eat potatoes 3 times in a day.

As Pollan pointed out, calcium, saturated fat, and riboflavin are not food. You can’t see them, touch them, smell them, or taste them, but we make such a point to eat them everyday. So much so that we often don’t care what form they come it: plastic caplet casing, sugar-coated wheat flake, packaged breakfast bar, or whole fruits and vegetables.

Now I’m not advocating that we all eat like the Spanish- I can tell you from experience there is definitely such a thing as too many French fries- but we can take a page from their book. We can sit down and enjoy the foods we eat instead of the nutrients that make them up.