Coming to Terms with my Relationship to Food

For those of you that know me well or have read a lot of my blog posts, you know that I have a complicated relationship with food, and have struggled with my body image for most of my adolescence. I’m definitely less preoccupied with my weight now than I have been in the past, but that may just be because I’ve gotten very good at controlling it. I weigh myself regularly, and if I notice my weight increasing even the slightest bit above what I think it should be, I feel a little “less than,” even if I know rationally that it’s just a temporary fluctuation, and even if I know that it’s just because I ate a ton of broccoli the night before that has yet to clear my digestive tract.

I like to think I’m more concerned with my health than my weight, but deep down I’m still terrified of losing control and gaining weight. Because I’m vegan now, there are a lot of fattening foods I won’t even consider eating anymore, but I still fret about drinking my calories or eating spontaneously when I haven’t planned to. For instance, if I accidentally spill more dressing on my salad than I intended, the thought of those extra calories will bother me slightly at least until I get on the scale again and see a number I like. Typing this out so honestly, I feel like I sound crazy, but I hope this resonates with someone out there.

Of late, this preoccupation with weight has been at the forefront of my mind because I have an injury that’s preventing me from engaging in my normal workout routine. I twisted my ankle, and it’s taking a while to heal. I can’t do any of the cardio I would normally do, like spinning and running and Zumba, and I love my cardio. It makes me feel great and definitely relieves stress, but, like many people, I also associate it with maintaining my weight. I have actually become convinced on an intellectual level in the last few years that the amount of exercise that I and most non-athletes engage in does not really affect one’s weight (especially at my size), but at the same time I still fear that I’ll gain weight if I’m not exercising and don’t eat less to compensate for it.

I have been pleased to find that I am not gaining any noticeable weight while I’m not working out, but it also bothers me that that is still my main concern. I definitely feel fortunate that my anxiety in this regard is not much worse, because I know it is for many people. But I think if I want to make my career about changing the way people eat and promoting a healthful relationship to food, I need to practice what I preach and really work on healing my own.

 

The Five Food Lessons I Wish I Learned in Kindergarten

In an interview for a nutrition policy internship last week, the interviewer asked me what I thought was the most important nutrition issue today, something to the effect of, “If you could wave your wand, what is the one thing you would change?” I first mentioned how much of our dysfunctional food environment can be traced to commodity crop subsidies, but in the end I picked something a bit more adaptable to our current agricultural economy, and that is changing the school food environment. If we want children to grow into adults who have ability and desire to maintain lifelong health, the education has to start from the beginning.

There are some seriously unsettling realities of the global industrial food system that could empower hordes of people to shift their food dollars if only they were aware. I offer myself as Exhibit A. But it took me until college to truly recognize the individual and societal consequences of my food choices — and I was lucky enough to have pretty health-literate parents!

Imagine the impact we could have on public health and food literacy if children were taught about where their food comes from from Day 1. The following is my take on the most essential components of a truly enlightened and nourishing food education that should be mandatory in elementary school.

  1. Growing a vegetable garden: What better way is there to teach a kid how food grows than to have them grow it themselves? Even though the scale of a school garden would be relatively small, students would grow up having some idea of the effort and resources that go into providing them sustenance, as well as an appreciation for the seasonality of different crops (“Why can’t we grow a banana tree?”), not to mention it’s a tailor-made hands-on biology curriculum. Aside from the educational part of it, the garden work would give kids more fresh air and exercise. Even better, kids are usually much more motivated to choose the carrot over the cookie if they grew if themselves.
  2. Visiting farms of all shapes, sizes and products: If you are reading this blog, I probably don’t need to tell you that the average American today is utterly removed (physically and emotionally) from the origin of their food. We can’t expect the public to be able to make the healthier, sustainable, humane choices concerning food if they can’t even associate that hamburger with the ranch from whence it came. We cannot all be farmers (although more of us certainly could), but we can help the next generation of eaters and voters appreciate what farmers do. Everyone needs to be educated to make the best choices for themselves individually and to take part in this critical discussion for society. Why should a field trip to a corn farm or cattle ranch be any less of a priority than a field trip to an aquarium (one memorable field trip I took in first grade)?
  3. Whole-food nutrition and cooking lessons: I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that eight-year-olds aren’t required to learn about the connection between nutrition and health if the same isn’t even required of most medical students — but that’s a different conversation. There are of course some major issues with food accessibility and affordability for large segments of the population; however, when one is or becomes able to access nutritious food, they need to have the motivation to choose it and the skills to prepare it. It’s hard enough to get a kid who’s grown up snacking on soda and chips to switch to celery and hummus when they know why it’s good for them. We can never realistically expect people to make that change if they have no concept of the health consequences (certainly not in this food economy). Our school system must teach children about how food affects their health, and give them the tools to prepare it in nutritious ways for the rest of their lives. It would be a no-brainer to use the produce from the students’ garden in their recipes. Nutrition also makes for another fantastically practical biology lesson, and cooking could be chemistry, or, for that matter, just plain old essential preparation for life. (Whatever happened to home economics? Why did no one ever teach me how to balance a checkbook or file my taxes?)
  4. Media literacy lessons: If it’s critical for kids to learn why they should be eating whole foods, it’s equally critical for them to learn how to be critical of the food media they consume. Food marketing is everywhere, and it’s overwhelmingly promoting exactly the foods that we should all be minimizing in our diets. Young children are the most vulnerable audience to marketing, while being one of the most heavily targeted audiences by the manufacturers of the most processed, highly palatable, disease-promoting foods on the market. Until and even when health advocates can reign in this type of marketing, we have to equip children with the tools to be able to recognize it and distinguish it from programming that isn’t trying to secure their brand loyalty from the moment they exit the womb.
  5. School food regulations that walk the walk: It would be completely counterproductive if a school implemented all of the programs I described above but still sold junk in the cafeteria and and had a Coca Cola logo plastered across the front of the vending machine. The lessons we teach students in the classroom and the field about food have to be reinforced in situations where they are actually eating and making their own food choices. And stop giving out candy and treats for every little thing. Forgive me for this radical idea, but perhaps cake should stay at birthday parties.

Caveat: I recognize that location, funding, and child age may limit the success of any of these measures or cause them to be adapted, but that’s just what the ideal scenario would look like to me.

 

A Day in the Life of a Nutrition Major

One of the reasons I started this blog was so I could pass on the food-related wisdom I’m acquiring from my education (formal and informal) to you folks. To that end, I thought it would be fun to give a little snapshot of beginning of my courses this semester, which are all SO COOL except for organic chemistry lab (BLECH).

Nutrient Metabolism
This is a higher level nutritional biochemistry class. It’s really the heart and soul of “hard” nutrition science, what my classmates and I have been building up to through all of our bio and chem prerequisites. The first lecture was actually not given by the instructor, but by a guest professor from the veterinary school on campus. In an adorable mild Scottish accent, he gave a terrific lecture on the role of the gut microbiome in inflammatory bowel disease. In case you didn’t read this post of mine, I’m absolutely fascinated by the human microbiome and how the bacteria that colonize our digestive tracts and our skin and elsewhere can have such a profound impact on our health, or lack thereof. His main lecture topic took us a through a narrative of discovering that a particular strain of pathogenic bacteria was causing IBD in a bunch of dogs, and how treating them with antibiotics completely cured them of their gastrointestinal absorption problems. Afterward, I asked him if he could touch on the efficacy of alternatives to antibiotics for changing the bacterial composition of the gut, such as probiotics and fecal transplants. He spoke incredibly intelligently on the subject, remarking current evidence does not support the efficacy of probiotics for treating most gut conditions, while fecal transplants have shown incredible potential for treating certain conditions, like C. difficile infections.

Public Health Nutrition
I feel like this is the course I have been waiting for throughout my entire undergraduate career so far. It teaches the history and methods of public health agencies in addressing diet-related disease, which is, if you haven’t yet gathered, precisely what I want to do with my life, so hopefully this class will affirm that. Most recently we watched the first half of a documentary called A Place at the Table, which I highly recommend. It helps people like me who have never worried about where their next meal is coming from get some idea of the extent of hunger in this country, and what it’s like to rely on SNAP or have just a little bit to much money to qualify. What I’ve seen so far of the film also does a great job of explaining why undernutrition and overnutrition are both so common among people of little means.

Sweetness: How Sugar Built the Modern World
Now this class is really special. It’s a very small seminar cross-listed between Africana Studies and Latin American Studies. The professor is an expert on the Caribbean, and he’s going to take us through the history of the sugar trade in that region, studying sugar’s impact on politics, culture, slavery, diet, art etc. I don’t typically get too excited about history, but being able to study it through the lens of food makes it much more compelling. Our first topic of discussion is a controversial sculpture crafted by renowned artist Kara Walker.

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She designed a gigantic sphinx whose features portray a black female slave, a stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” figure. The sculpture was part of an exhibit within a Domino sugar factory that was about to be torn down. To me, it is almost aggressively apparent that Walker meant to critique the racist history of sugar production. Some critics applauded her boldness; others claimed she was perpetuating an offensive portrayal of the black woman’s body. It seems that how audiences perceived the work depended on their awareness of the racially charged context of its creation. To me, the pain and scathing irony Walker expressed were inescapable, but some douchebags who visited the exhibit thought it funny and proceeded to take obscene photos with the figure. I’m excited for this class to get me out of my comfort zone and help me better understand this food’s impact on society.

Like I said, I’m also taking organic chemistry lab (can I say ew again?) and a lecture series on climate change, which hasn’t started yet. Stay tuned!