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!

Let’s get something straight about carbs

I’m getting a little tired of people telling me they are going on no-carb diets, especially when they don’t seem to know what a carb is. My brother’s friend proclaimed he was cutting out all carbs, yet was not avoiding fruits and vegetables. My uncle told me the same, but seemed to still be eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. So let’s just get this whole carb discussion out of the way, once and for all.

Carbohydrates are a group of nutrients that include sugars, starches, and fiber. They are actually the body’s preferred energy source, providing 4 calories per gram. Generally speaking, plant foods are mostly carbohydrates by weight and by caloric content, meaning most of the calories you get from fruits, vegetables, and grains come from carbohydrates. Still, a potato is not “a carb;” rather, it contains carbs, mostly in the form of starch. Whole potatoes also contain a myriad of other nutritious compounds, including protein, believe it or not. Animal foods, on the other hand, are not a good source of carbohydrates, other than milk, which contains a sugar called lactose. Animal products do contain a high proportion of protein, compared to plant foods. This may be why you tend to get asked if you want to add “a protein” to your salad. However, this is a bit misguided, because most of the calories in chicken, beef, eggs, fish etc. come from fat.

Regardless, we need to stop referring to foods as single nutrients. And we need to stop demonizing carbohydrates as a society. The healthiest, long-lived, not to mention naturally slim, people (i.e. those with a heavily plant-based diet) actually eat a diet very high in carbs.

The caveat is, however, that these high-carb diets get their carbs from whole and minimally processed plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. The reason carbs went to the proverbial gallows in the first place was because people started eating too many highly processed carbohydrates: cookies, candy, white rice, white bread, french fries, muffins, cakes, chips, crackers, noodles, etc. Carbohydrates themselves (i.e. the nutrient) are not the enemy, it is how you package them (i.e. the food). I would say the exact same thing about protein and fats.

So many people who want to lose weight try to cut down on carbs. But from my personal experience and what I know of the scientific evidence on the matter, it is my opinion that the easiest way to prevent overeating is to eat a diet as high in fiber as possible, which, contrary to conventional dieting wisdom, means eating a lot of carbohydrates. But if I have taught you anything, I hope it’s that when differentiating between dietary patterns, it is the component foods that you focus on, not the component nutrients. We shouldn’t think “carbs are bad, protein is good,” or even “this carb is bad, this carb is good,” but rather “soda is bad, brown rice and apples and broccoli are good.”

Can we talk about capitalism for a sec?

Over this wonderfully long winter break, I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on my food reading list. At the top of my list was Soda Politics, written by one of my ultimate nutrition heroes, Marion Nestle. If you like my blog, you should check out hers. Anyway, her writing always gets me thinking who is really to blame for our diet crisis.

Those of us who believe that poor diet is largely a result of systematic and societal factors as opposed to individual factors tend to want to blame the trillion-dollar food industry. After all, a lot of the harmful aspects of our food system wouldn’t exist if corporations weren’t prioritizing profit over public health.

That being said, how could any reasonable person expect a corporation, particularly a publicly traded corporation, to prioritize any goal above increasing return on investment? For-profit business exist to make a profit (yes, I know, DUH). I don’t think the CEO of Pepsi is evil for permitting her employees to market to psychologically vulnerable young children; she’s really just doing her job.

With that in mind, it is critically important for the public and the government to recognize the ways that corporate dollars influence our food policies and our behavior so that we can begin to regulate the food industry appropriately. Food companies are not going to regulate themselves to the extent that it interferes with profits. I don’t hate them for it. But if we want to drastically change the food environment in this country, I believe this is the most realistic way to look at it.

If you are wanting some evidence for why we should regulate the food industry, here are a few fun facts about “Big Soda,” courtesy of the stupendous Dr. Nestle:

  • Overwhelmingly, the only studies that do not show harmful health effects of soda are those funded in some measure by the soda industry.
  • Coca Cola and PepsiCo market aggressively to those minority groups that are most heavily affected by diet-related disease.
  • From seed to bottle, the best evidence estimates that it takes 340-620 liters of water to produce one liter of soda. (That one really drives me crazy — for something that not only we do not need but in fact would be much better off without.)
  • To silence those who would criticize Big Soda for its detrimental impact on health and the environment, soda companies shell out millions to health and environmental organizations. More on that in this post.
  • When any locality tries to pass anti-soda legislation, Big Soda and its trade organization the American Beverage Association hire marketing firms to create so-called “front groups” to fight the legislation. These front groups are designed to look like an independent grassroots campaign, but in reality they are just industry puppets. Another tactic Big Soda uses to fight unfavorable policies is to donate huge amounts of money to the locality’s obesity prevention efforts — only ones that don’t hurt their business, of course.

There’s a ton more where that came from. Check out the book if you’re interested.

 

 

 

Weighing In on the Importance of Weight

This may or may not be one of those posts where I just argue with myself. I notice these are getting more frequent.

The catalyst for my career as a nutrition advocate (which is still in its infancy) was my positive experience with weight loss. I consider it a major turning point in my life. I decided in my career I would use nutrition to reduce and prevent obesity so as to reduce and prevent weight-related chronic diseases. I think my understanding of the food system has grown much broader and clearer since then, but my feelings about weight have gotten murkier. I continue to believe that if food policies were radically changed in this country to support a healthy (not to mention sustainable, humane, and fair) diet, that in itself would prevent an obesity epidemic. But, as this sort of radical change may be quite far away, I recognize that we have to address obesity in our current system. Or do we? This is essentially the train of thought about weight that drives me crazy:

Obesity increases one’s risk of all of the most common chronic diseases in the developed world.

But plenty of people have those diseases who are not overweight, and plenty of people who are overweight are very healthy.

Poor diet is largely responsible for excess weight gain and for all of those chronic diseases.

Is obesity just a symptom of poor diet, which is the actual problem, or is it an independent risk factor?

Even thin people who eat poorly can be much worse off than heavy people who eat healthfully.

Diet, in a societal sense, is not a matter of personal responsibility. Farm policy and food processing and marketing determines what types of foods are most accessible and desirable.

A lot of other factors besides diet can make a person more susceptible to excess weight gain.

Who are we to decide how much weight gain is “excess?” Why is there so much weight stigma?

Weight stigma doesn’t help anyone lose weight. It puts heavier people at a disadvantage in the work force and in their social lives.

Even if it did, should the focus of public health be on weight loss?

Is the problem the weight, or is it more just the diet?

People should love themselves and accept each other no matter what their bodies look like.

But accepting your body shouldn’t make you complicit in your poor health.

But it’s not really your fault in the first place!

Is weight gain a “fault”? Isn’t that just stigmatizing obesity even more?

I know we should encourage everyone to eat better, especially people who are getting sick from their diet.

Is it necessary or productive to also encourage weight loss for sick, overweight people?

Is it necessary to encourage weight loss for people who aren’t sick as a preventative measure?

Would merely facilitating healthy eating without the associated weight stigma be just as effective in preventing disease?

My writing has moved away from promoting nutrition and exercise for slimness to promoting nutrition and exercise for health.

You shouldn’t worry about the number on the scale, but how you feel.

But losing excess weight really does help people reduce their risk for chronic disease.

I’m a hypocrite because I’m obsessed with the number on my scale.

Do you get a sense of the internal debate I’m having? Comments appreciated.

Are healthful cooking and feminism at odds with each other?

Yesterday, I finished an  relatively new book called Unprocessed, in which journalist Megan Kimble narrates her attempt to go a year without eating processed food. But, as I wrote in this post,  “processed” is a relative term. In Kimble’s case, her rule for that year was that she wouldn’t eat anything that she could not (theoretically) make in her own kitchen, which is pretty much what I try to do most of the time. Most of the food she ate that year was organic, and a lot of it was locally grown in her home state of Arizona as well. Throughout the book, she lets you in on what she’s researched and discovered about where our food really comes from. It’s entertaining and  enlightening, and I highly recommend it.

Interestingly enough, one of the most concerning issues the book brought up for me was largely a feminist one. Kimble outlines the developments in food processing from the early 1900s to today that gradually led to a huge reduction in the amount of time all people, but overwhelmingly women, spent cooking. The conventional patriarchal family dynamic where women were known as housewives is familiar to most, I would think, even though it’s been turned on its head to a great extent at this point. Many decades ago in our culture, a woman’s role was to keep house: to cook and clean and raise the children. Yesterday’s “housewives” spent as much as four or five times the amount of time cooking as today’s women.

One big reason for this shift in amount of time spent preparing food is the advent of industrial food processing. Packaged foods and TV dinners meant women did not have to cook everything from scratch. They could whip up tasty, satisfying meals practically instantly. Top that off with washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and our friend the housewife was not necessarily tied to the house anymore.

Today, a much larger proportion of women are employed. Today, thankfully, it is a lot more acceptable for a woman to pursue a challenging and rewarding career.

Today, highly processed food is slowly but surely killing us.

As women have become more empowered in the workforce, junk food and fast food have become ubiquitous while fewer and fewer people prepare their own food from whole ingredients. I am not arguing that one is the sole cause of the other; women’s employment and food processing have undoubtedly affected each other, and there are of course many other factors that come into play.

However, I am much more certain that the amount one cooks their own food is tightly related to one’s long-term health.

As an aspiring health professional, I want to encourage people to cook from scratch as often as possible. But I do not want to go back to a world where men were the sole earners and women were obliged to do all of the cooking. These are not our only options, of course. There is a happy medium, perhaps where you are doing a lot of food shopping and prep on Sunday so you can take less time at the end of the work day. It might mean having less time to relax, which would of course be a bummer. It might mean a little less variety and complexity than if you had all afternoon to cook.

Tonight, for instance, for Meatless Monday I served my family a lentil stew over rice, roasted portobello mushrooms, and garlicky broccoli. I spent roughly three hours cooking, and that’s not counting the time my mom and I spent cleaning up. I’m on winter break. I have nothing better to do, I take my time, and I’m really starting to love cooking. I cannot imagine taking that much time to cook on a weeknight if I had the career I envision for myself plus a family to take care of.

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How do we make whole-food cooking accessible to working adults and parents, especially those who have had little access to food education and have spent their lives relying on fast food and packaged food? How do we empower women to take charge of their independence, their careers, and the food their families eat? I’ve never said that I have all the answers, and I definitely don’t about this: your thoughts would be much appreciated.