Monday, May 5, 2014

Eating Sustainably

Sustainability is a hot food topic. It's something I've given a fair bit of thought. My mom was an early adopter of Earth Day, in fact, she spearheaded the first Earth Day celebration at my elementary school back in 1970. My personal philosophy of sustainability is a three pronged (like a fork, of course!) approach:

-Your planet. This is the classic definition of sustainability. If we keep producing our food the way we have been lately, will we be able to keep it going for our kids, grandkids, on down the line? Or, will some critical resource collapse, threatening our food supply? A lot of food thought leaders think even without some sort of collapse, we'll have trouble feeding everyone. There are also questions of animal welfare, environmental degradation, public safety, and social justice thrown into the mix. What should we eat if we want to support a long-term ecological balance? This is a very complex question, but when I explored food for health, that went quite far in addressing it.

-Your physical health. Boy, if there was ever a subject fraught with confusion, it's human nutrition. It's seems as complicated as the planet sustainability question. How much fat/carbohyrates/protein should I eat? Which vitamins and how much? What about micro-nutrients, anti-oxidants, types of fat? I don't know. I don't think in nutrients. You don't live on nutrients, you live on food. We don't understand human nutrition well enough to pop a bunch of pills and call it good. We spend way too much time talking about the nutrients in food. Michael Pollan (more about him in a sec) uses the term "nutritionism," which he defines as an ideology that the most important attribute of a food is the nutrients contained within it. This sounds so scientific because we can measure the nutrients in food and then figure out exactly which nutrients are good or bad. Pollan doesn't buy it. Neither do I. As I said, you do not eat nutrients in isolation. You eat food. Pollan, in In Defense of Food, introduced his Food Rules to help us understand what we should eat, while saying nothing about the nutrients in food. He distilled it down to three rules. Yes, only three!

Eat Food
Not too much
Mostly Plants

"Of course I eat food! What else would I eat?" you ask. Food here means minimally processed food, in all its glorious variety. Food that your great grandparents would recognize. Food that doesn't have an ingredient list that reads like a chemistry set. I do not believe that the processing makes the food poisonous. But, as I explained in a previous post, processed foods are carriers of cheap calories which may have some token nutrients added to make it sound like it could be good for you. Any resemblance to real food is purely coincidental.

"Not too much" is another way of saying don't overeat. Your body can't deal with more calories than it needs. Things go wrong. Maybe not right away but eventually. Things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer. In today's food environment, it's not easy to figure out the right amount. There is SO much delicious food out there. Be mindful of how much you eat. Steer clear of the empty calories, which are not limited to processed foods. A fancy chocolate torte isn't any healthier than a bag of cheap chocolate chip cookies. Either one can trick you into eating more than you should. I'm not saying it's easy but it is an important part of a healthful diet.

"Mostly plants" is fairly obvious but it's a tough one for many folks. On average, Americans eat over 200 lbs. of meat (beef, poultry, pork, lamb) per year, which works out to about 8 oz per day per American. That's a lot of meat so shifting to a more plant-based diet is a big switch. However, the rule isn't "all plants." You can eat meat, even  hamburgers and steaks. Eat them less frequently. Savor them when you do eat them. There's convincing evidence that the Mediterranean diet pattern, with much less meat than the American diet, is quite healthful. Diversify your diet by subtracting some meat and eating more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. A little meat is a great way to make many plant foods more tasty.

Turns out that these three rules go a long way towards answering the planet part of sustainability. Just shifting to more plants is a big win for the planet. Plants are more sustainable than animals because plants require less resources to produce, and plants are good for your health. Eating just enough but no more is just right for you and the planet. And minimally processed foods require less resources to produce because processing isn't free, environmentally speaking.

-Your sanity. If your life would be miserable without  steak, ice cream, cheese danish, bacon, know that if you tried to resist these things for the rest of your life, you are going to fail. Your diet (as in what you eat day to day, not a regime for losing weight) is unsustainable if you "fall off the wagon" into a vat of ice cream. Decide how much is enough. Julia Child was one smart lady. She not only taught us about cooking French food, but thinking about food like a French person too. She believed we need to practice moderation in eating but she also knew that food brings us humans great pleasure. If you take away all the pleasure, that's not moderation, just misery. We each need to find the balance between all-out pleasure and long-term health. When I go on vacation, being a foodie, I eat what I like. That's part of why I travel - to experience new food. But, I know I can't eat like that all the time - it's not sustainable, health-wise. Life is about balance.

In food, it's essential to find the intersection of healthy and tasty for you. This may require some work, doing things like exploring foods you've never eaten before. There is a whole lot of fantastic food out there - fantastic at all three levels of sustainability. Base your diet on these foods and you will live well and feel good about it too!

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