Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eat food, mostly plants, organic and local

Well, the complete advice, stolen from Michael Pollan, is: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (You should go read his article. I'll still be here when you get back.)

I think Pollan's advice is pretty darn good, but for what it's worth, I'll share my own priorities when it comes to making choices about what kind of fuel I'm going to use to keep my mind, body, and soul in good shape for as long as possible. (And I don't emphasize the "not too much" part, because if you're following this advice, it's not really an issue. There's rarely a risk of eating too many locally-grown, organic, unprocessed fruits and veggies.)

1. Eat food.

When Pollan says, "eat food," he means, don't be confused that everything that is edible is actually food. Many things are "food-like substances." You know, like the orange powder in the box of macaroni and "cheese." Or that Twinkie you snuck. Or the diet soda you can't live without. (Been there, done all of those things.)

Those items are barely, if at all, food. Look at their ingredients list. Do you recognize the ingredients? As Pollan says, if your grandmother wouldn't recognize an ingredient as food, it probably isn't. Instead, it's a chemically produced compound that happens to be edible and probably exploits our innate physiological responses to sugars and fats. Remember, not everything edible is food.

This advice is in keeping with T. Colin Campbell's advice to eat whole foods. If it comes in a box or a shrink-wrapped package, chances are that it's not whole food (although I have heard tell of shrink-wrapped apples...why??) Anyway, I prefer to avoid processed foods as much as possible, although there are exceptions...I'll get to those later.

2. Mostly plants.

Pollan and Campbell's research (and many others) emphasizes the benefits of a plant-based diet. They vary, in that Campbell recommends no animal products at all, and Pollan is more moderate. I wrote in my last post about my own reasons for a plant-based diet, which includes no dairy or flesh food of any kind, eggs from my own chickens, and occasional locally-sourced honey.

And now, 2 more criteria that I've added.

3. Organic as possible.

I don't like to eat chemicals disguised as food, and I don't like to eat food that's been sprayed with chemicals. I know that eating this way can be more expensive, but when it comes to food choices, I'd rather spend more money on food and less on health care bills. (I don't mean to imply that all health problems can be avoided through diet, but I am convinced by the research that diet can at least reduce the risk of most major diseases.)

4. Grown as close to home as possible.

As evidenced by the pictures from my garden throughout this post, I love to grow my own food.  I grow several types of herbs, tomatoes, green beans, Swiss chard, peppers, tomatillos, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cucumbers, squash, carrots, beets, spinach, mustard greens, and bok choy.  I just put in some brussels sprouts, a first for me. These are all grown on a very small urban plot.

Still, I couldn't begin to grow all the food we need, so I spend a lot of time at local farmers' markets, and can and freeze as much of the local harvest as I can.

Now, applying these 4 criteria sounds great, in theory.  In practice, it's a little harder.  For example, is it better to drink locally-grown goat's milk, or processed and packaged soy milk?  Criteria #1 and #4 are in conflict with #2.  For now, my choice is to primarily make my own nut milk (but locally grown nuts aren't readily available, compromising criteria #4), and supplement with packaged almond or soy milk. Overall, though, I do have relatively few processed foods in my pantry. In fact, I ran a 5k this morning where we had to bring a canned food item for a food pantry, and I struggled to find something!

This approach requires one thing that a lot of people struggle with: time. It takes more time to can, freeze, and cook most of your own meals. Still, I feel there are few better ways to spend time than providing a healthy and truly satisfying meal for myself and my family. I have a full-time job and I am a doctoral student, 2 time-consuming activities. However, I also have the benefits that come along with adequate financial resources, and as someone who has in the past struggled to make ends meet, I know how much time being financially stressed can suck up, from transportation difficulties to child care to lost sleep from the worry.

However, a quick internet search turned up some creative ideas and resources that may be helpful. I just found The Poor Vegan website, for example.

Check out those barbecue tofu fries!

Another great resource is 101 Cookbooks, which focuses on in-season produce and easy-to-replicate healthy recipes. The recipe archive is well-indexed, and includes a list of vegan and vegetarian recipes.

For me, the important thing is to be thoughtful and intentional about one's food choices. You might make different choices than I make, but if we are both doing our best to nourish ourselves and our world through what we eat, we can't help but improve both.


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