March is National Nutrition Month. The declaration makes me think of the familiar phrase, “You are what you eat.” Food growing, preparation, inspection and presentation are a hot topic in documentaries, magazines and cooking shows. My late father gave me a wellness focus on food before it was fashionable or trendy. He was always trying to get me to eat tomatoes and watermelon—(I still dislike both), or nibble on nuts. The absolute worst of his behaviors was his insistence on the importance of eating oatmeal– first thing in the morning! Needless to say, when I was a child, the importance of getting essential nutrients escaped me.
Daddy took nutrition counseling to a new level when he became a grandfather. He continued to raise his own vegetables and encourage my children to eat them. Hydration was also an important theme. To hear him tell it, my children never had enough water to drink—even though one son preferred water to soda.
The most memorable comment he made however, was one day at lunch. My sons and nephews were gathered for lunch and inhaling some form of junk food with their sandwiches. My Dad looked over….checked out one of their biceps and said…..”You have potato chip muscles!” To little boys wanting to look all big and bad—this was an insult and the connection of food with muscles was a new concept.
The boys laughed, but years later as they tried to lift weights and build healthier bodies—the phrase stuck. Even today as I unearthed an old article I had written with the title,” Potato Chip Muscles”, my 32 year old son came by, saw it and declared, “RHRR RHRR—their pet name for their grandfather.” His phrase stuck as a reminder about the perils of eating junk food and mindlessly choosing what we eat each day.
We are now in an age of technology where much nutritional messaging is in our face. Much of it is slick marketing to get us to purchase food plans to lose weight or to order some magic herb or potion to stop pain or increase our memory or vitality.
As a nurse, I realize many diseases are caused by inappropriate food choices—think obesity or anorexia. Other issues are caused by poor food choices—diabetic coma, vitamin deficiencies or combinations of some foods or supplements with medications. What many people do not realize is the relationship between our food choices and the development of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis—- to name a few.
Foods we once thought were healthy are no longer healthy. For example, our perception of red meat and milk as being high in protein and “good” for us is now being challenged. Yes protein is good, but saturated fats are bad. Meat, particularly red meat, is to be avoided or absolutely minimized because of the environmental footprint as well as the relationship of meat and inflammatory diseases such as clogged arteries and cancer. White meat and fish are also now under the scientific gun. They may not be much better than red meat—however, they have better marketing.
There is growing concern about adding antibiotics and steroids to caged animals and growing them in very unsanitary conditions. The dairy industry touts milk. In reality, only infants given breast milk actually benefit from milk.
So….what to make of all this? Food has become very complicated. The food pyramid many of us knew long ago with meat as the main course, supplemented by two vegetables and bread is no longer recommended for optimum health. Now, 5-9 fresh fruits and vegetables are recommended as our daily intake and meat intake needs to be limited.
Why? A vegetarian diet has been demonstrated to reduce inflammation, cancer and heart disease. It is not without risks if adequate protein in the form of beans or legumes or a bit of culinary research is not involved.
There are a number of documentaries that might be of interest. For example, “Forks over Knives,” or “What the Health?” provides compelling reasons to take food seriously. I would recommend having a look at both of them to increase awareness of the long term effect daily meal choices have on our long-term health. Most of us base our food choices on tradition and the familiar. The other major influence is less well known—the impact of corporate lobbying on food growers which affects food quality and availability.
Agribusiness and the food industry has played a major role in determining what we eat by advertising campaigns and food policy lobbying at the national level. The food industry tends to popularize brands and foods that are unhealthy. (Think golden arches, or the dazzling array of commercials with a bigger version of a hamburger with higher and higher layers of cheese and bacon.–or think about pizza with additional cheese now also in the crust.) When is the last time you saw a celery commercial in prime time?
Unhealthy fats, salt and sugar is present in almost every product in the average grocery store. Foods available are based on food industry economics and policy. Most food products revolve around corn and wheat products. These are grown in a big way by agribusiness to supply the beef, chicken and pork industries or to make popular cereals and crackers. What looks like a dizzying array of choices in the grocery store actually boils down to a few products– all with a corn or wheat base. Could this be related to our obesity epidemic or sudden gluten intolerance?
It is very hard to change eating patterns, our social milieu and habit structures. Motivation to take food seriously starts with awareness and small steps. The first is to begin to explore the scientific studies and look for patterns. So….what to do??
Look at the documentaries suggested earlier. I promise they will make you think differently about what you are eating. Begin with growing a tomato or pepper plant or two, Buying produce at local farmer’s markets. Limit meat to flavoring rather than as the main course. Eat one salad a day and at least two fruits. Read the labels of foods—You will be shocked at how much sugar and salt you are getting even when you think you have made a healthy choice. Try keeping a food diary for one week. See if you even get close to 5-9 fruits and vegetables each day. Have fun!