Food Resolutions for Thought

How’s that New Year’s Resolution going? Perhaps you vowed to drink less or hit the gym more? Maybe you promised to eat healthier food.

f3b8The Washington Post must have resolved to knock it out of the park with food-related columns and articles this year. For instance, food isn’t healthy, NOT EVEN KALE. Before you toss the device you’re reading this on away from you in disgust, check out the article. Or read my summary: foods hold different nutrients. It’s how we nourish ourselves with them makes us healthy. The whole of our diet matters more than kale or bacon alone.

Moving on, this WaPo column, The surprising truth about the food movement, details the chronic over-hyping of the Food Movement, the fruit of self-sufficient ideas planted by Back-to-the-Land hippies in the 1960s. Their ethos grew into the ideologies behind bestsellers, such as anything by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and the evolution of New York Times columnist Mark Bittman from a foodie to the founder of vegan-ish-ism.

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The Food Movement’s message is loud clear: people want real food. Real food is nutritious, lacks pesticides, local and doesn’t hurt anyone in its production. It’s also nice to the animals you’re eating. Wild is better than farmed. Foraged is best. (Note: This last point may be a sentiment confined to Wisconsin thing.)

But, in general, Americans aren’t so clear about whether they want a food movement. The amount of processed foods purchases barely budged from 2002-2012.

What’s more: it’s a bit of nostalgic fantasy that Americans in general have the time and money to buy, prepare and eat all whole, local, sustainable foods while living modern lifestyles. Who has time to prepare 21 fresh meals each week? Who’s going to give up their guilty-pleasure Girl Scout cookies and Bagel Bites? Luckily for today’s Americans, it’s that whole-shebang diet, not just an heirloom tomato or a Twinkie, that makes up our diet.

So, the column continues, food manufacturers are producing the next best thing to Food Movement-friendly, whole foods: processed perishables produced with more natural ingredients that are closer to foods than, as Polan would say, food-like substances.

Nonetheless, people are thinking more about food, and it’s grown into a conversation that’s taking root in public policy. SNAP money is redeemable at farmers markets. More insurance companies (at least in the Madison, Wisconsin, area) are offering to pony up for part of your CSA (community-share agriculture, which is kind of like a ritzy subscription to a farm). As increasing numbers of consumers seek sustainability and food transparency, the big players in an industry starved for profits are listening more closely.

Campbell’s Soup Co. announced it’s in favor of GMO labeling on products, a food fight that’s been raging nationally for more than a decade. Kellogg’s has resolved to remove all artificial ingredients in its cereals by 2018. Food industry consultancy and thought leader Euromonitor named sustainability one of the top trends of 2016.

The WaPo column says these food formulation changes are a pittance in regards to the big picture. But I disagree.

Food tells a story about how we once lived. The United States was, at one time, a patchwork of farming communities. But we’ve been uprooted. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census showed that those who count farming as their livelihoods is decreasing rapidly as farmers age.

Humans, being the hunters and eaters that we are, have been disconnected from our natural habitat. Our bodies weren’t designed for a leisure-rich technological age. But reconnecting to our food, even if it’s just through naturally colored Annie’s Homegrown White Cheddar Bunnies crackers, is important. It reminds us of where we came from. Because that means we’re thinking about it. We want to be healthier, like nearly every New Year’s resolutioner.

Change to a more nutritious food system won’t happen overnight. But moves toward more natural products, ingredients and production methods help us feel more connected to the land that sustains us, the land we’re all joint stewards of. And that keeps us thinking.

So maybe you haven’t completely followed through on your New Year’s Resolution. But you’re thinking about it, right? An extra trip to the gym and a few fewer drinks or donuts each week make a significant cumulative difference. Small changes incrementally result in a new norm, leading to large and long-lasting results.

That Other Thing Making Us Fat

Newsflash: Food isn’t the only thing making us fat! To food and health personalities like Mark Bittman, Katie Couric and Michael Pollan preaching against typical eating habits: I hear you. But it’s not just the food.

Allow me to indulge myself with an anecdote related to obesity. I grew up on a farm. So did my father, his father and my great-grandfather. They got up before the sun every day to milk cows by hand. Then they did it again in the evening. My great-grandfather drove mules to plow, plant and harvest crops on hundreds of acres of land each year. My great-grandmother raised chickens and a garden for fresh vegetables. Somewhere along the line, indoor plumbing and electricity came along. And now machines do much of the back-breaking work on farms and in day-to-day life. But a few generations later, my family generally eats the same as they did when manual labor was the easiest sort to come by. And it’s not just my family.

Technology and urbanization aren’t the only things changing the way we live (and die) in developed economies. Take this unpopular sentence: The price of food in the United States is relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world. Americans spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food.  In Japan, that spending level falls in the high teens. The Economist postulates that, as countries develop, citizens there spend proportionately less on food. We’ve also seen that obesity tends to climb in more developed countries. Let’s not kid ourselves: Americans like things cheap. So we buy more food. Human bodies are designed to seek out the most energetically rewarding things to eat. So we eat fat and sugar because it makes us feel good.

In a recent column, long-time New York Times food spokesperson Mark Bittman says that sugar and processed foods are causing weight gain. These energy sources alone are not the only nefarious influences plaguing the bodies of citizens of developed countries.

By and large, these citizens — Americans included — generally spend the majority of their waking hours in front of computers. It’s unhealthy for our bodies and throws our natural energy cycles off. We drink excessive amounts of caffeine to stay awake and motivated in the sitting position, which stresses our adrenal glands and taxes the quality of our sleep. That makes many people so tired that when they’re done sitting at a desk, all they have energy to do is to go home and relax in front of the computer or TV. The Washington Post says all of this sitting leads to organ damage, muscle degeneration, foggy brains and bad backs. I can surely attest to that last symptom. Americans also typically have fewer vacation days and use fewer sick days. That’s more time we’re soaking up screen time and fluorescent lighting in our offices with windows that can’t open to let in fresh air.

I imagine you’re reading this sitting at your desk, a similar place to where I’m writing it. Or perhaps riding on public transportation. So why don’t you take another quick trip with me?

I recently spent five days camping in the lush and rocky state and national parks west of Denver. Aside from several hikes that lasted as long as I usually occupy my desk chair, I had to walk to a water pump and exert more energy than turning on the tap to get H20. I gathered kindling and helped build a fire at night. I hiked all day, like humans were generally designed for. I barely looked at my phone, let alone a computer screen. I probably lost a few pounds in the process and I felt great besides. I was in the sun and the fresh air, the way nature intended. I have yet to see any research on the influence of fluorescent lights and central air on obesity.

We don’t need a war on “Big Food” to lower obesity rates in the U.S. We need to reevaluate our lifestyles as a culture. The warlike option is the easier one, which is why Katie Couric’s recent documentary “Fed Up” places the blame for obesity on food manufacturers. In addition to bowing to consumer demand for more natural and organic foods, the industry needs to stick up for itself and point a finger at how Americans live instead of just what they eat.

Overeating unhealthy food isn’t helping, but it’s also not the one-and-only culprit in the U.S. and global obesity epidemic. It’s our current lifestyle in the industrialized world and the fact that our bodies evolved to survive the wilds of nature, but we now use them, generally, to sit in buildings. That other thing making us fat is how we live.