Thursday, December 2, 2010

Our Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Inside my refrigerator last night. No food stylist and sans cleaning!

Steve and I have been vegetarian for the better part of our adult lives (Steve for his entire adult life and most of his high school years as well). For me, I stopped eating meat during my freshman year of college and never looked back. First it was beef, then chicken and turkey. I did eat seafood for some years after that, but gave it up sometime in my late 20s. For reasons I will get into in a later post, we did start eating some fish about two years ago. Besides seafood, I haven’t touched other meat for over 20 years now.

My reasons for initially not eating meat were taste. College cafeteria food used to be pretty nasty stuff. After I hadn’t eaten meat for a while, it just seemed gross to me. Over the years, my reasons expanded. Primarily, I have compassion for animals, and raising animals for meat is an extremely inefficient way to convert the Earth’s finite resources to food.

Overall, I had a pretty decent diet growing up. My family’s German roots influenced my dietary choices. We had plenty of meals with meat, potatoes, vegetables, and salad. I drank my fair share of whole milk growing up. I also ate plenty of cheese. My diet took a turn for the worse when I first gave up meat. In my early to mid 20s, I recall eating a lot of pasta with tomato sauce and vegetarian frozen dinners. Looking back, I don’t know how I survived. The funny thing is I was pretty heavy back then. In 1992 when I graduated college, I weighed about 35 lbs more than I do now!

I have to say, our household diet today is pretty healthy overall. We eat a lot of fresh vegetables (we're members of a pretty good CSA), beans, tofu and other soy products, nuts, and grains. I do eat eggs. My taste for them waxes and wanes though. We dabbled in veganism some years ago, but that effort was short lived due to my love of good cheeses. Today, I eat some cheese, sour cream, and an occasional yogurt. In spite of that, I could never drink cow milk. The thought of drinking milk actually makes me sick. I also have a few vices: sugar (it is addicting), caffeinated tea, and Sabra hummus. Even with the our vices, anyone perusing our cupboards and refrigerator won’t find more than a few "bad" items.

It happens that I am an avid reader about food and food related issues. All of my reading over the years has been very informative, yet sometimes overwhelming. There is definitely a lot of conflicting information out there. Sometimes it is hard to make sense of it all. On the other hand, there are some things that seem so obvious: Americans eat crap, are overweight, and unhealthy as a result. The most recent book that Steve and I read is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. This is a very difficult book to read even for me. It is disturbing/enlightening on so many levels that I can only read a chapter or two at a time. I plan on writing more about the book in the New Year when I am completely done with it.

While this isn't a full list of resources, here are some links to information about food that that I have found helpful.

Michael Pollan: Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Both books are good. If you read just one, read In Defense of Food. It is a must read.

Mark Hyman: Author of Ultra-Metabolism and The UltraMind Solution. He also has a blog on his website. Dr. Hyman provides convincing evidence that good food is essential for a sharp, clear mind and, like Dr. Weil below, makes the case that basic dietary changes go a long way for overall health and longevity.

Andrew Weil: Author of Eating Well for Optimum Health and several other books about health and wellness. He is kind of a classic hippy guy. Dr. Weil is a pioneer in merging traditional with nontraditional medicine. He and Mark Hyman above point out that many of our medical problems can be treated by dietary changes instead of pills. It is kind of scary that such simplicity is considered "nontraditional."

Food Inc.: Probably the best documentary on food. Good website on how to take action.

Food Matters: Ok so they get a little crazy about raw food and vitamins, but still worth a look. There is some interesting discussion about treating serious diseases with high dose vitamins and nutrition.

The Future of Food: Watched this before Food Inc. It covers a lot of the same issues.

Happy Healthy Long Life: Great blog from a medical librarian. She follows Dr. Esselstyn's heart disease prevention diet (a pretty strict diet including no oils, which I could never do). The site is full of various summaries of research on food and health issues. No need to read hundreds of books and studies yourself! My friend Kara in Seattle turned me onto her.

Adventures in Veganism: This is a plug for a blog written by Steve's cousin who lives in D.C. He decided to be a vegan about two years ago. The site has great pictures of awesome looking food. The pictures show that vegan/vegetarian food can be great food!

So why am I writing about this? Well, to start, the issue of food is extremely important on a personal level, but also at a policy level. Second, I am often conflicted with some of our food choices for both ethical and health reasons. After reading our latest book, Steve decided that we should go vegan. Following some discussion though, we decided to try something a little different. Instead of just flipping the switch, we are going to embark on a “Family Food Challenge” during each month of 2011. I have no idea what all the challenges will be, but I have ideas for five or six. Our first challenge will be going dairy free. I think the food challenges will a good way to try something without a big commitment. And supposedly it takes a month to form a new habit.

My goal is not to alienate people about their food choices, but to discuss the challenges involved with ethical and healthy eating. Unlike Lily, who is meeting a sheep that became lunch a few minutes later, we are so far removed from our food that we have no idea where it comes from, what is in it, or what bad things result from its production.

Hopefully in the process, the Prager Family can finally purge its remaining bad habits. Cheers to a happy and healthy 2011!