I swear this is not going to turn into a food blog for me, but I don’t swear that the next two entries aren’t going to be about food. (Got that? ‘Cause that last part was a double-negative.) I just spend a lot of time eating. All of us do. We eat more often than we do most other things and if we’re spending so much time doing something that has such a profound impact on our personal health, on our societal health, and the health of our Big Home (this planet), I figure I might as well put some thought into it. (Full Disclosure: as I’m writing about healthy food, I’m having a glass of wine with dark chocolate and sliced strawberries.)
Really, I wanted to back up a bit and slow down with my last post about food. For starters, I just had a conversation about food with someone recently that made me realize I should clarify: when I’m thinking about, shopping for, cooking, and eating food, I’m not AT ALL interested in “dieting” in the sense that refers to a temporary way of eating to lose weight. I use the term “diet” sometimes to describe a general, long-term lifestyle with food. That’s not to say I haven’t had my share of issues when it comes to food and its effect of my appearance. I spent many years through high school and college worrying about my weight, the size of my clothes, and how I stacked up against completely unrealistic ideals. (I bumped into a friend I knew in college recently on facebook and asked if he remembered me. “Of course.” he said. “The girl who used to worry her armpits were fat.” Really? I was that girl?)
However, now that I’m in my thirties, with three kids, I’m much more interested in getting to be active and alive, and enjoying my body to its fullest potential as long as it keeps ticking. Somehow, paradoxically, I think being pregnant and having kids–the stuff I used to assume would destroy my body as I knew it– has been the best thing that’s happened for my self-image.
OK, but enough of that. Here’s what I’m thinking: in my old post, I briefly went over the “extremes” (in quotations because, for some people, these are a way of life) that I’ve experimented with over the years. I’ve tried all of them as physical experiments to discover food’s effect on my mental and physical well-being. Between my interests in nutrition and holistic health and my (sometimes foolish) willingness to try anything, I’m game for whatever is on the plate in front of me. The only big thing I haven’t tried is being vegan because BUTTER IS AMAZING. So, here is the shit I’ve tried (in the order I’ve tried it) and here is what I learned. (so far. i’m always still learning…):
- Vegetarianism This is a tricky one for me. While I believe eating lower on the food chain is the best way (and someday, may be the only way) to sustain the human population, personally I feel the worst (physically and mentally) when I’m vegetarian for long periods of time. It’s not a secret to those around me for more than a few hours that I have GI issues. When I’m vegetarian, it gets worse. I’m gassy, gain weight, and feel sluggish. However the thing I most keep in mind about this option is that, to paraphrase Mark Bittman, even if you believe animals were put on this planet for our culinary enjoyment, it’s unlikely you believe they should also be tortured. And the fact is that they are. I’m not about to upload pictures of live chickens or pigs missing body parts, because chances are at least one of your facebook friends is already doing so. But the way I’ve turned this lesson into practice is buying local, humanely-raised animal products. And it costs more. So we eat less of it. And as much as I try to protect my kids from conflict while they’re young (they’ve seen less movies than they are years old. and the majority have been documentaries on things like geysers.), I do explain to them how we get meat and why I don’t eat it if I don’t know where it came from. What I learned: Eating doesn’t just affect my health and quality-of-life, it affects living beings everywhere, from animals to people living miles away.
- Gluten-Free This is the trend lately, and with some of the mis-information out there, I feel fortunate that my education about wheat and gluten has mostly come from a super-smart friend who happens to have Celiac disease, She suggested I try gluten-free for 30 days when I was in the height of my GI issues. (I’ll spare you the details here.) Gluten-free felt good to me. I had less anxiety and slept better. I learned how to cook with new stuff: almond flour, Basamati rice, quinoa. But the downside was that, with all the fiber, my GI issues actually got worse and I often found myself in predicaments where I couldn’t eat the food in front of me and didn’t have a substitute (This says more about my lack of discipline and planning-ahead than it does about the diet.) However, as far as ethnic foods go, as long as I stayed away from Italian, I realized many cultures focus on other grains: Mexican foods use lots of corn, for example, and Asian foods use rice. What I learned: flour products are pretty “empty” flavor-wise. They rely on other foods to give them flavor. (Jam on bread, sauce on pasta.) Why not just skip the white, processed flour and get straight to what’s giving it flavor? Also, potatoes, corn, and rice are all more flavorful substitutes for the starch in a meal.
- Paleo (or the “caveman diet”) This has been my most recent experiment, and is most different from vegetarianism. It is also gluten-free by nature. The guidelines are pretty simple: eat foods that existed before the advent of agricultural farming. So: fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and meat. This happens to be most like a diet I did years ago with a roommate who had Crohn’s disease. I hated eating whatever I wanted in front of her when she was eating peas and eggs every morning, so I did it with her and realized I liked her food better than mine! This has opened me up to think outside the cereal box. I started having veggies at breakfast (peas in scrambled eggs is fast, easy, and good), using simple, powerful flavors like lemon, garlic, and cinnamon, and having more food around to snack on: cut fruit, nuts, and pepitas. I also stopped caring about how much fat and focused on what kind of fat. So this meant eating avocados, salmon, and pecans, and straight-up drinking flax or olive oil. What I learned: I can get pure flavor in less ingredients when I use the right ones. Also, our traditional American breakfast is insanely limiting.
- My Kids! As parents, we think it’s our job to teach our kids about nutrition, but I’ve learned a few things from watching them. For starters, my kids would pretty much try anything their first two years. I have never bought a jar of baby food. I just pureed whatever Chris and I were eating. In their first year, the boys slurped down spinach, blueberries, avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes, beets, you name it. I don’t understand why people are surprised when a toddler likes healthy food: they’ll pretty much eat whatever you give them in the first year or two. It’s when they started pre-school lunches and got their hands on a cookie for the first time that my kids got a little more picky. Also, I’ve noticed how kids go insane on one kind of food for a while and then stop it cold-turkey. (Katie, you witnessed Sola eat, like, 16 clementines in one setting, right? And then she didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the evening. The next day, she was on to something else.) (And, as I’m typing this blog entry, I’m not paying attention and she just ate 8 pieces of bread.) It makes sense to me that we give into craving and gorge ourselves. After all, I doubt hunter-gatherers were worried about representing all food-groups in their stone bowls, or whatever they used before Bed, Bath, and Beyond was invented. They found a berry-bush or whacked a lion on the head and dug in, right? (Confirm that last part before you quote me.) Finally, there’ s always the power of the “no-thank-you bite.” I’ve told the story a million times about how the boys made me try a bite of cucumber after I insisted that I haven’t EVER liked cucumber. “Mom, you’re being a hypocrite,” they said. (A word I really regret teaching them….) “Remember, you always tell us ‘you never know when your taste buds are going to change their minds’.” And, of course, they were right. I tried the damn cucumber and not only was it not that bad, I liked it! I will now eat cucumber. What I learned: Have an open mind. Don’t feel guilty for gorging on something or going on a “kick,” as long as you round it out over time. And, finally, take no-thank-you bites.
So, I guess that’s the tour of my digestive track over the last decade. I’m not really doing anything too extreme right now, but working with the culmination of all these lessons. I do feel comfortable having anyone over for a meal. Whether we have guests that are vegetarian, gluten-free, or traditional meat-and-potatoes eaters, I feel comfortable eating and cooking in all of these ways.
What lessons about food have stood the test of time for you? What is something new you tried for a recipe (adobe sauce? tomatillos? gorganzola?) and incorporated into your routine? What foods make you feel the best?