ColumnHow does a foodie decide what to eat and what not to eat?
It was early in the morning, NPR was on, and my mother and I were sitting at my kitchen table drinking tea. An interview came on the radio with an executive of a certain well known specialty food chain that prides itself on healthy foods. He was describing his diet, which was something along the lines of vegan paired with an acronym that described a diet with no oil, low salt and no refined foods. I looked at my mother and we both rolled our eyes.
Before you judge me for judging someone else and their dietary choices let me say this: I am very conscious about what I eat, and so is my mother. I live in one of those gluten free, often vegan, a little bit of lamb tagine here and there kind of worlds. If I’m in a French bakery you can be sure that I will order a croissant, and pronounce it correctly. It has taken a long time, but I know what works best for my body. You know what else works best for my body: not existing in a world of black and white. Celebrating living. Call it French, call it European, whatever it is, it’s about enjoying what’s in front of you, the company that you’re with and the moment that you’re in.
We cut things out, we add them in. One week it’s no white flour the next it’s salt. If we’re lucky enough to be in a place where we can think about what we eat, the routine becomes about determining what works and what doesn’t work for us. But how good are we at really doing that? Temptation sets in and we can’t help but each for that flour/butter/sugar/egg concoction while a little voice in our head tells us that we should know better.
We go on our quinoa rampages, but even that isn’t great. Moral of the story: there is no right or wrong way to eat. There is merely identifying what works well for you, both physically and emotionally, and incorporating that into your daily routine, while at the same time maintaining a certain level of social grace.
Here’s the real problem: We live in a society where mass media tells us we have to look one way and fast food chains encourage us to eat another. That leads to an ongoing battle within ourselves where we feel so guilty about indulgences that our only alternative is to turn to overly strict diets. We can’t commit to the personal responsibility of cutting out most processed grains, so we end up on the Paleo diet. We can’t resist the temptation of a buttery baked good so we nix out any trace of dairy in what we eat. We’re not able to turn down a second glass of wine so we go on a booze-free cleanse. Do we live with dietary restrictions, or do we restrict our diet because we simply can’t trust ourselves to eat well? In a world that we know isn’t black and white, there’s a balance to be had somewhere in the middle, somewhere that allows us to live well and eat in moderation.
There are people with real food allergies; the kind of thing that they will die or get severely ill from. Then there are the rest of us. If a certain food makes you break out in hives, don’t eat it. But if you manage to find a balance where most of the time you eat well, don’t get down on yourself because of a moment of indulgence. We all have them and we all need them. Appreciation is as much a part of good food as preparation is.
Looking through a vintage cookbook from the 1950s, I was thinking about how much butter and sugar there was, and how many variations of cookie could be had in one book. But this was back when society wasn’t facing an obesity epidemic, people ate real and not processed foods, and if you made a batch of cookies, you ate one. Not seven. There’s a lesson to be learned somewhere in those pages.
Yes, we should all eat more kale, reduce our intake of meat and stick to whole grains, but our focus on specific ingredients or beneficial elements – hey! it’s packed with omega 3 AND antioxidants! – detracts from our understanding of real food. Diets let us oversimplify, reducing what we eat to individuals elements that all put together, don’t paint the full picture of who we’re eating with, where our food came from, its effect on the planet and a whole other laundry list of items. Eating is just as much about emotion as it is about physique.
Food is supposed to give us pleasure, and while a variety of different diets certainly provide a lot of pleasure, guilt is just as much a part of the problem as individual ingredients. Know what your body needs and eat it. Eat food with friends. Indulge on occasion. Remember that eating is a multidimensional process; celebrate it.
You know what Julie Child says? “Everything in moderation… including moderation.” I couldn’t agree more.
This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.