Monday, March 18, 2013

Why small changes in eating are worth celebrating

I wanted to share the Six Ingredient Challenge for a reason — and it wasn't to impress anyone. Choosing to buy foods with six or fewer ingredients is not that difficult a challenge; it's sort of a baby step toward eating more mindfully and healthfully.

And I firmly believe that baby steps are what set us on the most important journeys.

I get so frustrated by the oligarchs of the nutrition world who sit on a throne of superiority and lord it over anyone who hasn't come to their conclusions about what is right to eat and what is so dreadfully wrong. Naturally, they conveniently ignore that pretty much every other diet "expert" disagrees with them; all their voices clash and contradict, so clearly they can't all be right! You'd never know it to listen to their shrill pronouncements, though, would you?

I've had more than a few discouragements over the course of my own journey (as you might be able to tell from the harsh tone of the preceding paragraph!). In my quest to choose more healthful foods, I've had people come to my blog space and tell me what a disappointment I am, how someone who espouses a natural lifestyle should eat so much better (presumably by that, they mean the way they eat), that I am clearly someone who is not interested in health or wellness, again because I'm not following their rules for what is "correct" nutrition. It's the type of attitude Michael Pollan talked about when he discussed orthorexia, this overconcern with what they themselves and what others eat, and a certainty that they're allowed to judge from the outside how poorly other people are doing at nourishing their own bodies.

I hate hate hate that what Americans or Westerners eat has been given the wink-wink nickname of SAD for "standard American diet." What smugness!

It bugs me. And it burns me up inside to think that these same people are spreading their pronouncements far and wide and hitting the ears and hearts of people who are more vulnerable and less far along on their journey.

Because you know what happens when someone presents their diet as The Best One Ever and You're Stupid Not to Have Figured This Out By Now? Does it make you want to adopt that way of eating? Does it encourage you to take one more step forward?

No! It makes you shut down. It makes you feel (obviously) defensive. It makes you question whether your journey thus far has been anything but meaningless. And it makes you afraid to reach out for help, community, and resources from the very groups of people who might be able to offer those things.

And let me assure you, there are plenty of people out there who can and do offer unconditional and nonjudgmental support even as they themselves follow very strict or unconventional eating plans. I've been to the houses of people who eat very cleanly and yet who are not proselytizing and obnoxious about it — quite the opposite, with a simple matter-of-factness and an implicit suggestion of "Join me; I can help."

If you're wondering now which camp you fall into, if you're one of the people I'm calling out for being supercilious because you once commented on a blogpost of mine, let me assure you that I don't put people into that category merely for talking about what they're eating or what they believe to be true about nutrition, only for implying that anyone who doesn't agree is lazy and willfully ignorant.

Why we can't all be on the same diet

What people who are nonjudgmental keep in mind are a few key facts:
  1. Even if you're sure as sure can be that you know the way that (all) people should be eating, you could be wrong.
  2. Just because something is right for you doesn't mean it's right for someone else.
  3. With the exception of guiding your kids, you don't get to tell someone else how to eat.

For #2, I've known many ex-vegans who found they needed animal protein to thrive. I've know ex-raw foodists who suffered health problems until they went back to cooking. I've known people who adopted no-grain Paleo diets and saw no improvements in health. I've known people who eat the standard American diet and lived, hale and hearty and lean, to 97. Now, the reverse is equally true: Just because something doesn't work for someone doesn't mean it's wrong for someone else, so we'll keep that in mind.

It's also important, among many other things, to point out that not everyone can afford to eat the way someone else might want them to. For us for awhile, buying produce at all was a stretch, and organic was right off the table. We lived for several months off boxed pasta from Big Lots. It can be economically insensitive to make pronouncements about eating that not everyone can follow (even if they wanted to, which they might not — more on that again later).

It can also be culturally insensitive. I wrote a post once about how much I love cabbage in place of rice as a base for stews and stir fries (and nachos and salads and pretty much anything — yum). I meant no harm, because I really do love cabbage. But someone commented that ze was of Asian descent and rice was staying put. Who am I to argue with that? When Sam and I were vegetarian, we allowed our families to continue to cook us their favorite meaty dishes and ate them without complaint, because that was part of our culture and one way they were showing their love to us. (I'm not suggesting other vegetarians should do the same; we were willing to, and that was our choice.) We often had certain Korean-American friends tell us forgoing meat would be a no-go for them because of the foods their family valued.

Plus, sometimes people don't want to eat a certain way. And I've come to the conclusion that that's totally valid. Some people really can't see giving up a certain type of food, or aren't there yet, and there's no point in trying to force it — or deride them for where they're at.

This is kind of broader but related to the economic and cultural insensitivity — some ways of eating are simply not scalable in a global fashion. Paleo comes to mind as an example. If everyone in the world wanted to eschew grains and live off veggies and grass-fed, free-range meat, we'd run out of food. (I don't think that means that individually we can't choose to eat in a non-scalable way, but it does remind me once again to avoid making judgments about how other people eat.)

As far as #1 goes, that you might be wrong about what you right now consider to be the holy grail of right eating, I'd like to tell you my story. Because I've been all about changing my nutritional mind and feeling my way to where I am now (and I'm sure the only thing staying the same is how much I'll keep changing my mind in the future!).

My nutrition journey, so far

At 22, cutting our white-flour, refined-sugar cake. The horror!
Nope, I'd do it again today. That thing was yum.
If you'd told me at 22 to try hard to balance my omega-3 and omega-6 fats, I'd first of all have had to have you explain what those are. If I then made any attempt to actually do that, I'd have given up within about ten minutes. That's simply not where I was at the time, and there were a lot of baby steps needed to get me to where I am today, musing about omegas as I actually am now.

My parents cooked us healthful family meals growing up, with healthful meaning what was par for the course at the time: some sort of meat, a side or two of frozen veggies with butter and salt, and a starch like a roll or mashed potatoes with butter and salt. (Yum, butter and salt!)

The health pronouncements of the 1980s and 1990s hit hard, though, and gradually my parents switched everything to low fat, and I went right along with it, even chastising my father for being slow to adapt. {Shakes head.} We always had a glass of cow's milk with every meal (calcium!), but now my mom and I switched ourselves to skim, and the rest of the family, grudgingly, went to 1%. Our butter was replaced by something that couldn't believe it wasn't that. Fat was the enemy, and I began to follow a friend's advice that I avoid anything with more than three grams of fat per serving.

See, if I'd have been doing this challenge then, it would have been the Three Gram Challenge!

On our first trip as a couple to Europe, this is the haul we brought back.
I regret nothing.
As an adult, I shook off a lot of the commonsense portions of my parents' way of eating (family meals, schedules, limited eating out), and Sam and I took off in weird new patterns: eating fast food multiple times a week, or day, and favoring convenience foods like frozen dinners and anything boxed or canned. Sam was already a good cook, so he could create something magical from scratch when he wanted to, and he would make the most of the processed meals by putting his spin on them, but we were not at all prioritizing anything healthful apart from occasional stabs at losing weight.

For instance, we tried the South Beach Diet for awhile, lost a bunch, and then gained it all back when we didn't feel like eating that way anymore. (Wheatines with tofu paté, anyone? Ricotta with vanilla extract as "dessert"? I would actually eat that still, no kidding, but … c'mon. It wasn't sustainable.) It did teach me a lot about reading food labels, though, so we became more discriminating about hidden sugars and other weirdness.

But it wasn't until I was a parent that I had twin drives that started propelling me along: On the one hand, I wanted to come to terms with who I was as a fat person. I wanted to accept me as me and not as some body I would never possess. I wanted to love who I was and eat as an act of that love. I found out about the fat acceptance and Health at Every Size movements, and read and read and read. It was like a thousand lightbulbs going off when I read about all the ways our culture's diet and weight loss addiction harms the bodies and souls of the people who live within it. I saw myself as one of the many people who are overweight despite not binge eating, despite exercising, despite starvation diets. I wanted to leave that very goal of being some "ideal weight" behind and learn to embrace the me as I exist now. That was very healing.

At the same time, I fell in with a hippie crowd. You know how that goes. One minute you're thinking natural birth and breastfeeding, and the next you're considering whether you want to soak your grains, ferment root vegetables, and try organ meats (perhaps including a juicy placenta!). So I went into research and experimentation mode. I tried out a little bit of this and that and found out what I could handle (figuring out better shopping choices to favor local, organic, and humane, and placenta pills) and what I could not (the taste of kombucha makes me want to barf, and I am simply not a slow cooker kind of gal). We joined a CSA. I started organic gardening. I pored through blog posts and forums and checked out traditional foods cookbooks from the library. I flirted with being a raw fruitarian and lasted all of eight minutes. I gave intermittent fasting a go and lasted a couple months. I gave up being a (somewhat lackluster) vegetarian but reconsidered what being vegetarian had meant to me and how I could honor that as someone who ate meat. I am not our cook, and Sam is, so there had to be a lot of give and back-and-forth as we figured out which of my newly cherished (and sometimes quickly discarded) ideals he was willing to adapt to in his kitchen and which he was not.

I am thankful to the people I met along that journey from there to now who were patient, who gave advice when asked and who shut their mouths when I wasn't in the mood, who gently suggested other ideas and resources to consider.

Sam cooking us up white-bread grilled cheese
and tomato soup from a can on our honeymoon.
Since that time, here are some things that happened that would seem incredible to 22-year-old me:

  • Our family went cold turkey on fast food.
  • I willingly buy organic produce and dairy when I can even though it costs a ton more.
  • We got rid of a lot of our plastic and now store leftovers in glass. This might not sound like a big deal, but we had gotten so much Rubbermaid as wedding gifts!
  • I've tried cutting soda and keep going back and forth on that one. Ah, well. Sam, though, has made the leap, so I'll never say never.
  • We became voracious label readers even before Six Ingredients, as I was saying, scanning for mention of high fructose corn syrup and unpronounceable chemicals.
  • Sam began to experiment in the kitchen and cook more and more from scratch.
  • We became willing to open ourselves up to trying new foods and new tastes. Our CSA delivery was often a box of surprises: What's kohlrabi, and how does one eat it? Where have garlic scapes been all my life? I can still remember when pesto was this brand new sauce to us, and I started making it all the time from scratch, even growing my own basil in the window. Moving to Seattle opened us up to different options, like pho, yakisoba, and sushi, that we'd never encountered before and now relished.
  • We started noticing our own tastes and palates changing and making us prefer the foods that were less processed and more natural. When I'd visit my parents, I couldn't believe they still weren't eating butter when the real thing was so much yummier. (Although I really am trying to keep my mouth shut about their food choices and can it with the shaming from my end!)
  • I began questioning all the conventional wisdom I'd heard growing up about low-fat this and whole-grain that. I learned more about the science and evolution behind the way my body digests things and what it needs to thrive.
  • We're currently eating a diet low in grains and refined sugar. This still makes my mind whirl. I know the mind of 22-year-old me would burst all over the room. (And, P.S., the first person who notices that I still do eat some grains and sugar and calls me on it in some patronizing fashion will have me raring for a fight. Because we each get to decide what we eat. Period.)
  • To bring this back around, I'm now all sorts of concerned that my omega-6 ratio is too high and am working to bring that in check. I wouldn't have known where to start with that back in the day!

And that is why baby steps are important and should be honored for what they are: a step forward. An attempt. An experiment. Worthy of being celebrated and recorded. No one would look at a baby's first toddling steps and say, "That all you can do? Pfft. Amateur." So why do we do that to people (including ourselves) who are trying to make those first halting steps toward better eating?

We can do better. Let's cheer instead.

What have your baby steps been as you journey toward healthful eating? How have people encouraged or discouraged you along the way?


Anonymous said...

Nice post! I'd take your #2 a little farther and argue that there may well be several different types of human metabolism that thrive on somewhat different diets. I expect to see this determined by science within my lifetime.

My mom worked hard to get me used to healthy food when I was little: homemade whole-wheat bread, homemade yogurt (in an era when you couldn't buy yogurt in supermarkets in middle America!), low-sugar snacks, lots of veggies. During my elementary school years, she relaxed and allowed a lot more convenience foods into the house, but we still had a mostly-from-scratch balanced meal at dinnertime and soda only on special occasions. I feel like I have good instincts about what to eat, and even in college (my nutritional low point) I ate at least one vegetable per day because I felt so wrong without it.

We gave up meat for Lent in 2002 and kept a diary, and I'm so glad we did because it is interesting now to look back on how much our eating habits have changed since then. That and getting a CSA farm share were the two things that really started us toward being more conscious of what we eat. The only big change that parenthood brought to my diet was the realization that I'd never picked up good protein and iron sources to replace meat--I discovered lentils! We are very happy on a low-meat diet now, but I don't know that we'll ever quit meat completely.

Inder-ific said...

What? You seriously got comments like that? What is up with people? *Fume.*

I applaud your 6-ingredient challenge, and I thought it sounded awesome. Realistically, for me, I was like, "uh, hell no, that's not happening." But I'm all about people trying to make healthy changes! Just not that one for me, just this minute. :-)

I hate our food-fat-diet obsessed culture. Gaaaaaah.

Karen du Toit said...

Baby steps! love this! I think it is the only way to go! I am way behind you on this road, but also know which narrow road to take ;-)
It is very overwhelming, and then I reach for the flour sandwich at lunch-time! *sigh*

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