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Food for Thought: Making Conscious Food Choices

Just about anywhere folks gather, especially when food is involved, someone is apt to start talking about the food they are about to eat in relation to their personal diet and health concerns. It’s obvious that what we eat, and how we feel about what we eat, stirs strong emotions. Most people make some connection between the types of foods that they eat (or avoid eating) and their overall health. But just how those concerns and opinions are reflected in our food attitudes, and ultimately how they affect our choices, is an issue worth exploring.

Listening In On Food

The following observations, commentaries and dialogues are composites and sketches drawn from typical conversations. Have you experienced some of these? Can you also identify what’s missing, and what’s not being discussed and questioned?

If we observe and listen as people talk about their food and diet, we may realize that nearly everyone appears dissatisfied with some aspect of their weight. Their body image is just not good enough “as is.” For others, weight concerns may relate directly to serious medical issues, such as an inherited tendency to obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Most people usually say they believe they’d look better and be healthier if they went on a diet and took off some weight. A few have the opposite challenge, in that they struggle to eat enough high calorie foods just to keep weight on.

Protein, both source and sufficiency, always seems to come up in diet conversations. Some active body builders report especially high protein regimes they follow, supplementing large quantities of egg whites, whey or other protein powders for “bulking up,” to add body and muscle mass. In the context that they use protein supplements, it seems perfectly normal and acceptable to them, and the supplementation may not even be considered as “food” in the ordinary sense.

In conversations such as these we also frequently hear more than we choose to about someone’s digestion issues and heartburn, or the ups and downs of their blood sugar, with the “food mood” swings. As the talk progresses, the pros and cons of various diet plans are usually batted back and forth.

A person says she’s tried lots of different diets, even “going vegetarian,” but gave it up because she felt tired and decided that it was because she wasn’t getting enough protein. There’s a further exchange of experiences and opinions about using various proteins supplements. Some say they use them for instant breakfast smoothies. Others suggest using protein or energy bars for afternoon energy boosts.

One woman warns that Nutra Sweet© and other artificial sweeteners are dangerous to health and should be avoided. But someone else responds that she believes such warnings are unjustified, because she doesn’t believe the products would be allowed on the market if they weren’t safe. She adds that “a couple of diet sodas a day — or a little Equal© in my coffee – makes it possible for me to curb my sugar cravings and keep my calories somewhat under control.”

Several people say that they sometimes just feel that eating – and definitely food shopping! — have become increasingly unpleasant for them. Shopping, they say, has truly become a defensive act, and they resent having to read labels so carefully. Even then, they still don’t feel sure of what the labels mean, or how the information is all supposed to fit together to plan healthier meals.

Almost no one feels they get adequate fiber, or vitamins and minerals from their foods. Some say they feel supplements are important, sort of like health insurance, while others aren’t sure. A few remember foods from some decades past as having had much more flavor. All agree they’d like to have food be more natural, less processed, fresher, and with more meals made from scratch. But, they add, it all takes so much effort, and the biggest barrier is time!

The Fear of Food

So…do any of these conversational gleanings sound familiar? Why is there such a preoccupation with food issues, and yet such a negative feeling when talking about foods? Some writers have referred to this as a general Fear of Food, which in extreme situations even develops into food deprivation, such as anorexia, or the binge and purge behaviors of bulimia.

How have we come to a place and time where we have such unhealthy attitudes and responses to something as basic to life as food? Aren’t we supposedly endowed with the greatest abundance and variety of foods on the planet? Our modern supermarkets now offer many thousands of choices, and we have a “globalized food system” such that we have food flown and shipped in now from all around the globe, all year long, and we don’t have to know, or wait for, the turning of the harvest seasons. Isn’t that supposed to be a positive thing? Why then are we feeling so “hungry” in the true sense of the word? We seem to be terribly overfed and yet genuinely undernourished, in more ways than one.

Food Cues 

We can now instantly gratify nearly any food urge, and we can do so at any time of the day or night. When we’re shopping at the mall, we can just pop into any of the dozens of fast-food outlets that beckon us, grab a burger, pizza, or fried chicken from one vendor, and later top it off with a Cinnabon© or double fudge sundae from another. There are so many choices! We’re the kids in a candy store.

In response to television’s food-laden commercials, we suddenly feel hungry – so we just pop something from the freezer into the microwave. Not the right choice in the freezer? We can grab the phone or laptop and order a delivery within minutes.

Public health advisors point to the omnipresence of such “food cues” and the abundance of “choices,” as well as our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, as contributing to the fact that a tremendous percentage of us are now overweight and some half actually are obese. It’s not only adults; it’s very young children. That’s not only tragic on an individual basis; it also bodes very badly for future health care costs.

What Can We Do?

The statistics certainly provide us with ample proof that as a nation we are facing very serious health issues and consequences related to our food trends and unhealthy food attitudes. We know that each one of us needs to make an honest assessment of our own as well as our children’s personal food and exercise habits, and then be prepared to act accordingly. The inevitable implication is that many of us need to immediately make distinctly different personal lifestyle and behavioral changes or risk serious, potentially long-term health consequences. Given our other national tendencies toward over-committed schedules and tight time constraints, that can seem a daunting task indeed!

As critical as personal behavior change can be to our health, unless we also recognize the urgency of also insisting upon “industrial behavior changes” wherever they are needed throughout the agriculture and food system, any real food choices we’ll have in the future will only continue to narrow, and conditions will worsen overall.

We need to be sure that antibiotics will be available to us – and be effective – when or if we actually need them. Their overuse in factory-farmed animals is creating “super-bugs,” resistant to an increasing number of antibiotics that are used in treating serious human diseases. Even if we don’t eat meat, these substances have been discovered contaminating our waterways, where they also join with other pharmaceuticals and chemical toxins, creating “chemical soup.” We need to join with the chorus of others now demanding the discontinuation of most of these drugs.

We need to find out what toxic fertilizers and pesticides are being used on our agricultural fields, creating immediate hazards to our health, endangering the lives of farm workers, and then ending up washing into our increasingly polluted rivers, streams and lakes.

We need to begin our journey of understanding some of the contrasts between “what is now” and “what could be.” You may want to take a “cram course” approach to discovering and catching up with what’s been happening to agriculture and food while we’ve all been too busy to notice. That doesn’t mean just all the negative stuff; there have truly been some wonderful, progressive, exciting changes taking place concurrently with the unsustainable, regressive agricultural patterns of the past. Change is here; it’s now, and you can participate!

But beware: once you do start to read and consider the issues, and talk to some farmers and producers, you’ll want to tell your friends and family what you’ve been finding out. One thing leads to another. You may decide to choose whose hands you put your food dollar in when you buy at least some of your food. That may mean not always shopping at the chain supermarket, but trying a local cooperative or other natural foods market, where there are many truly healthy choices. That may also mean meeting and supporting local organic and sustainable producers selling at seasonal farmers markets. Or, you might subscribe to a CSA – that’s Community Supported Agriculture program. Each week you’ll receive a fresh and varied basket of local organic produce and sometimes other goods such as fresh eggs from uncaged hens, and farmstead cheese, all through the season, from May to October. Some CSAs deliver, and sometimes you pick up at a local drop site – while in some areas, you drop by the farm.

You may decide to grow some of your food, even if it’s just a few potted tomatoes and herbs on the balcony to start with. Or you might check out local community gardens, where organic plots are very affordable, and growers have a sense of community. Knowledge, extra seeds, traded produce, and great exercise are all added bonuses. You might even “grow a row” for a food bank or community kitchen, where fresh produce is greatly needed and appreciated.

You may find that taking the kids along to shop now has a whole new perspective to you. After all, you’re no longer just avoiding one bad choice in favor of another of questionable value! You’re anxious to share more positive food experiences with the young people in your life, and to help them make their own good food choices, not just based on convenience, marketing, or what they saw advertised on TV and thought they had to have.*

[Ed. note] Encourage your children to become media literate. Help them see through the hype of advertising, and teach them how to make conscious food choices.

(*In my own home, when our kids were growing up more than 30 years ago, we had a rule: if it’s advertised on television, don’t even ask! The ban included all toys, trivia, and so-called foods. It sure leveled the playing field fast!)