What Should We Then Eat? (Part 1)

What should we have for dinner?

I never realized what a significant question that is… or how fraught with danger. If you read (and believe) the media, health hazards lurk at every turn; environmental disaster hinges on my choices. I could even destroy the lives of workers I’ve never met, should I make my food decisions irresponsibly. How in the world does anyone with any scruples determine what to eat?

In an effort to sift through the hyperbole and discover what is actually worth our time and energy, I have been reading extensively both online and in actually print-on-paper books. Now I want to pass along what I’ve learned. Hopefully it will save you  time and money, and assuage your conscience at the same time.

Today, I want to consider the health aspects of our food choices. (I’ll cover the other issues in later postings.)

We all “know” that some foods are beneficial, while others will cut us down as we chew. Sausage and pepperoni pizza? Bad. A huge slab of caramel-topped cheesecake? Must be bad! Bran muffins? Supposedly good, except that they’re full of white flour, fat and sugar, which is bad. Apples are generally considered good (except for the pesticide load on the non-organic ones), as is broccoli, spinach, and sweet potatoes. While we may not always make the sensible choice, at least the options are pretty clear.

But what about those other foods, the ones that show up in the news? Do we really know as much as we think we do?

For example, how about coffee, tea, and chocolate? They all have caffeine (or caffeine-like compounds) which is supposedly bad for you, except for the studies showing it might be beneficial. Or not. (At least chocolate has anti-oxidants to go with that yummy fat, sugar, and calories.)

Then there’s soy. I always thought soy was good—isn’t tofu the iconic health food? Among other benefits, we were told that soy reduced the risk of cancer, offered high quality protein, and diminished the symptoms of menopause. But now I hear that soy isn’t as healthy as we thought it was. While some authorities continue to laud its assets, others cite studies linking it to accelerated aging, reduced nutrient uptake, and other horrors. Now they’re saying it causes cancer. This is so confusing—should we eat it or not?

Fish is another food I always considered very healthy. A lean, low calorie source of protein, cold water fish also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against everything from high triglycerides and high blood pressure to Alzheimer’s disease. Shouldn’t we eat a lot of this miracle food? Well, it turns out that fish also concentrates environmental pollutants such as mercury. And mercury is really bad for us.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are sufficiently concerned about the mercury content of fish and other sea foods that they recommend limiting fish to two meals a week, especially for pregnant women and young children.

There are many other foods that ignite controversy. From a purely health perspective, you can find diatribes on both sides of the fence regarding the consumption of milk, alcohol, potatoes, beef (including the argument over corn-fed versus grass-fed cattle), carbohydrates, butter and margarine, baking powder, black pepper, preservatives, popcorn, carbonated water, corn, eggs, genetically modified plants… and the list grows daily.

Self-described experts also argue over how to prepare your meals: Should food be microwaved? Grilled? Should it be cooked at all, or eaten raw? How about turning it all into juice? What should your cookware be made from? Should food be irradiated to retard spoilage?

Then there’s the enormous flap over sugar versus sugar substitutes. (There’s so much contradictory advice being offered on that issue, it’s enough to make you throw up your hands and head out for a burger, fries, and a milkshake.)

After sorting through all the dos and don’ts about our diets, I’ve come to my own conclusions. (Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, contributed substantially to my thinking process.)  Here’s my own biased advice:

  1. Eat actual meals. Don’t try to substitute canned diet drinks, “energy” bars, or anything else that was created in a factory. Vitamin pills have their place, but often scientists find that isolating a particular nutrient and packaging it in pill form doesn’t result in the same benefits as just eating food.
  2. Avoid processed food. Compared to fresh food, most processed food contains substantially less nutrition (there are exceptions), while the processing uses a great deal of energy, packaging materials, and other resources. For example, instant potato flakes contain only half the vitamin C as the same amount of fresh potato. In general, try to stick as close as possible to food-as-nature-made-it.
  3. Avoid any foods advertised on TV. Consider: selling that food product must earn the company enough money to make paying for advertising worthwhile. I’d rather spend my food dollars on actual nutrition, rather than subsidizing more TV ads. Plus, most foods seen in commercials are heavily processed, high in fat, salt, and/or sugar and low in nutrients.
  4. Avoid food packages with ingredients you can’t pronounce. If you buy it fresh and cook it yourself, you don’t need preservatives or other chemical additives.
  5. Eat it whole. Grains naturally come with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Why remove all that (in refining the flour), just to add some of it back again? What about the nutrients that don’t get replaced?
  6. To achieve all this, mainly shop the outside aisles of your supermarket. As a rule, meat, bread, dairy, and produce are arranged around the edges of the store, while center aisles contain engineered and packaged food products, with plenty of junk food in the mix.
  7. Eat lots of produce, and eat it in season. Fruit and vegetables are proven health foods. Freezing, canning, and transporting food long distances all take their toll on nutritional content. As much as possible, I try to focus on locally grown, fresh seasonal produce. (Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible here in Colorado.)
  8. Eat everything in moderation—take advantage of the variety we enjoy. Yes, fish has mercury. Soy may or may not be good or bad for you. But no matter what big breakthrough is made in the coming months, you won’t do yourself too much damage if you don’t eat too much of any one thing.
  9. Eat with gratitude. God created food for us, not only to keep us alive (one all-purpose super-food would have accomplished that), but for us to enjoy. Remember to say thank you.
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