“Unhappy Meals,” an article by Michael Pollan published in the New York Times in 2007, chronicles the transition of America’s idea of health from eating healthy food to eating nutrients. His motto? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Sounds simple enough, but when you start to think about the different kinds of edible substances, not necessarily food, that one can get in the supermarket, this motto becomes more and more difficult to uphold. An average American grocery store is chock full of “low” and “free” foods (i.e. low-fat, or sugar-free), with labels making seemingly outlandish health claims. In fact, the majority of supermarkets have only a small section of the store dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables, which often is just the perimeter of the store, and the countless center aisles are devoted to processed snack foods and quick frozen meals.
The old saying "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," is extremely applicable here. While Brillat-Savarin may have meant that literally, I believe it can be applied in a broader sense to apply not only to a single person, but to American culture as a whole. Self control isn’t exactly one of American culture’s strong suits, and we are often associated with excess and obesity. So why is it that the aisles in the grocery store are filled with "health" foods, but we keep getting bigger? It all comes back to self control. We can’t call it quits after one cookie, so we buy low-fat, sugar-free cardboard cookies that leave our mouths dry and sweet teeth (?) unsatisfied after we binge-eat half the package. And the sad thing is, the people who eat like this often honestly believe they are being "healthy" because it’s low-fat! Of course, I’m using "we" in an extremely collective sense; I’m very much aware that not everyone embodies these eating habits, but sadly many do.
According to Michael Pollan, “Of course, it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.” What I find mind-boggling, is that the nutrition of fresh fruits and vegetables is so often overlooked, and instead the attention is directed to the pre-packaged, freeze-dried snacks in the center aisles. Maybe it’s because we live in a time that medicine is seen as the first resort, not the last. When you have a headache, you don’t have a few glasses of water and see how you feel, you take an Advil. When you have a sore throat, you don’t gargle with salt water and wait a day, you immediately go to the doctor and insist on an antibiotic. When it comes to our diets, we can’t dilly-dally with meager vegetables! We need results! Food is subsequently being treated as a medicine, with added fiber and higher levels of vitamins, and the unaltered from-the-earth fruits and vegetables are left in the dust.
When I was young, I used to love to go to the Science Center. We would usually go on rainy days in the Summer when my mom was probably ready to kill my brother and me if we ran around the house, or asked to watch T.V., one more time. Like most museums, the exit was always through the gift shop. This place was awesome. Practically overflowing with everything from bouncy balls to k’nex roller coasters (remember k’nex?) and any other weird science-y thing you could imagine. I have a very vivid memory of picking up a package of “Astronaut Food,” and asking the cashier what it was; there was no way that rectangular block of foam was actually food… was it? She explained that when in space, astronauts had to eat freeze-dried meals, which gave them the same nutrients they would get when eating on earth. Is that what our future looks like? Just getting the nutrients we think we need, but in bland, freeze-dried form? I certainly hope not. Follow Pollan’s guidelines for eating, to steer us away from a future of astronaut food:
1. Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
2. Avoid those food products that come bearing health claims.
3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number— or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
4. Get out of the supermarket and shop at farmers markets instead.
5. Pay more (for quality foods), eat less.
6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. In other words, have a relationship with your food; don’t just treat it as fuel for the machine.
8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden.
9. Eat like an omnivore.