I’ve always instinctively disliked the message, “Food is fuel.” I get why that message is important to those with serious addiction or compulsive issues who use food as comfort, drug, love, etc. Since I still deal with those issues myself, I can assure you that I get it. What I don’t like about that message, though, is that it kind of suggests that your body is a machine. You know, that needs “fuel.” Like your car. Which kind of implies that you, too, are a machine. Like your car. And while it’s nice to think of the human body as the ultimate technology and so forth, you are not a machine. You are a person with consciousness and soul and history and demons and angels and family and culture, and that changes things. You have a mind, in other words. You have a heart. Food cannot be just the stuff that fires up your body because from your earliest days, you were taught to associate food with love, comfort, care, family, correctness, communication.
I’m saying this because I’ve found that this essential idea is at the root most American fad diets. In fact, I think there’s something peculiarly American about that idea: “food is fuel.” It’s Puritan. It’s functional. It’s do-it-yourself. It’s pioneer tough. You want to lose weight? No sugar/wheat/meat/fat/carbs/dairy, then. Don’t like it? Toughen up, kid.
I remember years ago buying a “diet kit” from some snake oil salesman that promised results (this was during my first foray into 250-pound-dom). The guide book suggested that I make a big batch of oatmeal at the beginning of the week and flavor it with cinnamon only. And then eat it for the rest of the week. Oh, and boil up some eggs, throw away the yolk which we all know is the best part, and then eat the whites. No salt, because salt is bad. I made it three days before I permanently gave up on that. What I remember feeling was the shame of failing this diet — this awful, awful, unpleasant diet — because of something so stupid as wanting to enjoy what I ate.
Which brings me to what I think is the key of my own success, as rocky and uneven as it’s been: enjoying what I eat.
My father is French. His mother, my grandmother, was an immensely important figure in my life and helped raise me, and she was French, too. My mother is from New Zealand and has virtually no interest in cooking and tacitly handed them the reins of my diet. They were 100% in charge of everything I ate pretty much up until I was in middle school. So for the first ten years of my life or so, I ate like a French kid. That is to say, I learned that food is a pleasure, a delight, a way of connecting with family and friends. It’s divine. It’s special. It should be treated with care. It should taste amazing. It should be top quality. Every ingredient matters. How you prepare the food matters. Even how you eat it and with who and when matters. Basically, food isn’t just fuel; it’s one of the most special things about being alive, a necessary delight we get to experience every day, and is treated as thus.
When I was nine, for example, my father taught me how to roast a chicken. I’ll never forget how that went down. He sat on a stool in the middle of the kitchen and patiently talked me through the instructions of how to clean the bird, pat it down, prepare it with butter, spices, herbs, and lemon, roast it first at a high heat, then at a medium heat, baste often, check for done-ness, and carve. He refused to help me any more than give me instructions: I was the one who did everything, with my own little hands. It came out great, as it usually does (my dad’s chicken is to die for), and I’ll never forget the feeling of pride I had from doing well, or the feeling of pleasure from eating something truly delicious. Later in my life, my dad taught me how to pick a chicken to roast, what to look for, what to avoid. He eventually taught me how to choose all my produce and all my meat. We regularly shopped the perimeter of the supermarket only.
My grandmother had a lot to do with the way I thought about and interacted with food. She was big on ritual and table manners and table-setting (so is my mother, actually). Three meals a day and no snacking, except for possibly a little fruit or bread with chocolate after school. Small portions, but lots of different options. A big premium on vegetable and fruit. Combinations were important; complementary tastes of vital significance. Dinners and lunches in courses, eaten in a specific order — specifically, salad after the main course rather than before it, and cheese and fruit for dessert most nights. When she wanted to lose a few pounds, my grandmother simply stopped eating pasta and bread for a while — and only for a while, since pasta is wonderful and French bread is a gift from God. My sister and I were never fussy about eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, the kind that many American kids outright refuse to eat, which I understand is fairly common of most French kids. By six, I liked the taste of steamed green beans, garlic, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, anchovies, pate, and brie. The attitude was essentially this: Isn’t food great? Isn’t it amazing that there are so many different tastes? Shouldn’t we make this very special and treat it with the ultimate care?
I’ll say this. Yes, I have serious compulsive eating issues, but they only started after I began to regularly eat food that wasn’t prepared at home and only after a certain trauma that had nothing to do with food that I won’t get into happened and affected me. In fact, I credit my success over the past four years, wonky as it is, to this early foundation of treasuring food enough to only want the best.
So. How do processed foods come into play here?
Well, for me, this has to do with options. I’ve been researching a number of diets, or “eating methods” if you will, that are currently popular, and all of them seem to make sense in their own way, and all of them seem to indicate that there’s a certain kind of food you shouldn’t eat (meat, dairy, grains, nightshade plants, sugar, fat; if you mix all diets together, you basically can’t eat anything). All these diets provide what seems to be legitimate evidence to back up their claims. And all of them, at their root, if there’s resistance, seem to fall back on the root idea that “food is fuel.” Cut out the grains, because food is fuel. Cut out the fat, because food is fuel. Cut out the sugar, because food is fuel.
I swear, I’m not knocking on your choices. Some people get violently sick when they eat grain, so they shouldn’t eat it. Others can’t process dairy and get all kinds of gut problems from it, so they shouldn’t eat it. Others dislike the taste of meat, so they shouldn’t eat it. And yet others love the taste of meat and don’t get much pleasure out of eating starchy foods, so they shouldn’t eat it. Still others have moral, ethical, ecological and political reasons not to eat meat or animal products, so they shouldn’t eat it. This actually supports my theory that food isn’t just fuel: it’s so much more than that. It’s one of the main ways we engage with our world. Wheat is technically a fuel, and for some people like me, it’s just fine, and for others, it’s basically poison. Fish meat is technically a fuel, and for some people like me, it’s just fine, and for others, it raises serious questions about ethical treatment of living creatures or ecological concerns about over-fishing or just the taste of it ruins the experience of eating. Unless that person is alone in the wilderness of Alaska and hasn’t eaten in five days, he or she probably shouldn’t eat that darn fish. Just like the taste of bland, cinnamon-y oatmeal and rubbery, virtually tasteless egg whites superceded the “fuel” it would have given me.
You get what I’m saying.
What I do appreciate about most of these diets, and about the food I ate growing up, is that there’s a premium on paying attention to what goes into your food. Essentially, ingredients and process matter. And that makes sense to me. Recently, I’ve cast a more critical eye on what constitutes my main diet, and there’s a lot that’s fine and a lot that is not so fine. I eat out way too much. This wouldn’t be a problem at all if I ate out at strictly good quality places where there’s a premium on good quality food sources, but I don’t. I have impulse control issues that are most problematic when I’m around processed food. Yesterday’s Oreos, for example. I didn’t even enjoy them that much, yet I ate them because they were there. I’ve become fairly laissez-faire when it comes to shopping, meaning I get most of my produce at TJ’s (not terrible, but their packaging is wasteful and their sources a little doubtful) and will often buy prepared foods like already cooked chicken breasts to throw into a salad, which means someone else is making my food and I don’t really know how. And finally and most significantly, if choosing between two different versions of the same product, let’s say a loaf of bread, I’ll more often than not choose the lower calorie version rather than take the version that has the best ingredients. And that’s primarily because I want to lose weight. I’ve stopped drinking regular soda with the high fructose corn syrup, which is a good thing, but I’ve basically replaced that with Diet Coke and Coke Zero, so I’m still ingesting all kinds of additives and dyes that I could probably go without.
I’ve successfully lost weight eating processed foods, but I feel my best and am happiest and most content when my diet is mostly fresh, whole, tasty, doable, and with as few processed foods as possible. I’m thinking of all the times I spent in France or Spain as a kid and eating the food there, abundances of it, and coming back to the states leaner and more full of energy than before I left. This is my totally biased, anecdotal, unscientific, personal opinion and experience talking, but for me, the right diet is relatively processed food free.
This is going to mean the following:
1. Slowly phasing out most products I regularly eat that include ingredients or processes that I can’t use or replicate in my home.
2. Slowly stop eating out so much and start treating meals out as special events rather than a daily alternative to a dinner or lunch or breakfast I could prepare myself.
3. Slowly stop taking most food shortcuts like prepared chicken breasts that frankly I could do just as well at home if I plan a touch more carefully.
4. Slowly moving towards buying most of my produce from local farms and farmer’s markets that raise their food ethically and with care.
5. Slowly moving towards only eating mostly meat and meat products that are similarly ethically and carefully raised, cultivated, and butchered.
You’ll notice the words “slowly” and “most” a lot here. “Slowly” because I anticipate this is going to be a big enough shift in the way I live that if I try it all at once, I’ll give up right away. And “most” because food isn’t just fuel. I refuse to make a hard and fast rule about having no processed foods in my diet whatsoever. Let’s say I go camping in a couple of weekends with some friends, and we whip out Jet-Puft marshmallows, some Hershey’s chocolate, and some graham crackers to whip up s’mores. I’m going to go ahead and enjoy myself with the chemicals and additives. Let’s say it’s a hot day at Dodger’s Stadium and all I want to do besides cheer on the boys in blue is enjoy a Dodger Dog and an ice cold Coke. I’m going to do that (of course, that won’t be happening until next year, so….) And let’s say I’m taking a road trip one fine frosty morning and I stop off at a McDonald’s for a cup of coffee and a Sausage McMuffin because who ever went on a road trip without some Mickey D’s? The point is that some processed or fast foods have sentimental, social, even cultural value, and it’s ridiculous to imagine spending the rest of my life denying that.
This is all for me, by the way. For real. Everyone reading this blog probably has very strong feelings and beliefs about what and how they eat, and especially because I’m just an English teacher and not a food scientist, I cannot possibly make this more than a personal opinion driven by personal experience and biases. But even then, that just underscores my base point: food isn’t just fuel. The very fact that any of us have any kind of belief in what we should or shouldn’t be eating is evidence that food is more than the gas our bodies need to function.
So over the next couple of months, this is what I’ll be trying to do. Follow along, will you?