Archive for November, 2013

Eating Beyond “Superfoods”

November 22, 2013

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”     – P. J. O’Rourke

Recently as I perused the produce department of my local grocery store, a man asked me if I knew anything about juicing – he pointed to a bunch of fresh beets and chunk of fresh ginger root in his cart. He wondered if the bunch of fresh  greens in his hand from a bin marked simply “greens” was okay for juice, or if he should use kale. Just then a produce employee arrived on the scene and informed us the mystery greens were mustard greens. So I explained to the man that all of the dark leafy greens were very nutritious and the mustard greens have a spicier flavor so the choice of greens to juice is more a matter of taste preference. The produce employee interrupted us to encourage the man toward kale because – “it’s a Superfood.”

Irritated on several levels, (and I am not proud of my next move) I pulled the “I’m a dietitian” card with the hope the annoying employee would go away, which he kind of did. But now the man holding the greens perked up and asked if I knew another dietitian here in town, and when I replied that I did know her, the man beamed as he pointed to his cart and said “she’d be proud of me wouldn’t she?” I agreed, and wished him luck with his juicing adventure. As I walked away, he tucked a bunch of fresh kale next to the bundle of beets and headed toward the cash registers, not realizing mustard greens are also “Superfoods” they just don’t have a publicist yet.

Sigh. Mustard greens are cruciferous vegetables in the Brassicaceae family – along with kale, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, brussel sprouts, Kholrabi (my husband calls this the “alien vegetable”), bok choy, and cauliflower.

This produce department incident is actually brimming with blog material but right now my focus is: “Superfoods.“ I know this isn’t a new concept. We live in a culture that LOVES superheroes, and celebrities, so it really isn’t a surprise we apply this concept to foods. In general there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to expand their culinary horizons to include whichever food currently has the best PR campaign or celebrity endorsement. Generally these foods are rich in beneficial plant compounds or some mix of nutrients we don’t get enough of, but somehow I find this trendy obsession irritating. I googled “celebrity kale” and came up with an Us Weekly headline “Stars Who Love Kale” followed by a long list of articles, blogs and websites where apparently celebrities gush about this leafy Brassica. Sigh again.

I  guess I should start with the fact that I have nothing against kale. In fact, I really enjoy kale – starting several years ago when I was a work-share for a season at the Cosmic Apple Gardens, a local CSA over in Victor, Idaho. Prior to that summer, kale was simply a popular garnish used in many of the restaurants and banquets I’d worked in my former food and beverage career. (Current kale enthusiasts would cringe at the thought of the millions of pounds of this vegetable superhero tossed in the garbage of restaurant kitchens after serving its aesthetic purpose.)

I was also thrilled to discover this member of the cruciferous family, a group best known for cancer-fighting powers, grows beautifully in the harsh soil and abbreviated growing season here in northern Wyoming. Even I, brown thumb who generally does best with plants like cactus that thrive on neglect, can grow kale!

But here’s the thing, if we focus on a narrow array of “Superfoods,” we not only miss out on the variety of tastes and textures that make eating pleasurable, we burn out on whatever the latest thing is. I mean how many times a week can you eat kale before you are over it?

Not to mention that I can buy broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts for half the cost of a bunch of fresh kale (especially if I go organic).  And, better still, incorporating more variety allows me to make a delicious cabbage salad with toasted pumpkin seeds to go with Mexican main dishes, broccoli (or even more fun – broccoli rabe) with pasta, a mustard greens and goat cheese omelet, and by the time I get to the kale and white bean soup I’ve been in cruciferous heaven for days! Admittedly I stumble a bit with cauliflower and brussel sprouts – not my personal faves. Though I have found ways to make these two palatable, it takes a bit of extra effort (and a lot of garlic – or a grill) so I choose them less often.

I guess my point is – it is difficult to find a vegetable or fruit that isn’t a “Superfood.” Nutrition research shows again and again that eating more fruits and veggies of all kinds (non-starchy anyway) offers a whole host of benefits from lowering our risk of heart disease and many cancers, to helping us achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Just because Gweneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston aren’t raving about broccoli (and let’s not forget George Bush Sr.’s anti-broccoli tirade) doesn’t mean we need to forgo the (broccoli) trees for the (kale) leaves! And what if broccoli actually had a PR campaign? Check it out


Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us

November 15, 2013

I am no stranger to the genre of Food Industry Horror Stories, both in book and film forms. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was my first plunge into the seamy underside of our industrialized food system and its myriad cultural implications. Sadly many others have expanded on Schlosser’s work, including the latest contribution from investigative journalist Michael Moss called Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Moss shares what he learned from food industry researchers and executives themselves about how foods are specifically designed to entice people to eat past the point of normal fullness; calculated “bliss points” are used for added sugars, just the right texture and amount of salt for a “flavor burst” to maximize the rush to the brain’s pleasure centers upon hitting the tongue, and fats that add both flavor and a quality called “mouthfeel” – a powerful combination that does not seem to trigger messages to stop eating.

For those of us who encourage our clients to work towards normal or “intuitive eating” rather than restrained eating, Moss’ reminder about the many foods engineered to derail this internal system is both frustrating and important. People who struggle with compulsive overeating, binge eating, or restricted eating that stems from fear they will not be able to stop eating once they begin, at some point need to know that their behaviors are not entirely emotionally based or a sign they are somehow bereft of willpower. This is exactly what food manufacturers want all of us to do – eat what they produce, in excessive amounts, and often. These so-called Food Giants also spend billions of dollars to market highly processed, ultra-palatable foods, and to make sure they are available nearly everywhere we go.

My hope is that the information in Moss’ book will help us be more aware when we eat processed foods, knowing they are deliberately hard to resist overeating. If this deeper understanding about how processed foods are made and marketed so we will eat more helps us let go of the guilt that often comes with eating these foods, particularly if we eat more than we planned to, then I am all for this type of consumer education.

I am concerned however, that yet another of these dire warnings about our food system will reinforce rigid all-or-nothing thinking about what we eat (or don’t eat) based on fear. It is one thing to strive for more whole or minimally processed foods that support good health and another to be so fearful of processed foods that when our options are limited and that is the only food available, we either don’t eat at all, or we are overly anxious while eating (not good for digestion or absorption of nutrients not to mention the increased release of damaging stress hormones).

I guess I’m a bit of an idealist in that I prefer to inspire change rather than jam it down people’s throats with a heavy dose of fear. But I have to admit, I like the idea that when we eat more whole foods and prepare more of our meals at home rather than outsourcing this important work to big food companies (restaurants, ready-prepared or frozen meals in grocery stores, etc.) we are effectively rebelling against a modern food system in dire need of repair.

“Good Food,” “Bad Food,” Wait – Why Am I Eating?

November 8, 2013

The idea that food is either “good” or “bad” is one I have struggled with for years. I don’t mean that I can’t decide which foods support good health and which do not, though dietary trends at any given time try to complicate this picture. What I struggle with is the moralistic labeling of foods, and ultimately how we view ourselves when we eat these foods. If we eat “healthy” we feel virtuous and if we eat “junk food” we feel guilty. The reality is that our overall eating habits are what matter most, including the why, what, when, where, how, and how much we eat. To boil all that down to “I ate French Fries so I’m bad” or “I ate a salad so I’m good” just isn’t helpful for people who struggle with health or weight issues, and it’s not an accurate picture of health for anyone.

So, for years I supported not labeling foods as simply “good” or “bad,” until I learned about how the food industry co-opted the “no bad foods” mantra as a way to peddle more highly processed (and profitable) foods with little (or no) nutritional value. While I do believe there is room in a healthy overall diet for some less-nutritious options, and I also believe foods are not inherently “good” or “evil” – food is just food, hawking the idea that there is no such thing as a bad food from a nutritional perspective is ludicrous. Furthermore, billions of dollars are spent to market these less nutritious options that are usually cheaper and more widely available than more nutritious foods, and in many cases these foods are engineered to override our internal hunger/fullness regulators. Suddenly the “all foods fit” model is more difficult to embrace.

Now, however, I believe the bigger problem with the oversimplification of foods as “good or bad” or stating “there are no bad foods” is that we accept these reductionist ideas without much thought. In fact we have become so focused on what we eat (or don’t eat) that we give little attention to all of the other aspects of eating mentioned above (why, when, etc.). As it turns out, some of these other factors have a major impact on both what and how much, we eat.

We humans eat for a variety of reasons and always have. Those of us in the developed world have more food available than ever before, so merely having enough food is not the issue it was for our ancestors. Even so, we have this idea that food “should” only be for nourishment. The reality is that even primitive cultures that did not have a consistently adequate food supply used food for fuel or sustenance, sometimes medicine, as well as social reasons such as celebrations.

To limit food to only fuel or medicine (“good food”) is not realistic for most people. While some may choose this path to the table, most of us want food to be more versatile. So what if we first ask ourselves: why am I eating this food? Or why do I want that food? We could then have the honest, open conversation with ourselves about our overall eating habits. Sometimes we may answer: I’m hungry and this food will fill me up or I don’t feel well and this food will nourish me. Other times we may say: I like the taste of this food or I want to be part of this celebration with food.

With this ‘why we eat’ approach we can take the judgment out of eating so we are not simply “good” or “bad” because we ate or chose not to eat a particular food. We can learn more about why we choose the foods we do. If we find ourselves making many of our food choices for non-hunger reasons – we are bored, frustrated, happy, sad, or lonely and food is a way to distract, soothe, comfort, numb, or reward ourselves, then we can address these other issues. If what we really need is something other than food, no amount of food will satisfy us. If we are eating because the food is in eyesight or we just saw an ad for a food we like, then we can think about ways to limit those visual cues or at least acknowledge we are influenced by them.

The “why am I eating?” approach can also help us re-connect with when we are hungry and when we have had enough. As we learn more about what we really need, we don’t have to rely on others to tell us what to eat because we will know what makes us feel good – physically and mentally. Instead of asking ourselves “is this food good or bad” we can ask “is this food what I really need or want right now?”