Food for Thought

Let’s think about food. Yum. Good stuff, isn’t it? Gives us energy, rebuilds our tissues, fuels the myriad of chemical and electrical processes that we call life. Not only that, it plays to our sensorium, pleasing not only our tongues but our nostrils, our eyes and even our ears…sizzling fajitas, anyone? Our cultural identity is intimately entwined with food, our memories of childhood and family resonate with aromas and flavors from the table. Food is our favorite symbol of comfort, abundance and safety; is it surprising that we eat too much or too little when we feel uncomfortable, deprived or afraid?

We’re riding the crazy train with food in this country, and it’s because we have convinced ourselves that our emotional satisfaction depends on food. Instead of selecting our meals the way we select our cars—for value, performance and elegance—we stuff our bodies with the tastes and flavors that soothed or cheered us when we were babies: bland, soft sweets and salty, greasy savories. Instead of eating to satisfy our bodies’ needs for nutrients and energy, we use food like a mood-altering drug to make us happier, calmer, more relaxed.

These emotional needs are very real, more immediately pressing to us than our own physical requirements. And the urge to meet them with food is legitimate, to a point. Sweets elevate our moods, fat carries delicious, distracting flavors over our tastebuds and into our nostrils. In an earlier time when food was more scarce and the ability to overindulge rarely presented itself, these impulses did not interfere with healthy eating patterns, and drove us to supply the body with vital nutrients.

In our current environment, however, food is available at every turn, and the cheapest and easiest to prepare is the least nutritious. Our environment no longer limits what we eat or how much, and our instincts—to gorge ourselves blindly when we encounter comfort foods because we don’t know where or when we’ll find more—are leading us astray. With due respect to instinct, we need to make our relationship with food a conscious one, based on real understanding of our needs.

Food can meet certain needs perfectly. It gives us fuel for brain, muscles and metabolism. It provides nutrients for building tissues, driving chemical reactions and responding to injury or disease. It can arouse memories by triggering senses of smell and taste, and can evoke pleasure through every sense. Food can even catalyze social and political change, as it is the primary economic necessity for every group of humans on the planet.

What food can’t do is make us happy, and we need to realize that right now. We are the victims of cellular biology that took millennia to develop, which tells us that our sorrow or fatigue or crankiness are the result of perennial semi-starvation and that if we could just eat until we were sated we’d feel better. Let’s not be fooled! In reality, while our bodies may very well be signaling us to provide more of what they need, we must be canny in assessing those messages. What are the odds that we are really starving? And if we are, isn’t it more likely that we’re deficient in healthy nutrients than in sugar, fat, starch and salt? We need to learn to listen to our bodies in light of what we know is healthy for us, and to decode those messages wisely.
Our bodies are designed to eat whole foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meats, fish, eggs, dairy. They have no idea what to do with chemical preservatives and additives, or with foods that have had essential components removed, like white flour and sugar. So we can start by filling our kitchens with the stuff our bodies recognize and thrive on. Grains should be whole (whole wheat, stone-ground cornmeal, oats, brown rice) and fruits and veggies bright-colored and fresh or frozen (canned has too much salt and too few nutrients). We can cook without meat a couple of days a week, or even with no animal products at all. We can make a big pot of bean/split pea/lentil soup in the crock pot and try flavoring it with garlic, wine and herbs instead of ham. Or go Latin with roasted chile and lots of cumin and oregano.

Sure, time is short, we’re all stressed, and it takes more time to cook real food than to eat from a box. But step back a minute and think what’s at stake…who has time for diabetes, heart disease, obesity? Isn’t it better to make these changes now and enjoy the rewards for years to come? So let’s keep it simple and start with small changes. Ditching soda in favor of water or unsweetened tea? Yes! Replacing chips, cookies and candy in the pantry with fresh fruit, nuts and yogurt? Absolutely! buying a loaf of wholegrain bread for toast and sandwiches? Hooray! Our bodies crave this stuff, let’s deliver it!

A word to the politically-minded and the frugal: by filling your kitchen with whole, plant-based foods, you are keeping money in your own pocket and out of the hands of the gigantic business conglomerates that control so much of this nation’s wealth. You’re taking back your freedom to feed yourself and your family what nature intended for them, and not what the TV advertisers and marketing focus groups have decided would be most profitable. You’re casting your vote at the cash register for the kind of food you want available for your children’s future. Buy organic, or at your local farmer’s market or community farm, and you’re supporting a vision of affordable, independently-produced local food. Every step counts.

A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation of tired, frightened, often unhealthy people who could use a lot more TLC than we’re getting. We need to stop throwing food at our anxiety and stress, and start comforting ourselves in ways that heal. Feeding ourselves well is the most profound self-nurturing we can do, the most fundamental way of affirming our worth in the world. We all deserve that, and it’s within our reach.

©Mary Braden 2013

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