Monday, March 23, 2009

The Food that You Eat

I wish I had an excuse for not posting over this somewhat relaxing spring break. Well, I have scoured areas of the apartment never before scoured (you know you have some sort of compulsion issue when you're using toothpicks to get at grime on a part of the stove no one will ever see). Break usually means reading, and I have been devouring books as best as I can (including an autobiography of a woman bullfighter and some Sarah Vowell).

I just finished Mark Bittman's latest, Food Matters. Bittman is the only reason I even bother with the food section of the New York Times. His How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian are staples in my kitchen. His recipes are simple, delicious, and come with handy sidebars on the variations you can do with dishes (which has lead to some successful "toss some stuff together and call it dinner" meals of late). In Food Matters, Bittman argues for a new approach to food and what we eat. I've known since I was seventeen and reading up on vegetarianism that the commercial meat industry is pretty heinous towards the environment. I know that the Food Pyramid developed out of marketing for the beef and dairy industry (even wonder why those sources of protein get to hang out on their own?). I try to avoid HFCS, and have all but banished white bread from the house (except for the occasional homemade baguette, because really bread doesn't get much better).

Bittman presents all of this, and more, in his defense of a better way of living. That's what I like most of all about this work, which is a type of diet book. He's advocating for a lifestyle change. It's absurd to think that a few weeks of something odd will leave you skinnier and healthier and able to go back to your old eating habits (I remember my parents going on that odoriferous cabbage soup diet years ago and my father dabbled in Atkins until the kidney stones hit). To improve your body, you have to improve your diet, which means long-lasting change, not just abstaining from sugar until your next weigh in. Bittmans' approach is interesting - essentially you bulk up on the veggies and plant matter, remaining vegan (or so) until dinner, when you can eat as you will. This approach makes sense to me, though I'm not sure how to work it around my own weird eating schedule (breakfast late at work, lunch as the primary meal, and dinner made primarily to produce leftovers for lunch). Vegetables and fruit are full of all the good stuff we need to survive, and are what our meat-poor ancestors lived on for centuries. Meat used to be flavoring, not necessarily the focus of the meal. And somehow along the way, with subsidized farming and a booming fast food industry, that idea was lost. Vegetable production (even the megafarms) is less harmful to the environment than meat and, in this crazy town of Portland, I have plenty of local and sustainable produce options available.

Though I think I might be hard pressed to give up on dairy as a whole (I love plain, nonfat yogurt and I'd honestly rather go without cheese or milk than head towards the soy), I think I could easily live like this, and live happily. However, food is a complicated and delicate subject in my house. I live with perhaps the pickiest eater on the planet. Imagine a typical four-year-old boy - big on the burgers, Cheerios, and pizza, and not so keen on much else. Now imagine he's grown up and can use a stove by himself, but is usually too lazy to do so, but has a car and knows where to get what he wants. That's my husband. I love him more than pretty much anyone else on the planet. He's intelligent, incredibly kind, and fun. But his diet is appalling in general, and in particular for a thirty-five-year old man.

When I was newly married, my mother passed on this bit of wisdom: if you love each other, you'll only fight about money. Well, in this house we rarely fight about money (Lego budget aside) and more often come to verbal blows over a 24 pack of Coca-Cola and Wendy's bags in the foot well of a car. As the using a toothpick to clean a stove incident might suggest, I am a touch on the neurotic side. Since my fencing has decreased to almost nothing and my running is a twice weekly affair, I've had to abandon my "I'm an athlete and I can eat whatever I want" attitude towards food. I've mostly vegetarian, bring lunch everyday to work, and try my best to eat something other than coffee for breakfast. I read food labels carefully (which is why there are two boxes of Girl Scout Cookies stashed in the freezer, since I discovered that two cookies filled about half of my daily saturated fat intake) and have been trying to cook more for myself and the husband. This is still a challenge. Tonight I feasted upon roasted beets and a tomato and red lentil soup (spiced up with cumin and garam masala). The husband might have a large bowl of plain pasta (no sauce... ever) or, if he's feeling adventurous, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the ubiquitous can of Coca-Cola. While he recovers from a late night of coaching I will be in bed, imagining that I can hear his arteries hardening and his blood sugar rising.

I know he's not going to drop dead in the next week, but I can't help thinking about what his intake of red meat and ultra-refined carbs will mean for the future (for both his body and the environment). I've managed to change in whole-grain pizza crust and whole-wheat/seed packed bread for sandwiches, but I can't seem to do much else. Yelling is ineffective, as are carefully placed articles on the amount of sugar in soda and the recent study on the dangerous of red meat. But I believe my husband isn't alone in this resistance, that his diet mirrors that of hundreds of thousands of other people in this country. How do you shift a country where the American Dream is celebrated by a steak and potatoes and washed down with cola? At times like these, I feel that I'm just a liberal urban hipster jumping on the next great alternative thing that will soon appear on Stuff White People Like. But it still remains that we are, inescapably, what we eat.


Aiglet said...

It is entirely possible that he's never run into a tasty vegetable in his life. The East Coast isn't exactly renowned for its year-round availability of tasty produce, and if his parents weren't big on pushing the veg...

That being said. He's a big boy, and I'm sure he knows all the risks he's taking with his own health -- I certainly knew smoking was bad for me, but that never stopped me from doing it. You can yell or nag all you like (seriously, "strategically placed articles" really sounds like passive-aggressive nagging), but you can't make him change, and you're entirely likely to just cement him in his ways out of sheer stubbornness. The best you can really do is switch him over to healthier alternatives, like you're already doing (organic peanut butter? sugar-free jelly?) and hope that some day the tasty smell of what you're eating will entice him to try some.
You might also try eating things that look/feel like things he already likes, to see if you can lead him down the garden path. GP keeps trying to do that to me with shrimp and fish, but it's not really working so good because I really really don't like those things. Good luck!

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