Monday, March 24, 2008

Book 40 of 52: Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

I've been meaning to read this book for some time, almost since it came out. It's been recommended to by about a dozen people, but whether because of a surplus of assignments or lack of time, I've never been able to get to The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Mealsby Michael Pollan.

It's always interesting, at least to me, when a book hits me at the right time. The Omnivore's Dilemmais probably the most exact timing of a book colliding with an event in my life. The event in question is the wedding I was at this weekend where I passed out during the ceremony, something that I believe had a lot to do with nutrition. But I'll get to that in a minute. First a capsule about the book.

The Omnivore's Dilemmais about food and just about every aspect of how the light of the sun is turned into food for us to eat, for better or for worse, from the fast food meal you eat while driving down the highway to something you create by hunting and gathering. I never understood the complete impact of industrial raised corn until I read this book, from how much oil it takes to grow it to how its cheapness gave rise to processed food to how its changed how we feed animals that eventually end up in the supermarket. Pollan also shines a spotlight on how "organic" has gone industrial. Even though that beef may be labeled "organic," the cow it came from wasn't necessarily treated any better than a non-organic cow -- it was just fed organically raised corn. It reminded me of my tour of a New Jersey cranberry farm whose owner said they weren't organic because the government definition of the term didn't fit what they believed farming to be. It's amazing how much you can get away with under that "organic" label, including using a lot of the processed foods that are so bad for you (for a supermarket guide to food labeling, check out Kimberly Lord Stewart's Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper's Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels).

There's a lot about the way animals are treated in the big food business machine -- he goes as far as the factory PR teams would let him, and, let me tell you, it ain't pretty. But he also visits a farm where animals are humanely treated and even kills chickens himself. He writes at length about vegetarianism, though the most interesting parts of the book were probably at the end where he learns to be a hunter and gatherer, and, boy, do I wish I could have sat down at that hunted and gathered meal.

There is so much information in this book that it's hard to process in a review, especially because I'm still not feeling well, and I'm jetlagged. So I'll give you two sample quotes:

"The twentieth-century prestige of technology and convenience combined with advances in marketing to push aside to make shelf space for margarine, replace fruit juice with juice drinks and then entirely juice-free drinks like Tang, cheese with Cheez Whiz and whipped cream with Cool Whip."

"But as productive as the corn plant is, finally it is a set of human choices that have made these molecules quite as cheap as they have become: a quarter century of farm policies designed to encourage the overpopulation of this crop and hardly any other. Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest."

So how does this relate to me passing out at a wedding? Because it's part of my food story.

I grew up not knowing what organic was. I didn't even know what "real" mashed potatoes tasted like because my dad preferred the kind that came from a packaged mix. My favorite meal was hot dogs and mac & cheese, though most meals were far from instant: roasted chicken, spaghetti and meatballs (always followed up by a piece of white bread slathered in margarine). I wasn't a fat kid, though. I played sports year round, and I ate what was on the plate.

When I went to college and stopped playing sports, I gained the typical freshman 15. And while I've had lots of issues with my weight, I didn't think my concerns were out of the normal range of female body anxiety. I didn't go on any crazy diets, though for one stretch I tried to curb hunger cravings with coffee. After that didn't work, I went back to my regular eating habits.

That all changed in 2005 when I was given an assignment to go through a fitness bootcamp and write about it. What a great way to get into shape! I thought. I didn't realize that the boot camp came with a meal plan that required I throw out just about everything in my cabinet, mostly processed foods that had made eating quick, easy and something I didn't think about. But now that I couldn't rely on those fall back foods and had to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, I started paying better attention to what I ate. It opened an entirely new world to me, one where I actually thought about what I was eating in terms of health and balanced diet.

The more I learned about nutrition and how the body works, the more I invested time, energy and money into my food. In the summer of 2006, I discovered the Collingswood Farmer's Market, which let me buy fresh and local Jersey fruits and vegetables from May through November. My meals become simpler, focusing on the food instead of what was added to make it taste good. I think the best way to eat asparagus is when it's roasted in nothing but olive oil and a little bit of salt and pepper (my mom used to nuke it into mush and then top it with Velveeta cheese). There's no need to add sugar to strawberries picked from a local farm. There is when it's a strawberry trucked in from California.

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I'm a distance runner, which is another part of my life that's changed what I eat. When I started that bootcamp, a friend who's a professional biker helped me re figure my shopping list and said "eventually, you'll start to see food as fuel." That might sound like an oversimplified statement, but I get it now. I have to make sure I'm getting the most bang for my buck food wise, and see food as not the enemy but my friend. Diet books might tell you otherwise, but we need sugar, carbs, fat and calories to live and live well. The trick is getting through all the marketing babble to see where exactly those sugar, carbs, fat and calories should come from. The more I trained, and the further I ran, the more good stuff I added back into my diets: fats are my friend. Carbs are good. And the sweetest tasting stuff comes from a perfect piece of fruit.

This weekend, I was in Arizona to be in of my friends' wedding. If you've ever been part of or planned a wedding, especially a big wedding, you know how stressful and time consuming such an activity can be, especially in the days before the ceremony, so food came in the fast variety.

Here's what I typically eat in a day:

Breakfast: Oatmeal (the non-instant kind) with cherries and a glass of milk
Snack 1: Banana with a handful of almonds
Lunch: Salad of mixed greens, tomato, onion, olives, feta cheese, roasted red peppers and vinaigrette with whole wheat English muffin topped with peanut butter
Snack 2: Apple with string cheese
Dinner: Whole wheat pasta tossed in olive oil, garlic and basil cherry tomatoes and white beans.
Snack 3: Whole grain pretzels with dark chocolate and raisins

Here's what I ate my first full day in Arizona:

Breakfast: 1 serving lowfat yogurt
Lunch: 2 bean burritos from Taco Bell with a Dr. Pepper
Dinner: Nacho appetizer from rehearsal dinner

The Arizona meal is more like what I used to eat, yet when I tried to live like that again this weekend, I ended up, um, a little blocked up, so much so that the next day (the day of the wedding) my stomach hurt so much that I didn't want to eat for fear of getting sick during the wedding (and I want to say right now that I do not blame the bride for any of this. She kept asking me if I wanted to stop at the grocery store and get something healthy because she knows about how I eat and that I'm training for a race, but I didn't want to cause her more stress and declined. This is entirely my fault.)

What I didn't realize was how much hydration I wasn't getting from those fruits and vegetables, and that my body wasn't used to those kinds of processed foods anymore. Combine that with throwing Jersey girl into the desert for a half hour wedding ceremony in the full Arizona sun, and you've got one bridesmaid passing out at the end of the ceremony. Fortunately, I made it to a chair before I lost consciousness. It is probably one of the most mortifying and terrifying moments of my life. From what the other bridesmaids told me, I turned yellow and my lips turned blue. I never quite recovered during the reception and almost took up an offer to go to the hospital for an IV drip. I still feel sick.

What could I have done differently? Well, I could have eaten better and sucked down more water, obviously. But eating well is difficult and expensive. When the options were getting that Taco Bell while on the road or stopping to get food to prepare a meal -- which is cheaper and easier? Taco Bell. That's because eating right in our on-the-go society is hard.

It took me three years to get myself to where I am today, and I'm probably a better candidate than most people to completely change how I eat. I don't have to feed an entire family. I've never been overweight nor have I learned that the only way to being slim is through low cal and light. I work at home, so I'm close to my kitchen all day and can have all my food options (and oven) available all day long. I'm by no means wealthy, but I'm not poverty stricken. I'm a runner, so I burn a lot of calories and am on a constant quest to replace what I lose. I'm a journalist and therefore inquisitive by nature, so I was open to the suggestion that everything food marketers told me was wrong -- and, from time to time, I'm paid to write about just that. I think it's fitting the first thing I was given to eat after passing out wasn't Gatorade but grapes. Why? Because that's one of the best things nature could have provided me -- these perfect portable packets of sugar and water.

After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I just finished 48 hours after the passing out incident, I'm going to alter my diet again. For the first time since grade school, I'm going back to full fat milk and cutting out anything made "no fat" through artificial ingredients. I'm never going to buy non-grass fed beef. Ever. I'm not a big meat eater, but I need the protein kick every now and again, so I'll be headed to the butcher the next town over and finding out where he gets his meat. After the farmer's market opens up in Collingswood this year, I'll be getting my meat from the farmer there.

I can't be a perfect eater, though. I don't know how to can and preserve fruits and vegetables, so in the off season, a lot of my produce will come from California, and while I don't like that, I need to keep eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. And I don't think Pollan would slap me on the wrists for that. What it comes down to is balance. What choices can I put into my life without it becoming obscenely impractical? And if that means spending a little more money on my food, then I'll have to work it into my already tight budget. Because, after all, what's more precious than our health?

I'm sorry if this is coming off a little preachy, and I'm not condemning anyone who is overweight or ate like I once did. But the declining health of our country is something I'm passionate about, not just because I'm someone who has to purchase my own health insurance and am one of many who carry the financial burden of a broken health care system trying to treat the side effects of obesity, but because I believe people have a right to know what they're eating, even if food companies make it difficult to see through the marketing spin. I also spent my extra time in the airport before my flight back home walking laps around the Phoenix airport in hopes of, um, unblocking myself. The information from The Omnivore's Dilemmawas fresh on my mind, and when looking through that lens, what I was saw was almost horrifying. There are a lot of overweight people in this country, and an airport is a great place to see why. Almost every single available food option was unhealthy (I had a tough time finding fruit and had to settle on orange juice). And the food that was available was perfectly marketed to the traveler: quick, easy and filling for all the wrong reasons.

I did manage to find a store selling a trail mix of nuts, raisins and chocolate. I that mixed with the pretzels the airline provided. Paired with some more orange juice, it was the best meal I ate on the entire trip, and the first thing that made me feel close to normal again. When I finally got home in time for Easter dessert, my sister presented me with some sort of strawberry short cake that was about as low cal -- and bland -- as it could possibly be even though it was low on Weight Watcher points. I couldn't help by think about Pollan's comments on Cool Whip (she used 'lite' Cool Whip) and wish it were made with real whipped cream. My sister almost smacked me when I made the announcement that I was going back to full fat milk. She doesn't see how someone so health conscious could make that choice. And I couldn't see how someone so healthy conscious could not.

It's not often that I'm going to implore you to read a book, but I will with this one. It's an eye opener, and it's also entertaining. Pollan tells the story from his perspective, which is at times hilarious. My hope is that whoever reads it (and a lot of people have given that it was a best seller and a National Book Critic Circle finalist) will have a better picture behind the labeling of food and make more informed choices. Even if you don't go whole hog, a few changes could make a big difference.

Anyway, that's enough passioned writing for the day. Here's a picture of me at the wedding with the maid of honor (I'm on the right).


It was a lovely ceremony and reception -- something meant to be written up in a bridal magazine. I just wish I'd have taken up the bride's offer to stop for healthy food so I could have enjoyed the party.

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5 comments:

Scotticus said...

Hey Jen, long time reader first time commenter... first of all I love this blog and your dedication to books. I consider myself an avid reader, but this blog inspires me to read more when I'm sometimes tempted to just watch more tv.

Second, I really enjoyed this entry. I also run and, like you, have also gotten more into nutrition in the past few years as a result. My sister Kirsten, now out in Minnesota, is also a big influence. She could probably write one of these nutrition books, that's how much she knows.

I now do a fitness club for 5th-8th graders at Haddonfield Friends and try my best not only to encourage them to work out, but to make good food choices.

Excellent entry, I'm definitely going to check out this book, and will also recommend it to Kirsten.

Abra said...

Great post, Jen. Thank you.

I will have to check this book out. It’s maddening that marketers and money interests are so affecting on our health, especially when we think we’re making the better choices by buying ‘organic’.

At the same time, this issue doesn’t make me feel as helpless because it motivates me to buy directly from farmers when possible and to educate myself as much as possible.

There’s nothing better than a berry right off the vine at one of Jersey’s U-Pick farms. But for me, I actually avoid going to Jersey because I make terrible food choices when I’m there, driving right past the farmer’s markets to, yes, Taco Bell or WaWa. Eating habits are deceptively difficult to change because there are so many psychological associations with food – and indulging is often justified as fun, part of the experience.

Food is fuel – I am posting this on my desk top to remind myself at lunch when I’m debating over fries, especially on a running day. Adjusting my diet, since committing to running regularly, has been a huge challenge but the days I make good choices are the days I feel empowered, energized, and aware of my body.

I have to say, I can’t remember the last time I bought dairy that wasn’t non-fat. And I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea these things were processed to be non-fat. I never questioned how/ why milk is non-fat. I thought the bad stuff was simply taken out – nothing bad put in…you have my mind spinning…I can imagine what reading the book will do.

Thanks again and glad you’re okay. Take care!

Nikki & David Goldbeck said...

Jen,
A critical underpinning of a healthy diet is unquestionably the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits. Unfortunately, many adults do not like these fine foods - so kids are the concern. Parents and teachers interested in getting kids to develop a friendly attitude towards fruits and vegetables should take a look at a new book called “The ABC’s of Fruits and Vegetables and Beyond.” Out only a few months and already being bought in quantity for class use.Great for kids of all ages as it is two books in one – children first learn their alphabet through produce poems and then go on to more mature activities. Out only six months it is already being used in educational programs. It is coauthored by best-selling food writer David Goldbeck (me) and Jim Henson writer Steve Charney. You can learn more at HealthyHighways.com

Beef Sup'Herb said...

Grass fed beef is definitely better than grain fed. There are numerous reasons to leave grain fed alone. And hey I have to look into finding out more about that book. I am for grass fed only and even though the cow seems to like eating the corn, its definitely not good for it. I am interested what prices you would find fair when it comes to grass fed beef prices. I am soon opening a grass fed meat restaurant and also plan on shipping it out to people. I will also look into jerky. This will be interesting to those that like beef but are not willing to pay the heavy shipping cost grass fed is associated with in most cases.

How much do you pay for your Grass Fed Beef?

Suzanne said...

I came here via your comments on Allison's blog. And I'm glad I did. You write terrific reviews and put so much of yourself into them. Great writing, thank you!

-suz