Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Food Philosophy

My Food Philosophy can basically be summarized by 5 statements:

1. I like healthy food
2. I like real food
3. I like local food
4. One size does not fit all in diet
5. I practice frugality and simplicity in my food preparation

#1 I like healthy food

Fruits and vegetables are my friends. When I decide what to eat and what to feed my family, I spend a lot of effort to make sure that we have a good, balanced meal. And having plenty of fruits and vegetables in the house is a BIG part of that. I realize that not everyone makes this effort.

The Standard American Diet is pretty sad. Nowadays, it's full of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, food coloring, fried foods, and not a lot of vegetables. It hasn't always been that way. Decades ago, before the advent of processed food, much of what people ate they grew themselves, preserved themselves. That meant there was a fair bit of healthy food in their diets. These days, the choices are astronomical. And even my spouse - who used to do all of the cooking - made a comment this week. As I was sick as a dog, he went grocery shopping - probably the first "real" shopping trip (as in, he was shopping because he was doing the cooking - not just picking up stuff on my list) in years. He was amazed at how much more crap there was in the store nowadays.

I've not made it a secret here that I used to be fat. I got married, started eating out a LOT, and spent a few years at 170-182 lbs (with a brief foray back into the 150's when my husband went away for a summer internship). I credit Weight Watchers for teaching me about portion control and healthy eating habits. And their cookbooks are FABULOUS, with emphasis on fresh foods, whole grains, and healthy cooking.

I don't quite understand all of their healthy-eating guidelines, or those of the dietary industry. For example: 3 servings of dairy? Really? Something like 75% of people in the world are lactose intolerant. The ability to digest lactase, in fact, is due to a genetic abnormality that developed in areas of the world that started raising cows for dairy. Which means a small portion of the people in the world digest dairy. And besides, some studies suggest that the incidence of osteoporosis increases with increasing dairy consumption, in part due to the increased protein. So, what is "healthy" for one person might not apply to another.

#2 I like real food

Which is where I have a teensy problem with Weight Watchers. You see, until November, when they re-vamped their program, they didn't really distinguish between types of calories, except for fat and fiber. Now, finally, they've given most fruits and vegetables "free" status. Before that, they did not distinguish between 100 calories of apple and 100 calories of chips, crackers, or cookies. Oh, if you searched their on-line system, and listened to their recommended meal plans, you would eat a VERY healthy diet. But they left WAY too much room for junk food.

And even now, they sometimes delve into the area of what I call "fake food". Like: fat free cheese. I just can't get behind fat free cheese. I'd rather leave off the cheese. And egg whites. I want the whole egg please.

I also love vegan food, but it has to be real food. I don't have any desire to eat fake cheese, soy cheese, TVP, soy meatballs, etc. I would rather just not eat the cheese or fake meat. I don't, however, think soy is evil. I like tofu and tempeh. I buy soy milk occasionally for baking and smoothies. We love edamame. I think there is room for natural, less-processed soy products in a normal healthy diet. I think millions of Asians would agree.

I try to avoid adding unnecessary animal products to my food. I have some great soup recipes (butternut squash, split pea) that originally were made with chicken stock or other animal products. I managed to veganize them pretty easily. Other recipes don't veganize as well. Pizza, lasagna, any food that traditionally is made with cheese. You can use cashews and other foods to make "cheeze", but that seems like an awful lot of work to veganize a non-vegan food. I'd rather just vegan food that is supposed to be vegan. I enjoy vegan baking too. If soy milk and canola oil can make a great product - awesome! I really am not interested in buying En-Er-G egg replacer however. It just isn't what I consider real food. Though I don't mind some Earth Balance now and then, I'm not particularly interested in baking with it.

Part of my desire to eat real food is my natural frugal-ness. I don't like to waste food. I like to use the rind of the lemons to flavor my food. I like to cook the bones of meat to make stock. A lot of "healthy" recipes call for boneless, skinless chicken breast. Well, what about the rest of the chicken? Is there anything wrong with eating a thigh once in awhile?

#3 I like local (and seasonal and organic) food.

Local food is one reason why I don't eat boneless, skinless chicken breasts anymore. The farmer's market sells chicken. Whole chicken (with the livers. Yum!) My schedule means that I am not able to make it to the farmer's market as often as I'd like. I get produce from the CSA weekly, but for meat, you have to get to the farmer's market. Not making it to the farmer's market means that I don't have the opportunity to buy local, free-range, organic meats that often. So, we just don't eat it as often. We generally cook meat 1-3 times per month.

Why local, organic, and free-range for meat and eggs? Well, it's no secret that the SAD (meat-heavy diet) is bad for the environment. In order to produce enough meat to provide that much to Americans, we've gone to factory farming. The living conditions of the chickens, cows, and pigs in factory farming are horrific. They are fed corn corn and more corn. Injected with antibiotics when they get sick from the corn. Stuffed into tiny cages. Living in their own filth. Is it any wonder that we have egg recalls and beef recalls due to salmonella and E-coli? But we Americans want our meat and we want it CHEAP.

Truth is, meat isn't cheap. And it shouldn't be. A cow or chicken or pig should be allowed to wander free. Eat grass and bugs. I have no problem eating eggs from my friend Kelly's backyard chickens, or eggs from the local farm, that has never sickened anyone from salmonella. I bought a turkey for Thanksgiving that got to live freely on a ranch in Santa Paula. But sustainable meat means we all pay more for it and eat less of it. Is that so bad? It also means that the lady who raises the turkeys is also the one who sells them to me, not some huge faceless corporation. She can make a living.

Even local produce isn't cheap. Organic and local often means more labor-intensive (but so much tastier). Our CSA is pretty reasonably priced. But it's still more expensive than the grocery store. As expected. If they have a bad strawberry year, then there are no strawberries. If it rains a lot, they can't get to the fields to pick. And our farm actually provides farmworker housing, as opposed to a lot of local farms that don't. So the farmworkers for other farms end up living in houses or apartments with 10-30 people. It adds to the cost to provide housing to the farmworkers and their families, but I gladly pay it.

When I was a kid, we ate fairly local, even in the wilds of western PA. You still can buy a whole cow from a local farmer. And my family hunts deer. A good sized deer in November can feed you for months. We had a decent garden, and canned stuff for the winter. Even in the winter, we ate seasonally. Sure, we were buying our oranges from Florida, but they were in season. We weren't buying apples in June from Chile or New Zealand. Of course, living in So. Cal., it's a lot easier to eat local and seasonal food than other areas in the world.

With practice, local food can expand your horizons. One of the reasons that I love vegan food is that it has introduced me to many new cuisines. With every new vegetable from the CSA, I can find an ethnic cuisine built around that vegetable. MOST ethnic cuisines are heavily built around vegetables. Have fava beans? Find some middle-eastern or mediterranean recipes. What about boy choy? Chinese cookbooks are perfect.

#4 One Size does Not Fit All (in Diet)

I read a lot about healthy food. I have a lot of vegan cookbooks. I have South Beach. I read about "primarian" eating. The problem I have with most of these "eating plans" is that they eliminate whole food groups.

I think the typical vegan diet is healthier than the typical SAD. But maybe I am wrong. I am assuming that vegans are less likely to be eating processed crap. That might not be true.

The problem I have is with the fervor that people will defend their own eating habits AND ATTACK OTHERS. Weston A. Price and Primarian eaters attack vegans. Vegans attack anyone who eats animal products. And oh goodness, DO NOT be an ex-vegan who went back to eating meat for healthy reasons. YOU OBVIOUSLY WEREN'T DOING IT RIGHT. AND YOU OBVIOUSLY WEREN'T A REAL VEGAN OR YOU WOULD NEVER GO BACK. NOT FOR YOUR HEALTH, NOT FOR SOMETHING 'MINOR' LIKE DEPRESSION. I have to say that it's interesting that the vast majority of vegan bloggers I read are in their 20's. The two ex-vegetarian and vegan women I know (who went back to eating small amounts of meat for health reasons) had to do so in their late 30's/early 40's. Which makes me wonder three things: 1. Is it possible that as we age, our dietary requirements change? and 2. Is it possible that deficiencies in our diet build up over time? One of my ex-vegan (decades a vegan) friends is a nutritional counselor with education from Columbia U. But I'm sure she wasn't doing it right. Then there's 3. Is it possible that genetics partially determines what foods a person will thrive on? (and I'm NOT talking about the Blood Type Diet)

Not just to pick on vegans. There's also the "anti-carb" camp. Lots of meat, fruits, and veggies. But no carbs. No beans, no bread, no potatoes, no starchy vegetables. Which makes "local eating" tough in the winter season of sweet potatoes and winter squash. The "Paleo Diet" people who insist that grains are bad (even though there's new evidence that grains have been cultivated and eaten for a very long time). I think millions of Asians might disagree about the evils of rice. And of course, what was the life expectancy of the Paleolithic man, exactly? Hmmm?

I really don't think one-size fits all in diet. Some people thrive on a low-fat vegan diet. Others would have a hard time with that. Allergies to wheat, soy, nuts would be a big problem. A large percentage of people cannot digest dairy. The "anti-wheat" camp seems to ignore the fact that the ability to digest wheat, like dairy, is often genetic, and due to changes in genes due to exposure. There's the "extremely low fat" camp. I've read a book by Dr. Barbara Berkeley that talks about "previously overweight" and "never overweight" people. Her obesity studies show that people who have been obese or overweight have physical reactions to carbohydrates that are DIFFERENT from people who have never been overweight. They are much more sensitive, so she recommends her clients eat "Primarian" if they've been obese, meaning: very few starches. However I do know some formerly obese people who thrive on a mostly-vegetarian and mid-level starch diet, myself included.

Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder lived to be 90 years old? Do you know what she ate? Vegetables. Bread. Potatoes. Winter squashes. Head cheese. Do you know what head cheese is? (hint: it's not cheese). But I bet she didn't eat twinkies or drink Coke.

I try to feed my family lots of local, healthy food. We eat a lot of vegan food. We eat a lot of vegetarian food. I don't eat at McDonalds (though we have stopped a couple of times on road trips. I'd rather let my son have a yogurt from McD's than have him wax poetic about this great restaurant that he never gets to eat at.) I still eat meat because I don't believe in eliminating full food groups. The China Study was an interesting study, but all that showed is a decrease in some cancers with decreased meat consumption. Dr. Campbell then extrapolated to zero animal products, saying "vegan is best!". Extrapolation is tricky and risky. Never did they study a vegan population. Because there really aren't any to study. Even Dr. Furhman admits now that his recent studies show NO difference in the health of a full vegan who follows his plan, and someone who eats almost the same but also eats small amounts of animal products.

Despite my love for "real food", there's still boxed macaroni and cheese as emergency rations in my house. We buy tortilla chips. We bake cookies. I mean, come on, we have full time jobs and a child. And sometimes boxed pasta, a jar of tomatoes, and some frozen mixed vegetables is the best that you can do. And that's okay.

5. I practice frugality and simplicity in my food preparation.

In 2009, I set a goal. My goal was to alternate months - $160 one month, $320 the next month, for groceries (not including the CSA). I made it to September, then got tired. Truth be told, there are other great blogs out there that can teach you how to feed your family for less than I do. The early days of my blog were pretty good, don't get me wrong. And my grocery budget is still lower than most.

But with the increasing emphasis on local and organic eating, the emphasis on frugal has slipped. I still, however, practice frugality and simplicity. What does this mean? It means:

- I don't waste food. Eat your leftovers.
- Eat less meat. More beans
- Calculate the costs of several of your regular meals. The cheaper ones? Put those in heavier rotation.
- Use everything. Lemon zest for flavoring, chicken bones for stock, vegetable peels for stock.
- Cook from scratch. Make your own bread.
- Eat in season
- Buy in bulk
- Buy what you eat and eat what you buy
- Shop around
- Eat one pot meals
- Simple: steamed, stir-fried, roasted vegetables
- Plain brown rice, sandwiches, soups

Even if your budget does NOT require feeding your family on $100-200 a month, having frugal tendencies is good. It develops good habits. If a tragedy WERE to strike and you have to cut back, you'll still have some good habits to fall back on.

And from the simple standpoint - it's not that I don't LIKE to cook more elaborate meals. I DO! But for the most part, I keep it simple. I prefer foods that taste like they are supposed to taste. Roasted potatoes. Steamed broccoli. A salad dressed simply with olive oil and vinegar. Plain brown rice or quinoa, topped with beans and vegetables. If you learn to prepare plain foods simply, you will never go hungry.

Happy New Year!


Amy B said...

I agree with your philosophy. right on, right on, right on. In our consumeristic society, food is a commodity to be marketed and sold like plastic flamingos, pet rocks, and phone apps, with no relation to intrinsic value, just what advertisers can make you believe you need.

Joanne said...

I love your food philosophy and it's such a great way to kick off the new year! Really delving into what you eat and why you eat it. I refuse to have ANY processed food in the house at all. If I can't make it, then I don't want it. I eat meat sparingly and eat seasonally always. Love this post!

Biz said...

I agree with just about everything you said - and love that WW now distinguishes whole foods from 100 calorie packs.

I mean, does anyone really get fat eating fruit?!

Hope you are having a great day!

Daniel said...

Marcia, this is an absolutely exceptional post. Thank you for sharing. Over here at Casual Kitchen we are exactly the same on all five points.

And one thing that I'd like to point out: there's not one hint of absolutist thinking here. Not one. And I think that's one of the key sources of your success. There's room in the world for all sorts of diets, and no room for us to fight with each other. Keep it going!

Casual Kitchen

Melissa said...

I came here via Dan via Twitter and he's right - this is an exceptional post. Wonderful writing and wonderful philosophies!!

Marcia said...

Thanks for all your wonderful words. I worked hard on this post (I'm a paper girl), writing in my journal notes over the space of a couple of weeks.

Now I just have to do more of that!

Anonymous said...

My only bone to pick is on this sentence: "I am assuming that vegans are less likely to be eating processed crap."

I only know one guy who is a wholly comitted vegan. All he eats is processed crap - as long as it says vegan on the package he is o.k. with it. Our local shops (My Organic Market, Whole Foods, etc. have plenty of vegan processed crap & he indulges in it regularly.) I have other friends that are closer to vegan than not & they too eat processed crap.

Maybe I just don't know beans & rice vegeterians... But I found to assumption to be to all encompassing.

Chandelle said...

Fantastic! I love this post. Couldn't have said it better myself

Liz T. said...

Totally with you on #2 & #4 -- I have come to similar realizations in the past few years. And I'm all about simplicity. Last year I got rid of 90% of my cookbooks and now rely heavily on Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (& HTCE Vegetarian) books. I am more concerned with simplicity than frugality. I know I'm lucky that I have that flexibility.

As for Laura Ingalls Wilder, people also often forget that people who ate like that WORKED for a living; hard, physical labor. They needed the traditional diets of my midwestern forebearers to survive. Nowadays, we expend only a fraction of the calories but keep taking in the same (or more) calories.

I find it really hard to believe that there are whole classes of *real* foods we SHOULD NEVER eat. IMHO, it's those types of rigid, absolute beliefs in life, no matter how well intentioned, that get us in trouble.

However, even with all my enlightenment, I am still 20 lbs heavier than I was 4 years ago. Part of that is age (over 50 now), part is inactivity (damned exercise!) and part is a bean-grain-heavy, mostly-vegetarian diet with too many desserts. I know what I need to do, but sometimes doing it is tough.

Oh well.

Marcia said...

Anonymous: yes but you see right after my assumption that vegans are eating less processed crap was the statement "but I could be wrong about that". I know a couple of vegans or ex-vegans, and they don't eat a lot of processed food.

Liz Tee - I am 10 lbs heavier than in 2008. Even though I am a regular exerciser and a pretty healthy eater, I'm now 40. It only takes a couple of months of bad sugar habits for me to gain 5 lbs, and then it's hard to reverse that.

(But I'm working on it.)

Sally said...

I came here via Casual Kitchen. I'm going to apologize in advance for the length of this, because I'm going to address 4 out of the 5 points.

I think #1 and #2 are the same thing. Real food is healthy food. Possibly some should be consumed more often than others (more vegetables than meat), but one isn't necessarily healthier than the other.

Until about 100 years ago we all ate seasonally and locally. Even 50 years ago our choices weren't so varied. In the harsher climates (such as mine) choices were more limited during the winter and early spring. Some foods were stored or preserved, others were consumed only when in season.

Now there are two things happening. We have one group of folks telling us to eat seasonally and locally and another putting emphasis on the importance of eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. You mentioned Dr. Fuhrman. I used to have a tape of him saying that the wonderful thing about produce being shipped all over the country (and world) is that we could now eat the large amount of fresh vegetables and fruits he recommends.

I'm not so sure that there are as many differences between us in terms of diet as there are similarities -- that is, until you get "experts" involved. I've also read a lot about diet, health and various traditional diets. One thing I noticed is that while the actual foods and cooking methods often vary, the patterns of eating around the world are more similar than different. In nearly every area of the world there is a grain, starchy vegetable and/or legume that is abundant and stores well. These form the basis of the diet and are supplemented by vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs and meat as available and affordable. At any one time there may not be much variety in the diet, but over the course of a year there's a lot of variety.

All of the differences, low-carb, low-fat, vegetarian and vegan and even the notion that we need to eat a wide variety of foods daily are man-made ideas. Though there are grains of truth in all of them, they're dogmatic and only confuse the issue.

I've flirted with vegetarianism and veganism off and on since the early 1970s. I've noticed that when I've been most strict about it, I never felt well. There were never big problems, but I just didn't feel as well as when I consumed some meat. I think vegans may feel better initially, but feel less well over time. From communicating with many vegans over the years, I've observed that many have health issues that they don't attribute to their diet -- like depression. They would deny that their diet has anything to do with it -- and would probably defend it to the end. Beliefs become more important than personal health.

Marcia said...

Sally, that was a very excellent comment. I agree with you completely on the seasonal of the reasons that I like to eat locally.

I have two of Dr. Fuhrman's books, and one of the biggest beefs I have with him is the statement in one (or both) of his books about "how great it is that we can get fresh produce shipped from all over the world". Really? That's so great?

It does get complicated with one side "eat in season" and the other "eat fresh fruits and vegetables". And the third, "no starchy foods", which pretty much precludes eating in season in the winter.

I have the same problem when I watch the Food Channel. I watched a chef make a meal yesterday...eggplant parmesan with eggplant and basil. And a caponata with fresh zucchini and ... butternut squash.

I don't know where you live, but in So Cal, eggplant and butternut squash aren't exactly in the same season.

Sally said...

I'm in central Indiana. Our state department of agriculture published a harvest calendar. From the end of November until about the middle of April -- there's NOTHING. I do try to eat seasonally, but I "settle" for things grown in the US.

I think caponata with butternut squash and eggplant would make a good Italian cook turn over in her/his grave!