Food Matters

I wrote about Mark Bittman before but it was only today that I finally got his newly released book, Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating. Much like Michael Pollan, to whom he often refers in the book, Mark Bittman calls us to be more conscientious of our eating habits and adopt what he calls “sane eating.” There are seven basic guidelines:

  1. Eat fewer animal products than average
  2. Eat all the plants you can manage
  3. Make legumes part of your life
  4. Whole grains beat refined carbs
  5. Snack on nuts or olives
  6. When it comes to fats, embrace olive oil
  7. Everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily

Numbers 1 & 2 are the hardest for those in a strict meat-and-potatoes kind of diet. But you can cut down gradually, making dishes that combine meat and grains to reduce the proportion of meat. Number 7 will depend on how you feel. If you are feeling fine, losing weight and your doctor is happy, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t indulge on your daily dessert but if you are not getting the results you want, it might be better to reduce the treats.

His plan is not really a diet in a faddish sense. He doesn’t preach we must eat all organic although he admits that eating what is produced locally and in season would be best not only for us but for the environment. And this is where all this eating sanely leads to – better health for us and for the earth we live in. Bittman started becoming more conscious of his eating habits after he read a scientific report that showed that the meat industry was responsible for producing one-fifth of greenhouse gases, much more than the transportation industry. At the same time his doctor raised the red flag telling him his cholesterol and blood sugars were out of wack. By switching the proportions of animal and vegetable products, cutting junk food and prossessed food (anything with more than 5 ingredients or with ingredients with more than five syllables), he lost 15 pounds in the first month, his lab work turned out normal in the second month, and within four months he slept better than ever before, lost 35 pounds (his weight eventually stabilized) and he felt confortable and well with his new eating style.Without counting calories, nutrients, feeling hungry, or rebounding.

Makes a lot of sense to me and I do try to follow many of these tips in my daily life.

Worth a read if you feel your health is below optimal and/or you are concerned about the environment.

Check the Globe and Mail review of the book.

Let’s think about what we eat

In a comment on my post below about looking for sustainable fish, my friend Bruna sent me a link to a video by Mark Bittman, a famous American food writer and NYT columnist, that I think we should all watch. None of it was news to me since many of the principal points were presented in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and more recently in his In Defense of Food. In a nutshell, it comes down to the fact that nearly every chronic disease we attribute to our “modern” lifestyle is in fact caused by the western diet. And what exactly is this western diet? It’s based more or less on overconsumption of meat and animal products, junk food, and what I’d call poor carbohydrates (stuff like white enriched bread, for instance).

In the past one hundred years, the world population doubled but consumption of meat multiplied five-fold. By consuming more meat, we started eating less plants and more calories and that’s where the problems began. But meat is a good wholesome food, isn’t it? It used to be. With the industrialization of meat production, animals are now raised unnaturaly on diets they cannot survive on for long. The only reason they live long enough to reach the required age (or weight) to be killed for our consumption is by the clever use of drugs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to see too many studies to figure out that eating very sick animals might not be that good for my constitution. So we should all just buy organic meat, right? Wrong. Bittman shows some of the reasons on the video, which I won’t get into here, but to me, even if the meat is perfectly healthy, the key – not only for our own health but also to the health of the planet – is to reduce the amount of meat we eat. I’m not saying we should all turn into vegetarians. I know I couldn’t. But we need to realize that the amount of meat (and of food in general) we eat on a daily basis is completely off the charts in terms of what is reasonable. Studies have shown that people who eat a little bit of meat enjoy the same health benefits of vegetarians. As Bittman and Pollan have repeated numerous times, there’s simply no good reason to eat as much meat as we do. Just to give you an idea, experts say we shouldn’t eat more than half a pound of meat per week. We currently eat that every day. In the US alone, 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year.

And I haven’t even touched upon the environmental impact of the overproduction of meat, which is shocking to say the least.

Most alarming of all is to see the western diet being exported all over the world as emerging nations see the consumption of industrialized food as sign of wealth and status. When I lived in Spain, the government of Catalunya was trying to promote the return to the Mediterranean diet, hailed as some of the healthiest in the world. Marketing and convenience had pushed locals to increasingly switch to eating more meats, white breads, deep fried food and processed, industrialized food. The numbers of chronic diseases were increasing at alarming rates all over Spain and it looks that the change in diet played a heavy role. It seems that the Chinese government is promoting the consuption of beef. In Brazil, a favourite past-time of parents is to take their children to McDonald’s.

Nobody is saying people should starve or eat bland food. Good food doesn’t need to be bland. And preparing food yourself doesn’t need to take all day. But we do need to pay closer attention to what we eat. As Bittman says, “it’s time we stop eating thoughtlessly”. Do watch the video.

Food that has conquered aging

Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, is known to carry around, for years, the same two pieces of processed/industrialized cakes. They showed no signs of spoilage. When someone I know went to one of his lectures and told me that, I immediately remembered a friend of mine who did a test in school in which the students had to analyze the natural breakup of minimally-processed foods vs the stuff we get at fast-food joints. They took a Big Mac and a homemade hamburger and watched it during a week. They were both made on the same day and each day changes were noticed on the homemade hamburger, whose bread started breaking up sooner, its lettuce went limp after one day, and by the end of the week, it smelled awful and had mold all over it. Meanwhile, the Big Mac looked exactly the same. I thought that was pretty scary. But yesterday a friend sent me this video, which showed by a three-year-old McDonald’s hamburger and fries looked like. Very scary.

I lived in the US when I was 6 years old and fell under the spell of Ronald McDonald and his friends. The year after we returned to Brazil, Rio de Janeiro had its first McDonald’s and my brothers and I were in heaven. We loved it, as many children do. In Brazil, North-American fast food franchises is not really the cheap food of the masses – there’s plenty of cheaper, healthier alternatives around – but rather, it is considered a treat to go to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. My brothers still consider it a big treat, take their children to it, and speak of McDonald’s lovingly whenever they happen to live in a city without a franchise. I slowly weaned out, becoming more suspicious of the kind of food served in fast food restaurants here in Canada. I would spend over a year without going to McDonald’s and then when I did, my stomach always hurt afterward. And after watching the video mentioned above, my suspicions only get solidified.

I have nothing against eating hamburgers, french fries, muffins, etc, but I’d rather make those at home or eat them in places where you know that french fries are simply potatoes that have been cut that day and fried. Not some freak of nature that has conquered aging and looks unspoiled after three years.

Click here for an interview with Michael Pollan