Monday, July 2, 2012

It's so easy (part 2)

In the previous post, I talked about how the food culture in America has problems for variety of issues compared to what I experienced while living in Asia. In this post, I'd like to talk about how things aren't all bad and the fact that there are positive aspects to the food culture, especially for people who are trying to lose weight or who have special dietary concerns.

One of the differences between where I lived before and being home is that the selection in America is broader than that Asian country by far. It's not just that the shops are big, but that they offer so many colors of any particular aspect of the food rainbow. In the country I was living in, organic food was scarce, expensive, and poorly presented. It was often wilted or looked as if it were close to going bad. I'm guessing this was because their infrastructure, which was highly developed and actually superior to that in most parts of the U.S., was not designed to support rapid movement of food from place to place. It also didn't help that their farming culture was vanishing and they were getting most of their food from other countries.

Americans who live in areas which are not food deserts (that is most people, really) have access to more locally grown food and food grown without chemicals than I experienced in that Asian country. This is because we live in a huge country with a large number of farming areas and can get produce from where it is grown to where it is purchased more rapidly (as we don't have to rely on other countries) and because the demand for organic food is much higher. The country I lived in had consumers who prioritized how the produce looked, not how it was grown. If it looked good, they never questioned whether it had been sprayed with pesticides or chemcially treated so the demand for organic food was too low to see the economies of scale that you see in the U.S. And while organic food is more expensive than chemically treated food, it is still cheaper (and better) than it was in the country I used to live in (by far).

In regards to "processed food", and I view most food as processed in some way, America has better and wider options. It's important to realize that humans almost always "process" food in some way and it is the level and type of handling as well as the added ingredients that are the issue. Cheese is a processed food. Coffee is as well. The sugar-free whole grain muffins I bake on a regular basis are a processed food comprised of other processed foods such as flour, baking powder, peanut butter, etc. If you cut up, cook, or season your fruit and vegetables, you are "processing" them. That doesn't make these things unhealthy. The depth of processing matters and we have great choices in this regard compared to other parts of the world. There's a vast difference between the gallon of milk you buy and a Lean Cuisine, though both are processed.

If you are trying to eat more healthily or lose weight, you have many excellent options in the U.S. and these were ones I did not have in Asia. For example,  one of the things I have fallen in love with since coming home is almond milk. Yes, it is a processed food, but it is a simple one which can be bought containing ingredients which are not particularly alien or beyond what I willingly ingest as part of a multi-vitamin. It is no more processed than cow's milk, possibly less so. Almond milk is lower calorie and more nutritionally dense than cow's milk. It has a very long history as part of food culture (it was used for cooking in the middle ages) and, at least to me, is not far removed from what I make when I cook my own dishes. And, in fact, purists can make their own almond milk if they don't like what is sold in cartons. At 40 calories per 8 oz., it eclipses skim milk as a "diet food" option, and it tastes good and is better for you. By contrast, the country I lived in had cow's milk and soy milk. The soy milk always had sugar added and was high in fat. 

Beyond that, if you are a person who wants or, yes, "needs" to eat sweet treats or salted snacks, America is the place to be. If you can't fathom transitioning from your current food life to one of "pure" eating practices, there are options here. In the Asian country I lived in, it was "all or nothing". On the one hand, I am glad that I lost weight in that situation because it forced me to learn portion control. If I wanted a salty snack, I could ingest a lot of calories knowing I'd end up hungry for it or I could eat just 2 or 3 chips or I could choose something more nutritionally dense and forgo my craving. Here, it's not so hard. I can have Pop Chips, Skinny Cow ice cream, or some other reduced calorie snack. The "crutches" for dieters are numerous.

Of course, the diet food culture is like a minefield rife with danger. I can have Pop Chips, but I can't eat the whole bag. Portion control is still important, but the portion I can have here isn't 5 chips for 50 calories, but 10. Part of the problem for many people is that they see "diet" and think that they can lose weight and eat a lot. Perhaps the presence of such foods actually is a part of the larger problem as having the choice to eat more for a lower calorie amount encourages the continued consumption of large portions. I can't say for sure. All I can say is that it feels like a dieter's paradise here. If I wanted a bite of ice cream before, it would cost me 75 calories for two or three small spoonfuls. Here, I cut a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich in half and have that. And, yes, I do eat only half of it, even if it is reduced calorie. That's all I "need" to be satisfied, possibly even a larger indulgence than necessary at that size. It seems to me, after living in a "dieter's desert", that the American market makes it much easier to have your cake and eat it, too, but that people end up failing anyway.

To me, there is a difference between various types of processed foods in terms of the position they take in our food life. The problem in America isn't that I'm buying ice cream sandwiches rather than making them myself. The problem isn't that they are buying dried pasta rather than hand-making their noodles. The problem is that they are buying entire meals that are frozen or dried and seeing that as the end of their meal preparation and those meals aren't nutrient-dense. I think that it is convenience that is killing us more than the presence of cheap, crappy food. Even instant ramen (which I don't like and don't eat) can come close to being healthy if you use only half the seasoning packet and add a boiled egg and some fresh vegetables. When we look to processed food as a complete solution, it is then that we start to have issues.

As someone who has found health through small steps, I believe that the first stage of improving the American diet on a personal level is to start adding in small amounts of food preparation to augment to often nutritionally deficient processed options. If you can't give up macaroni and powdered cheese packets, then at least try stirring some canned tuna into it or having broccoli (either in it or on the side). If you can't stomach plain, low-fat yogurt, then you can mix in a tablespoon of instant pudding mix (lemon is awesome for this) to make it sweeter, thicker, and more dessert-like. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. The point is not to make ourselves miserable eating food we hate because it's "good" for us or wearing ourselves out making everything from scratch, but to start a transition from where we are to someplace a little closer to where it might be nice to be. Once we start down that path, it becomes more possible to move a little closer to a life which is increasingly independent of having machines make our meals for us and eating them out of the can, freezer, or packet.


Human In Progress said...

I like this, probably because it kinda validates what I'm already doing. ;) I often operate in that halfway zone you are speaking of.

For example, Hamburger and Tuna Helper were standard dinners at our house growing up. You dump raw meat or canned tuna into the packaged powders and noodles along with some milk and margarine. We'd eat canned green beans and peaches canned in heavy syrup to round out the meal, or maybe frozen garlic bread that you pop in the oven to warm up.

If I make a pasta dinner today, it involves premade noodles and usually store-bought jarred marinara, but I will also brown and drain ground turkey or buffalo, then add fresh vegetables and extra herbs and let it all simmer in the marinara. We might have a simple vegetable salad on the side with a basic vinaigrette, and finish with a fresh peach. It's not like all these components will be organic or ideal, and many nights I don't even do this well. But like you're saying, there absolutely is a middle ground between Hamburger Helper and making your own noodles by hand.

Maybe it's just me and my own psychological patterns, but sometimes I wonder if the shrill advocates for pure/"perfect" eating--lately the Paleo folks come to mind--make people feel like they can never live up to those standards so they may as well run to McDonald's. I mean, when you are told that a pasta dinner like the one I'm describing above is going to keep you fat and eventually kill you, then why NOT grab fast food? What's the difference?

Again, that could simply be my weird reaction. I think I make better choices, on average, when I tune the food evangelists out and plod along a dietary Middle Way.

justjuliebean said...

I'm glad for all the options to eat healthy or total crap, and obviously, other than fruits and some veggies, it's processed to some degree. I think the problem is more that people are doing less and less food preparation themselves, and relying more on frozen, microwaveable, and takeout. And portion sizes are out of control. And in many cases, nutrition and fiber are removed, sugar added, to make a food more palatable.

justjuliebean said...

I guess I should have read your previous post, first. While of course, I realize that if you're shopping at Target or mainstream grocery, the prepared food will seem cheap cheap cheap compared to ingredients, you don't need to be highly trained to cook (or assemble) your own food. Many people just buy a crockpot, make bean stew or other dishes, no need to be Martin Yan or Emeril, etc.

And HIP, I agree about food evangelists. The perfect is the enemy of the good...

screaming fatgirl said...

Human: I absolutely believe zealotry intimidates people. What is worse, it undermines the credibility of positive messages. People don't want to join a tribe that they feel negatively about. The Paleo people are currently one of the "worst" in this case. They are the new vegetarians/vegans in terms of absolutism and judgment and such people make others always feel inadequate or like failures for tiny transgressions from the program.

I once followed a group devoted to low carb and a woman posted that she was unhappy with herself because she "lost control" and ate a bunch of cherries, which was out of the question at whatever stage she was at as a low carb eater. I posted that cherries were relatively low carb as fruit goes and low calorie, but the other posters were quick to swoop in and criticize her harshly for her lapse. Chances are, people just give up if they feel they can't meet the established standards.

Juliebean: It's true that you don't have to be a great cook to manage. However, there is a difference between "edible" and "palatable". While I can cook pretty well, I have had my share of failures and problems (even recently) depending on what I'm trying. With loads of "free" food (often somewhat out-dated long-keeping food from my host's pantries), I've been cooking outside of my usual range for the past few months. Sometimes things really fall apart and I feel not only that I've wasted food, but time.

With less experienced cooks, and food that is actually hard to cook and for which one may not have the right or easy to use equipment, it can be enough of a trial to make them give up. There's a reason my host's pantry is full of 8 types of dried beans that she never got around to cooking and that is that beans are a pain to prepare in a way that is tasty. You can't just toss them in the crockpot (and not everyone has one or access to one). You have to soak them and add in spices and other vegetables to make them good. You have to know enough to saute the vegetables first to enhance the flavor and you have to know what spices "work" and don't.

So, yes, anyone can cook and you don't have to be gourmet, but getting a result that competes favorably flavor-wise with what you can buy frozen in the grocery case is another issue entirely.

Sandy Daigler said...

I think sometimes people seem like zealots when they're really just excited about finding something that works for them. It took me 50 years to find something that works for me and I'm sure I was pretty annoying when I first reached my goal weight, trying to spread "the truth." That said, I do find that limiting carbs is necessary for me, though I don't think my diet would be classified as very low carb, just lower than typical. As for processed foods, I generally skip anything that has ingredients I can't pronounce.

screaming fatgirl said...

I can understand that people are "excited", but there is definitely a pattern to that sort of thing and it generally doesn't end where people would like to end. They start a plan with energy and enthusiasm. They see some success and talk about how "easy" it is. They start preaching to others as they succeed. They start judging others for "failing" on the plan they are succeeding on because they'd rather find fault with the people than "the plan". As time goes by, the energy wanes and they start to falter. The plan no longer is easy and they can't understand why it has become so hard. And, they give up in frustration until the next perfect plan comes along.

Personally, I don't have a problem with how people live their lives or with this pattern of behavior. It is actually a very human situation across many endeavors. People try, succeed a little, get caught up in things, plateau or falter, and then give up. I only have a problem when judgment of others enters the equation or their behavior is clearly destructive or untenable but they act as if it is healthy and can be continued indefinitely.

For a lot of people, the sort of lifestyles that are pushed are too strict to manage, both psychologically and logistically. Even for the people who embrace them now, they often become too restricted as time goes by.