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.