Sunday, July 1, 2012

It's so easy

There have been many shocks for me since returning to America after more than two decades of living in an Asian culture. I'm sure that it is not that things have changed, but rather that I was so thoroughly a part of the culture before that these matters did not appear to be strange enough to note previously. Of course, things have changed, but overall, I think it's just that I got used to how things were "there" and forgot how they are "here".

When it comes to food, I've noticed that there are aisles upon aisles of frozen food and processed food in the U.S. This isn't entirely a reflection of our taste for such food (though it is that as well), but also the change in lifestyle that has come about because people are so over-booked that they don't do slow food much anymore. What is worse, a lot of that processed food is cheaper than real food. I used to think that was an excuse people made, but it's very clearly a reality. It's not just about the macaroni with powdered cheese in store brand boxes that provide cheap carbs and calories at a tiny price, but cans of soup, packets of ready-made meals, and entrees of processed meat in fried breading that are ready for the toaster oven at a fraction of the cost of that raw skinless, boneless chicken breast meat.

My husband and I have not had the time or mobility to visit a lot of the typical shopping haunts of people who live on lower incomes, but the biggest shock for us came when we made a trip to Target. Not every Target carries food, but this one did and the fresh food sections were tiny and expensive while the junk food areas were huge and full of items that could be had for a song. When we bought diet soda that was on sale for a very good price (yes, I drink diet soda and it hasn't had a negative impact on my weight loss), the store gave us a free half gallon of ice cream.They didn't offer a pound of apples or a half pound of cherries, but rather ice cream.

I was stunned by how cheaply one could eat food that wasn't really food and how much pricier it was to buy real food. It's not that you can't buy "real" food cheaply, but that it's far less attractive, far more troublesome, and requires pretty sophisticated knowledge of cooking. While one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods you can make is beans, few people have the time or inclination to deal with them. I've actually eaten beans about 5 times a week since coming home, but that's because I've been welcome to eat food from my host's pantry and it is full of various kinds of beans that she bought but didn't have the time or desire to prepare. I'm sure she's not alone in her good intentions and weak follow-through.

Beyond the poor folks who find that they have better and cheaper access to nutritionally poor food options, I've noticed that even affluent people eat poorly and convince themselves that they're eating well. My in-laws are fairly well off people, and they still eat what is easy, though definitely from a better grade of processed food. They'll concentrate on deli potato salad from an expensive store, organic canned soup, and protein bars rather than cheaper fare, but there is still a lot of processed and pre-prepared food in their lives rather than real cooking with real food. They believe that, as long as it's labeled "organic", and it is missing any of the hot-button "bad" ingredients of the current era (trans fats, HFCS, etc.), then it's "healthy".

In short, I'm shocked at how easy it is to eat poorly and how even people who are educated are eating badly and convincing themselves otherwise. Lara bars, sugar-packed Greek yogurt (and most of it is!), frozen and canned processed vegetarian meals, and protein powder-based drinks and smoothies don't make your diet a good one. It's still not "real" food for the most part.

I'm certainly not one to pine about the "lost art of cooking", but it has really come home to me that people have lost the art of eating well. They are so accustomed to processed food that they not only don't think about cooking from whole foods, but they find the tastes of such things strange and unpalatable. People are so indoctrinated in the chemical tastes of prepared food that food from scratch tastes "weird" to them.

As my readers know, I am far from being any sort of "food saint", and feel that all sorts of food have a place in modern diets. However, I think that the place currently occupied by real food is very small and getting smaller. The sickness of America's food culture is so deep and wide that I have to wonder if there will ever be a cure. Obesity isn't the worst consequence of it, but it certainly is one of them. We have a lot of work to do, and little of it has to do with losing weight. It has to do with finding our way back to being in touch with food in a way which brings the hands of people back into the process, and removes the machinery.


Ashley said...

Thank you for writing this! This has been something I have been thinking about for the past couple years, but whenever I try to express it around the fatosphere, I am labeled as fat/food shamer. I can't help but be a very observant person to the way people live, including how they eat. People are living off of junk food and snacks, and I don't exclude myself. Most of my meals are frozen. I have hangups about cooking because my grandma tried to force me to cook and told me I was an unworthy woman if I don't cook for my future husband, so then I rebeled and decided I would take the modern day woman approach and ate mostly convenience foods and have become darned happy with it. In fact, I work at Target store that sells food so I know exactly what you are talking about there. They have it set up so all the foods that are most unhealthy are the most attractive looking, located in the most convenient places, and on sale. Soda, chips, and cookies are constantly on sale. It's hard to resist this convenience shopping and eating when it's the way people our age have been brought up. But the day has come where I have realized that I will end up with some medical issues in my future if I don't change my eating habits. I have also realized that when I have kids one day, it will be difficult for me to prepare a proper nutritious meal for them. This saddens me. I have become fully aware of exactly what you have in this post and I want to change it for me at least. I need to ween myself off of the crap food and eat those in moderation and I'll need my partner to be on board too or else it's going to be very difficult, but I'm willing to give it a shot.

Human In Progress said...

This rings true for me. I was raised on processed food and while I have learned to cook nutritious food from scratch as an adult, I am very inconsistent when it comes to feeding myself good, homecooked food. The reason is that after years of grabbing fast and easy options, cooking (and more than that, CLEANING UP! ugh!) seems like a real time-consuming pain in the ass. And I'm not sure the healthier route will EVER strike me as easy or fun, and I fear my resentment regarding the work it takes to eat intelligently will never fade. In a sense, I am ruined for life in terms of my perceptions and preferences, but I do have the ability to do the right thing and I hope that ability grows even more over time...I hope it becomes less of a struggle and I can present my kids with a better version of "normal" than the one I grew up with. The whole scenario IS pretty scary and I don't see how the situation is going to improve anytime soon on a national scale.

I look forward to reading more of your impressions as you shop, cook, socialize, and dine out in the US. I can't imagine how bizarre things must appear to you after spending considerable time away in a very different culture.

David Brown said...

Well said. I'm guessing you'll appreciate this excerpt from the Introduction to "Food for Nought: The decline in nutrition" by Ross Hume Hall, PhD, 1976:

"Nourishment of the American populace has undergone a startling transformation since World War II. A highly individual system of growing and marketing food has been transformed into a gigantic, highly integrated service system in which the object is not to nourish or even to feed, but to force an ever-increasing consumption of fabricated products. This phenomenon is not peculiar to the American scene and occurs in every industrialized country. The United States, however, has progressed furthest in the transformation. Man can never be more than what he eats, and one would expect that a phenomenon with such profound effects on health and wellbeing as a radically changed system of supplying nourishment would be thoroughly documented and assessed by the scientific community. Such is not the case. The transformation has gone unmarked by government agencies and learned bodies. Government agencies, recipients of the public trust, charged with protecting and improving the public's food, operate as if the technology of food fabrication rested in pre-World War II days. Scientific bodies, supported by public funds and charged with assessing and improving the public's health, ignore completely the results of contemporary methods of marketing food...Failure to monitor and to appreciate the results of rapidly moving technology produces a brutal effect that forms the central theme of this book. Technology founded on mechanistic laws clashes head on with the processes of a natural world which adheres to very different laws. Modern industry, ignoring these biologic laws, molds and manipulates natural processes to suit and to promote its own mechanistic and economic goals."

screaming fatgirl said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments.

Ashley: I also didn't like to cook when I was "younger" (being 47 now, "younger" means a large span of years for me rather than simply when I was a kid). I learned to like it in the last 8 years or so, and a lot of that was fueled by economic concerns, not health ones. I had to start cooking from a very young age (around 12) because my parents were both lazy and decided to off-load the responsibilities they didn't want onto my sister and I as early as they believed we could manage them. So, I know how you feel!

HumaninProgress: I think I'm lucky to have lived in Asia and become acclimated to a different way of eating. It's not that they cook at every meal, but just that eating out and especially eating processed food is something they do far less. Sometimes, the truth is that they don't eat at all if they can't eat properly. The frozen food sections of their stores are TINY and the prepared meal options limited. Even their convenience stores carry more fresh food than ours.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thanks for the reference and the quote, David, and for taking the time to comment.

It is absolutely true that we are being pandered to in order to stimulate buying. As I was mentioning to my husband recently, companies make more money if the food passes through more hands and processes. Farmers don't get rich selling their natural products. Someone buys them, alters them and re-packages them and increases the price. They are ostensibly selling convenience and a more sophisticated product, but what they end of giving us in many cases is "food" instead of "food".

It's a hard choice, but we need to make better ones if we want this to change. We vote with our money. I have bought exactly one frozen food item since coming back (and I did it for comparison purposes) and will not buy pre-packaged, pre-made food again. It's not only awful, but it didn't make me feel good after eating it. I worry that a day might come in which such things seem okay to me again and that I find a way to rationalize eating them because it's convenient.

Sandy Daigler said...

So interesting. I also think frozen, processed meals are heavily marketed to those trying to lose weight as an easy way to stay on track with calories. But whenever I see someone heating up a Lean Cuisine, I cringe because they don't taste like anything and a simple salad would be so much more satisfying, not to mention healthier.

Alexie said...

I live in central Europe and am shocked every time I go back to an English speaking country. It's quite hard for me to eat too much processed food here, assuming I wanted to, because fresh food is easier to get hold of and competitively priced against the junk. What I find now is that if I DO eat processed food, usually because I'm travelling, it makes my heart race. It has the effect of a drug on my system. God knows what's in some of that stuff.

justjuliebean said...

And this strange, overprocessed eating is now thought of a the norm, and I meet people occasionally who are shocked and amazed that I can buy ingredients and assemble and cook them to make them edible. Fortunately, about 60% of my co-workers are Asian, and most do cook, though not so much the one who were born here as the recent immigrants. The immigrants are often the most surprised that I cook, it's unheard of for a white woman my age. I have set up my life, however, to include farmers markets, and avoid Targets, Walmarts, even mainstream grocery stores. There are a few of us around. I admit that I, too, was raised on procesed food - canned soup, frozen meals, I learned to cook out of desperation in an attempt to control my weight and mood.