Nutrients vs Food

I’ve been watching food-related documentaries this month: King CornFresh, and Lunch Line. Each film takes a look at different aspects of food in the US: production, environmental impacts, public policy, and the costs of our current ways of relating to food. I have been learning so much the past two years about food – both how it impacts me and how it affects the world around me. This is another of the unintended consequences of the Hunger Challenge that began this blog and my current foray into learning what my best life/best self might look like.

In Lunch Line, several of those interviewed spoke about changing the school lunch guidelines from “nutrient based” menus to “food based” menus. In case you haven’t heard these terms, current USDA policies require certain nutrients in the lunches served, rather than numbers of servings of types of foods (like 2 vegetables and a fruit, for example). This is the kind of policy which led, during the Reagan administration, to the brouhaha surrounding the consideration of ketchup as a vegetable. One self-described lunch lady said, “When was the last time you saw a food label on a peach? Real food doesn’t need labels.” I don’t begin to consider myself an expert on these issues, but this idea makes intrinsic sense to me. As some of you may know, when I first began to lose weight several years ago, I joined Weight Watchers. I cannot say enough positive things about Weight Watchers and how their approach has helped so many people make changes in their lives – me included. However, I eventually stopped going, in part due to what I consider their pushing of “fake food” – highly processed foods with artificially enhanced nutritional content – rather than a reliance on whole foods, well-prepared.

As I have been reflecting on this concept, Nutrients vs Food, it has occurred to me that the idea may be generalizable to other consumables in our lives, not just comestibles. How often do we settle for something “good enough” to fit the bill, rather than something truly soul-satisfying? Think about how regularly we opt for ease and a quick fix rather than work a little harder for the real deal. We read pulp fiction, but not literature. We hit headline news, without seeking in-depth analysis of world events. We spend more Facebook time than face-time with our friends. I have one friend who puts hot sauce on everything he eats – an easy way to flavor the food on his plate, but everything ends up tasting the same. In our drive-through, a la carte lives, perhaps it might be better to take the time to season things, to enhance and deepen the flavors, rather than cover them up with a single-note sauce to make them palatable.

Some weeks, I feel like nothing more than a hamster on a wheel, and the race I’m stuck in is both a marathon and a sprint. The illusion I sell myself is that this is how life is, there is nothing to be done except keep running and gasping for air. The truth is, I make the choices that keep me on the wheel. The truth is, I don’t change that because change is hard. Really hard, sometimes. But I don’t want my diet to be a list of nutrients to be checked off. I want it to be a menu full of delicious and nourishing food. And that is what I want for my daily life, as well. Rich, full, well-seasoned with spices – and so real and whole it doesn’t require labels to recognize component parts.

To achieve this requires attention. It requires a willingness to go for the slightly more difficult option. Not every time, but often enough that I develop a taste for the more complex selections. Eventually, the headlines (and the chick-lit and the twitter) are seen for what they really are: appetizers – quick and tasty but hardly confused with a real meal. And the meal itself – deep conversation with people I care about, art and poetry, self-reflection and a well-rounded knowledge of the world I live in – becomes nourishing and satisfying in the truest sense of those words.

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, 
care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life”
–Jean Shinoda Bolen 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

One time, a number of years ago, I was with three friends checking out the bar scene on Rush Street in Chicago (and by a number of years, I mean I was still in my 20s). None of us was particularly overweight, though I was – as usual – self-conscious about my appearance. As we walked toward a group of four young men, one of them said, “What’s up ladies? Besides your weight.”  I have never forgotten that. And each time I get on the scale and there is an uptick, I am sorry to say that those words come back to me. I have worked hard to develop a more robust self-esteem than I possessed all those years ago. In addition, I can’t really remember conversations I had yesterday. But my psyche has held on to that one cruel comment, and now I own it. Why is it so easy to grab ahold of bludgeons people use against us, and so difficult to let them fall away?