I recently finished reading Michael Polan’s The Omnivore’s Dilema (which was an amazing book), in which he talks about our “national eating disorder.” No he’s not saying that all Americans have Anorexia or Bulimia. What he is arguing is that we have lost touch with the food that we eat, to the point that we have begun eating “food like substances” rather than food. He seems to be saying that the more we have learned about food and food science the more unhealthy we have become. If you look at the statistics on this, it’s hard to disagree. Our “knowledge” about food has grown exponentially over the past decade. I put that in quotes because, like Polan, I think we may have lost the real knowledge of food along the way. As a nation, we seem to have become so confused about which foods are healthy – milk? eggs? salmon? wild or farm raised? – that we’ve simply given up. Why bother trying to decide which meat we should have for dinner when it’s much easier to grab a protein bar and some fruit flavored water. There’s even a commercial for a fruit drink that makes eating an actual piece of fruit seem like the biggest hassel we have to endure during our day. At the same time, the rates of both obesity and harmful eating practices (restricting, bingeing, and purging) have exploded. Polan says that a big reason for this problem is that as Americans, we don’t have the same kind of food geneaology as say native Italians or Greeks. Because this country was settled by so many different types of people, we didn’t develop our own food culture with rules about how and what we ate. The goal became convenience.
Now, whether you agree with that or not, Polan may be onto something with the idea of a national eating disorder. It seems to me that our relationship with food in this country has become extremely damaged. Don’t believe me? Well then think about this – when was the last time you made a dinner in which a can opener was not an essential tool in the preparation? For that matter, when was the last time you made a dinner that didn’t involve the microwave? We live in a world where convenience is the most important aspect of any product. Our children attend schools where chicken nuggets and french fries are standard fare and body fat measurements are a typical part of health class. Young girls are encouraged to both love their bodies (Dove) and get rid of that acne once and for all (Proactiv, Clearasil, etc). Magazines geared toward women, and increasingly toward men, show airbrushed models with abs of steel and flawless makeup on the cover and advertisements for chocolate, Lean Cuisine, and Hydroxycut on the inside. No wonder we’re confused! The government tries to help by releasing guidelines for healthy living (mypyramid.org) that are more confusing than the magazines. What is the average person, without an advanced degree in nutrition and food science, supposed to do to navigate all of this information? Well, there are plenty of advertisers, fast food restaurants,and frozen food companies out there that would like to tell you.
Food is no longer a personal experience, shared with family and friends. Food has become the enemy, and I see a slew of women in my office everyday who can attest to that. Is that what we want for the next generations? Think about some of your best memories, and I will bet a high percentage of them revolve around food of some sort – a Thanksgiving turkey, watermelon seed spitting contests, ice cream on a hot summer night, diving into that bag of Halloween candy. Is our obsession with what is scientifically healthy, robbing us of some of the joys of life? Is our fixation on what will be quickest and easiest keeping us from connecting to our families and friends? Now, I’m not advocating we go back to the days when girls spent their days learning to be “good” wives, getting lessons on cooking, sewing, and cleaning by working alongside their mothers, grandmothers, or nannies. I know that’s not practical anymore, or even that desirable to most of us. But, what would be the harm of using a Saturday to make a meal from scratch, using real food, with all the fat? Having your son or daughter come into the kitchen with you to mix the batter for pancakes that you made with flour and sugar instead of a mix? Gathering around the dinner table to eat and talk about the day? Packing a lunch or dinner and heading to the park? Do these things take time? Sure, things that are worth it usually do. Will having an outdoor dinner with your family solve all the problems with food in our society? Of course not, but it may just give them the ammunition they need the next time they read an article, see a commercial, or hear an advertisement that tells them they aren’t worth it. And that’s worth more than all the hours in the world.