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Christina Pirello

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Real Food For Health: Change Your Life. Cook Dinner!

Posted: 06/08/2010 4:32 pm

Eating has become complicated in our modern life. But it doesn't have to be. We have become so reliant on various experts to advise us on our food choices. From television chefs to nutrition scientists; exercise gurus to news anchors; government advisory committees to food pyramids; there is no shortage of opinions on what Americans should be eating.

They have filled our heads with all manner of biochemistry, facts, figures and statistics. Most of us can quote them as surely as our own names. We have become deeply familiar with words like 'antioxidants,' 'polyphenols,' 'saturated fats,' 'omega-3' and of course, 'calories.' But in all this science, we lost our way to the food and our inherent wisdom about what eating means.

It's as though we don't even see food as food anymore, just the sum of its nutritional parts. We have lost touch with our intuition and fallen victim to the science of nutrition. And as soon as we lost touch with our gut instinct, we became the perfect victims for the sharks who swim just under the water...marketers. They pounced on our confusion and through the smoke and mirrors of dazzling packaging, checkmarks, seals of approval and health claims have slowly and consistently robbed us of our health. And it seems to me, made us stupid in the process. It's as though we don't think for ourselves anymore -- about anything.

So nutrition science, this new guru of eating, has managed to take absolute power over us. It's a promising and exciting field of study, but hardly exact and hardly expert on the impact of food on the body -- and its health. We could write volumes on what we don't know about nutrition.

Food is simple. Nature is simple. It's easy to be healthy and vital. But we have to understand a few things first. There are a couple of facts about the effects of food on health that are not in dispute by any expert I have heard.

First: Populations who consume the typical diet we call the modern Western diet (refined foods, lots of added sugar, fat and salt, refined grains, big volumes of food and very few veggies, fruits and whole grains), invariably suffer from what we now call 'lifestyle diseases': obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.

We all know this. But nutrition science isn't talking about this. Instead, millions of dollars are spent on finding the one key, the one nutrient that is the culprit; the one thing that is making us fat and unhealthy and killing us in record numbers. It's simple; there is no one nutrient stealing our health; it's the overall diet.

Second: Populations who eat traditional diets of their cultures, whatever that might be, don't seem to suffer from these same illnesses. And the diets are wide and varied: from high fat diets like the Eskimos eat (can you say whale fat?) to Central American high carb diets (they largely exist on corn, squash and beans); to the high protein diets of African tribes (running the gamut from cattle blood to milk); to the widely accepted as healthy Mediterranean diet.

This tells us something very important. There is no one diet that serves all of humanity well. As humans, we can adapt to a wide variety of diets and foods -- except, it seems, to the modern Western diet so commonly eaten today.

Here is where it gets really interesting. When people stop eating a modern Western diet, they see a dramatic improvement in their health. Experts like T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, report that a departure from this diet shows drastic reductions in the risk of heart disease alone, like 80 percent! The risk of Type 2 diabetes can be reduced by almost 90 percent and the chances of cancer by almost 70 percent. What does that tell you about the impact of the way America eats?

Manufacturers love to tweak products in ways that leave our diet largely unchanged, but allow for new hot buttons to be added to the product packaging to create a 'health halo' and seduce you to buy more of whatever junk it may be. Pharmaceutical companies can then develop more and more drugs to cure us of the diseases that our food choices cause. The health care industry makes more money treating chronic diseases than it does preventing them. And the circle of business goes round and round, with us dizzy with confusion.

Experts focus on finding the single element in the modern Western diet that is responsible for our deterioration, which seems to change every day, doesn't it? But no one in nutrition science is bothered by this. According to Michael Pollan, confusion is great for their cause: the experts become indispensable; manufacturers can recycle the same junk with new buzz words and the media has a constant stream of stories to write about food, health and nutrition. Everyone wins.

Except us.

I am tired of all the smoke and mirrors that marketing has used to twist science to their favor. I would like to see us go back to the basics of food; the basic wisdom of eating; the intuitive understanding that food -- real food -- supports our lives and our health. And it's delicious, sexy and easy to make the change.

Mere decades ago, the food industry made a conscious choice to seduce the American public into eating more food by making processed food seductively delicious with fat, sugar and salt. And we could not have made it easier for them. We loved anything fast, yummy and convenient. We left the dinner table for dinner in a bucket.

Now our busy, connected, blackberry-ruled lives leave us little time to worry about what's on a label, let alone time to cook whole, natural foods from scratch. We left the door wide open for health-stealing pirates to walk right into our living rooms and rob us of the ability to rationally identify what's truly healthy as they deadened our taste buds. The result? Overeating in search of satisfaction. They count on our attraction to convenience. They count on the fact that our diet choices make us too tired to make the effort to take control of our food choices or get to the gym.

Now I'm not saying that we have no responsibility in this scenario. It's not good enough to sit hypnotized in front of glowing television screens as our good buddies Papa John, Wendy and the Colonel sell us manufactured junk in place of real food. We need to demand better. It's time to wake up and take action.

Look, we are evolutionarily programmed to eat and rest as much as we can. When foods like fat and sugar were scarce and hunting and gathering was an exhausting necessity, we ate and rested to preserve our lives. I don't know about you, but unless you count hunting for a new app, those days are over. And while a lot of things have changed in the last 10,000 years, our basic drive to find food, eat and rest hasn't.

Before we knew it, we found ourselves living in this fast-paced world with lots of labor-saving conveniences, more sedentary work and no time to stop and smell the roses -- or cook dinner from scratch. Our waistlines expanded and our collective health began to fade.

When our stoves grew cold, our pots and pans gathered dust, we had to do something. We couldn't hunt for food. Our days of gathering were long gone. We were modern, with modern needs and access to convenience. And marketers knew exactly what to do. They gave us new families, who provided warmth, comfort and familiarity -- images hearkening back to simpler times, with names like: Sarah Lee, Betty Crocker, Chef Boyardee (now boasting a whole serving of vegetables in a can ... don't get me started), Papa John, the Colonel, little Wendy with her freckles and pigtails and McDonald's, to fatten us like lambs for slaughter -- and create a health crisis that is changing society as we know it.

But we buy into the propaganda and eat more. The 'food-like' substances that Michael Pollan describes so eloquently in his writing have little or nothing to do with food in its natural state and everything to do with why we are so fat and getting fatter.

The Standard American Diet has to be re-thought and I don't mean going from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Kentucky Grilled Chicken. You won't see the results we need to rescue humanity by reducing your intake of food by a few chips, a soda or two and paring away the fat on your pork chop. Nothing short of a complete re-thinking of how we feed ourselves is going to turn the tide of this epidemic of obesity that threatens the very existence of future generations.

It's time to say enough and head back to the kitchen and cook. It's easy and delicious. You're not splitting the atom; you're making dinner -- and taking control of your health deliciously. Yes, it takes some getting used to. The flavors are more subtle and nuanced than the fat, sugar and salt-laden foods you may be used to. But if you give it a few weeks, really go for it and make the change, you will be amazed at how delicious real food tastes. You will see an entire world open to your voracious, rejuvenated taste buds. You will crave foods that are good for you.

Look, in the end, we all wake up dead, as the saying goes. No dietary choices can ultimately prevent that. But wouldn't it be nice to spend your days more productively than worrying about how heavy you are and what your disease risks look like? Wouldn't it be nice to live free of the stress of preconceived illness and disability so common today? We can, you know. We just have to change how we think about food.

It seems that everyone is interested in food again -- real food, just like Grandma used to make. We all remember it. I know I do. Growing up, coming home from school, my Nonna would have a big pot of some kind of beans simmering away on the stove, simply prepared with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs. She served it to us as our after-school snack along with bread freshly baked by my mother. That was what we knew. If we wanted cookies, my mother baked them. If we wanted pizza, they whipped up the dough and viola! We had pizza.

They shopped for food like their lives depended on it (which it did). They would squeeze fruit, smell the vegetables, examine the eggs, sniff the milk. They knew nothing about nutrition but they new that if food was fresh and whole, it cooked well and tasted right. And the family was nourished properly and was happy.

But times changed. TV dinners and drive-in restaurants went from the occasional 'treat' to everyday fare and we sold our health down the river of oil they fried the food in. Take-out; drive-through, instant, microwaveable food became our dietary staples. Real food wasn't cooked anymore; it was manufactured.

Cooking real food became just another messy inconvenience in our busy lives. Foil-wrapped, artificially colored and flavored worlds of dancing clowns and sugar-dusting fairies became our reality.

Marketers told us to eat to our hearts' content and we were only too happy to oblige. Trouble is, our hearts weren't content at all. All that sugar, fat and salt in those manufactured foods that were the cornerstone of our diets were wearing out our poor, overworked veins, arteries and hearts. But man, that stuff was yummy. Our little tastebuds were so worked up all the time that we lost our taste for real food. Who can resist potato chips that taste like cheddar cheese, bacon or pizza? How do apples compete with cream-filled Oreos? How can we expect our children to eat oatmeal when their little bodies are fueled by more than 50 grams of sugar in one breakfast of Lucky Charms? It might be easier to get a crack addict off the pipe.

But real food never went away. It just got pushed aside. And it's ready to make a comeback.

There were always those voices that never went silent. They saw the writing on the wall. They knew the result of eating too much of the wrong stuff. We would grow fat and sickly. But with no 'Nonnas' to tell us to eat our vegetables and sit up straight our misbehavior went unchecked. We became like unsupervised teens with a case of beer on the back porch.

As a result, it's changing. Finally, people other than the usual experts have been coaxing food out of the closet, so to speak. People have been making movies, writing books, speaking out, telling the truth about our food. Learning to cook is popular again. People are learning how to respect food, how to treat it, how to use it to create health and make a lighter footprint.

It's time to stand up for food. Food is generous and open and if we respect it. It will remain plentiful and nourish us deeply and give us health. Food can feed us, right out of the ground, with little fuss. It can help us relax and manage stress. It can help us reconnect with friend and family.

Let's bring food out of the closet and onto the table. Food can create health and bounty for the whole world. And the cool thing is we just have to eat it.

 

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