Food is the newest "It-girl", the topic du jour. Our First Lady is emphasizing it, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is advocating its safety, and Jamie Oliver is conducting a revolution in its name!
But many people have a complicated relationship with food. Mine can be characterized as a bipolar, love-hate hybrid that was destructive for some time before it became productive.
I grew up as a competitive figure skater. One of my earliest memories was being surprised by my first "weigh-in." Several young girls all under age twelve were lined up single-file. Nerves ate up what little oatmeal I had that morning, as I shuddered from the cold, hoping that I would not be publicly humiliated by the graying coach standing at the scale. That day, I had not gained but I watched my friend eviscerated for an invisible five pounds. In later months, I would catch her trying to purge her food in the public ice arena bathroom.
Incessant dieting and food anxiety became a part of my identity as I honed my sport. One of my coaches impressed a cabbage soup diet on me, while I conducted Gwyneth Paltrow-esque detoxifications on my own. This compulsion tapered off in my early twenties and ended when I became pregnant at age twenty-four. We were euphoric by the news, but inside I was also terrified of getting fat. As I felt my old, self-flagellating demons returning I vowed to change for my new family. Instead of running from food, I would empower myself through food education.
The initial plunge was overwhelming, until I discovered my unknowing yogi, Michael Pollan whose latest book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, resonated with me. Pollan is like a Chanel jacket -- simple, obvious in his message and extravagantly right for the moment. According to Pollan, the "Western diet"-- overprocessed and chemically-saturated food -- is not only making us fat, it is killing us. There are 64 rules in his book but two connected with me the most: "eat food" and "cook." It sounds simple enough, but actually takes a great deal of attention, effort and personalization to make it work.
My version of the "eating food" palliative morphed into a half "Paleo" (or Paleolotihic, the new "it" diet profiled in a January 10, 2010 New York Times Style section article that focuses on eating like cavemen), half Mediterranean diet. Fish, leafy greens, fruit and wild game are staples. My husband is a hunter, and although some do not agree with the practice, wild game is the only truly lean and hormone/antibiotic-free food you can eat. I know that the venison he brings home has not been munching on a Z-pack; but I can't trust that the "free-range", "hormone-free" chicken I am buying at the food store has not. Some products we are sold today qualify as "edible food-like substance," as Pollan describes it in Food Rules, a far cry from unadulterated meat and greens our ancestors ate.
Imagine if 5,000 people were put into Madison Square Garden and left there for three years. What flesh-eating epidemics would be growing in that human Petri dish? This is what happens to some of the poultry and cattle in America. I never had any exposure to hunting before I met my husband, but now I pray each season for a freezer full of venison, and hopefully some turkey to carry us through the spring and summer.
If buying a new long-range rifle is not in the cards for you, at least try to cut down on the chemicals you eat. As someone still trying to break a nasty artificial sweetener addiction, these manufactured additives can make your palate addicted to unnaturally sweet food and cause eventual weight gain, according to some physicians. It is not easy to avoid chemical additives and exorbitant amounts of sugar and salt especially if you eat out a lot, which brings me to the second part of Pollan's recommendation -- cooking at home.
Before I got married I had never touched a strainer or steamer, let alone cooked a dead deer, and saw the kitchen as society's form of prison for pre-feminist women. But I promised my unborn baby I would not inject her with MSG on a daily basis, so I had to make do.
I am filled with far too much frenetic energy to put on a flowery apron and follow Barefoot Contessa recipes to the detail, so I made things up as I went along. One thing to remember is simplicity in food is integral to healthy composition; it is amazing what one can create with just sea salt, olive oil, vinaigrette and fruit as additional marinade. All you need is a few ingredients in your repertoire, and then you can substitute within categories. For example, today I soaked salmon in sesame oil instead of olive oil, it's just a small substitution but it makes a difference. I continue to be a sub-par cook -- my husband still cringes at the fennel, cream puff-like covered cod I once concocted -- but through time I created my own routine and recipe process that works for us.
However you transform your daily food routines -- whether it's hunting, gardening, scouring your local farmers markets or just cutting out soda -- healthy eating is a mindset, not a specific act. There is no one way to do it, but do recognize that it is a major life change akin to moving to a new city. When you take control of what goes into your body, you are living for the future not gobbling for the present.
A few days ago, I came upon my journal from high school: I hate my body. I hate eating. I hate food, I wrote. The words shocked me because I am in such a different place now; I guess you can say I have had my very own "food revolution." I enjoy eating and enjoy my body. It has done such amazing things, the best example being the baby girl who relishes crawling around the kitchen at my feet, opening drawers and banging Tupperware, while I make her fresh baby food like sweet potato mixed with pear and papaya from scratch. And yes, she eats venison, too. She prefers it mixed with plums and butternut squash.