Have you ever stopped to really think about what you eat? And why you eat it? Have you ever considered where your food comes from, how it was produced? Or really thought about how what you eat affects your health, or the health of your future children and grandchildren? The answer is probably no. It’s not something we’ve been encouraged to do. Our lack of attention to our food has an enormous influence on the health of the American public. Just look at the ballooning rates of obesity, uncontrolled high blood pressure and diabetes.
How did we get here? How did we get to a place where our food culture rests on the tenets of speed and convenience, where we eat food purchased from a gas station or a drive-thru window – products our ancestors wouldn’t even recognize as food? Hundreds of little shifts have led us here, from the move away from family farms to the cities and the suburbs, to both parents working outside the home, to increasing incomes that allowed us to purchase pre-packaged food rather than cooking, to busy lives virtually connected at all times that led us to prioritize speed and convenience over health.
Big food was more than happy to comply to meet our growing demands for fast, convenient and cheap food products. Over time the products created have strayed further and further from their original food source.
Along with the food industry’s experiments creating highly processed food products have come major marketing campaigns to convince us of their healthfulness. In fact, most processed foods are rich in calories while being nutrient poor. We have fallen for many of their claims, it seems that adding vitamins or nutrients to any product, even candy bars, can somehow convince us they aren’t so bad for us. We’ve allowed the food industry to dictate and manipulate our tastes until we are at a point where many of the products we consume aren’t even recognizable as food. It’s no wonder we don’t often stop and think about the food we eat, doing so would be down right discouraging.
Just as it took decades of incremental changes to get where we are today, we can reverse the trends. These aren’t obstacles that can be quickly or easily overcome, but we can start to pay attention to what is in the food that we’re eating and contribute our voices to the chorus of other voices demanding healthier options in our schools and markets and more evenly distributed access to good food for everyone. We can learn about epigenetics, the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and the links between the food a woman eats before and during her pregnancy and her children’s lifetime risk for developing chronic disease like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. We can benefit the health of both men and women by improving our food culture. We can find ways to incorporate better food into our diets in ways that work with our particular situations: Eating out one less day a week, finding a healthier version of the convenience food we normally buy, snacking on fresh foods instead of junk food for those afternoon cravings. Any move, whether big or small, toward healthier eating is a move in the right direction.
Adding our little changes to bigger cultural shifts that are already happening, like the explosion in the number of farmers markets bringing fresh local produce directly to consumers; the popularity of cooking shows, food magazines and blogs dedicated to getting people back to cooking; and the popularity of food pioneers like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan who ask us to stop and think about what we are really eating and where it came from. Big food will be forced to listen to the winds of change.
We also need to remember that we can’t all go to farmers markets or shop at Whole Foods. For many people in this country these outlets are inaccessible or unaffordable. Increasing the ever-widening gap between the health of the wealthy and the poor will only further strain the health care system and social services in this country. Working toward policy solutions that take into consideration members of our communities who don’t have easy access to fresh whole foods and who are often targeted by the industry makers of unhealthy products will help improve the health of the next generation.
Someday, with enough voices calling for a healthier food culture, it will happen.
Pay attention to your food
Really look at the food you are eating and think about what it is and where it came from. If it promotes nutrients, are they from actual fruits and vegetables, or are they added chemical compounds? Can you recognize all the ingredients?
Start cooking and share your success
Get friends and family involved in cooking. Prepare meals together with your kids – they’ll be much more excited about trying out a new veggie dish they helped to make. Put together a list of recipes with lots of fresh ingredients you want to try and invite some friends over to make a meal together. Or try those new recipes yourself and bring the leftovers into the office to share with coworkers.
Change your food policy
Notice how often snacks at work meetings involve cookies and soda? Talk to your co-workers about trying out fruit and sparkling water instead or have a contest - try different healthy snacks at meetings and vote on your favorites. Work toward setting a policy that food at meetings is centered on fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.