Friday, February 4, 2011

Eat More

Just so you know, as I write this post I'm unashamedly drinking a cup of coffee with (gasp!) real half-n-half in it, along with a totally not low-fat or low-calorie homemade almond biscotti. It's not a guilty pleasure. I'm not ashamed of it, or promising myself I'll do 10 extra minutes on the treadmill to atone for this "sin." I'm not trying to hide this from my co-workers. I know this seems like some kind of proud villainy, given our cultural approach to food. But really, this is just me, eating the food I like. The food that makes me feel good.

But ... as I was meandering through the New York Times this morning, I stumbled upon this: Government’s Dietary Advice: Eat Less.

Now, you may not have the same reaction to it as I do, but when I hear someone exhorting us/you/them/anyone to eat less, an image of my sweet, frail, tiny little great aunt comes to mind. And I'll explain why in a second. But first I want to say this about the actual article.

It is indeed an eency weency baby step of progress when government regulatory agents of any type make even the most toothless statement in opposition to the agendas of the powerful lobby groups that control them. So, ya know, yay for that.

I even agree that the recommendation to fill at least half of your plate with fruits and veggies can be a good one. Even a great one. Avoid the dirty dozen if you can help it, but do what you can. Score 1 for whole foods, -1 for processed foods. So far so good.

But, this "eat less" thing....

Let me tell you about my Auntie E. Auntie E is my grandma's younger sister. My grandma, the one who flew her father's plane between Iowa farm fields and had gorgeous skin and hair and ankles (apparently that was a big deal once upon a time), and sang beautifully and danced gracefully and argued forcefully, and baked and sewed relentlessly, and knocked all the men dead. That one. She has a younger sister, E. And E was petite while her sister was tall; she had thin straight dark hair while her sister had thick wavy blond hair, etc. etc. It's not that E wasn't pretty and talented and intelligent enough. Taken by herself, she was all these things. But her older sister was the stuff of legends, especially in a small Iowa town. So E grew up with a major inferiority complex that even escaping that small town and that big shadow couldn't reverse. She went off to college and made her own friends and got her own boyfriend and was respected and valued for her own accomplishments, but it was never enough.

Somewhere along the way E decided that the one thing that made her special was her knack for self-denial. Her own grandmother, who was also thought to be a great beauty, once remarked that the secret to maintaining your youthful beauty was to push back from the table while you were still a little bit hungry. And E could do that. Oh boy could she do that.

I remember visiting E's family as a child, and E would cook a big fancy dinner for her family and guests, and then sit down with just an apple while everyone else ate the dinner she had prepared. I remember family reunions where good food was everywhere, and E didn't take one bite all afternoon. People often complimented E on how thin she was, and she would wave it off with some self-deprecating comment. In recent years E has had terrible health problems because her bones are razor-thin and break with alarming ease. As she ages she seems even tinier, with rounded shoulders and apologetic eyes. And looking at E makes me feel indescribably sad, because I suspect she has spent her entire adult life hungry. It just seem like an incredible tragedy, to spend your whole life hungry in the middle of such abundance.

So here's what I say. Eat more. Eat more whole foods. Eat more local foods. Eat more homemade meals with real ingredients. Eat until you're satisfied. Eat healthy whole-fat dairy products that actually give a feeling of satiety. Snack on nuts and homemade cookies. Eat eggs from happy cage-free chickens. Eat avocados and olives and other "high-fat" foods that are nevertheless really good for you. As much as you can, avoid foods that are packaged in plastic (plastic is a terrible environmental scourge, and it transfers some of its toxins to the food packaged in it, y'all!). Bake, if you enjoy baking. Surround yourself with good healthy foods that make you feel nourished and satisfied. But don't deprive yourself. Don't go hungry. It is neither healthy nor virtuous to deprive yourself of the nourishment you need. And good food provides both physical and psychological nourishment. So eat up. Eat until you're satisfied. Ignore the government "experts" who always and everywhere turn out to be the pawns of some industry, whether it's the diet industry or the food lobby. Learn how to listen to your body, and give it what it needs. Eat until you're satisfied.



  1. I love this post! I'm snacking on cheese and crackers right now. Real cheese! With satisfying whole-grain crackers! And I'm going to eat until I'm satisfied! Hurray!

  2. Anonymous2/04/2011

    Those eggs look delicious. I hereby vow to eat eggs like that for breakfast tomorrow. And be satisfied.

    Happy weekend everyone.

  3. I completely agree with you, but I also agree with the dietary guidelines. What the guidelines unfortunately failed to specify due to politics was exactly WHAT we should eat less of--fast food, sweets, soda, white bread, etc. The truth is that many Americans truly eat too much, and they eat too much of the wrong things. I hope that nobody takes these guidelines as an indication that we should also eat less of the kinds of foods you mentioned.

  4. Sheldon2/05/2011

    "Satisfied" is the key word here. When your body is really getting the nutrients it needs, it's easier to feel content and filled. Then the overeating on the junk food problem sort of fades away. In my experience, anyway.

  5. Yes. To everything you said here. Yes.

  6. Sadly, my mom is like your aunt. My sister and I have discussed this before and wished there was some kind of classification for an eating disorder where you don't binge or purge, you just always deny yourself and stop eating when you're still hungry. It's so sad, and so hard to confront or discuss in a constructive way.

  7. Anonymous2/06/2011

    So your one of those fat feminists who thinks your staking out some kind of new theoretical territory by defending your eating practices. *yawn*

  8. Aw, look at the cute lil troll.

  9. Well, OK, but we can still agree that some people might be eating too much right? If the idea is that we evolved under hunter/gatherer conditions then we probably are getting too little exercise and run the risk of having too much tasty food too easily accessable.

  10. The government isn't asking us to deprive ourselves though. They are asking us to stop eating the restaurant dinners that contain 3,000 calories and are killing us. So I don't think it's wise to say it's bad advice.

  11. Kaitlyn,

    Of course it's good to pay attention to portion sizes.

    But the fact remains that very little that comes out of any government agency regarding dietary guidelines is actually evidence-based. For instance, they're still advocating for low-fat and fat-free choices (based on really outdated diet myths from the 80s that were never supported by research to begin with, and ultimately result in very unhealthy food choices), and acting as if the old calories-in vs calories-out formula should be our primary concern. In the meantime, nothing is said about the truly harmful substances in our food supply such as hydrogenated oils, processed corn and soy fillers, high fructose corn syrup, and the various obesogens we're exposed to at fairly high levels every day.

    Research shows that people who get a moderate amount of exercise and consume healthy, nutrient-rich, whole foods, tend to consume fewer calories overall because they feel satisfied after eating moderate portion sizes. And this involves having a certain minimum amount of healthy fats and proteins in your diet. So policing your intake, counting your calories and fat grams, and constantly depriving yourself of the basic nourishment and satisfaction that can come from eating is not only a depressing way to live, it's ineffective as a form of weight control.

    When government regulatory agencies begin to base their recommendations on solid research rather than political and corporate objectives, then they'll have a right to dispense dietary and health advice. Until then, it's just so much noise.

  12. To add to what your saying here: I've always found that focussing on eating healthy may not make you rail thin, but it will allow your body to settle into a weight thats ideal and healthy for you. After my pregnancies, after a bout with cancer treatment that messed up my thyroid levels... always after these things my body slowly returned to a healthy weight on its own with no dieting. I wasn't that conscious of it then, but looking back, what your saying really make sense to me.

  13. Anonymous2/10/2011

    If we eat foods that our bodies actually recognize as food, we tend to not want to eat as much because our body knows its full.

  14. My sister and I both tend to weigh less when we avoid foods with artificial hormones in them - both meat and dairy. Maybe it's just a coincidence that happens because when we're avoiding these things we're also paying attention to the other foods we eat and tending to eat less processed foods. Either way, it's a healthier habit.

  15. Growth hormones in meat and dairy are thought to be obesogens, so you're probably right, Sara.

    I was a certified personal trainer for 9 years and I always tried to convince my clients to focus on healthy habits and let their weight take care of itself. The obsession with weight leads people to do so many terribly unhealthy thing, that it seems irresponsible on the part of the government to focus on it so much. But that's where the money is, so what do we expect already?

  16. It's not irresponsible for the government to focus on wieght, because obesity carries a whole host of health problems with it.

  17. C'mon Macy. Educate yourself. Here's a start:
    The Obesity Myth
    Health at Any Size

  18. Anonymous2/12/2011

    These "eat more" posts are incredibly triggering to me. Seeing other people brag about the foods that they can afford, that I cannot, is hurful beyond explanation. But yeah, thanks for just being one more person who reminds me how rotten my life is.

  19. Anonymous,

    Explain the triggering part to me. Do you mean you can't afford to eat more because you'll gain weight? Because I've gotten several emails about this post to that effect, and I simply take that as evidence of how fucked up our culture is in regard to food and weight. Everyone should be able to "afford" the calories needed to nourish their bodies without being shamed over their weight.

    If you mean you can't afford to eat more financially, then that is precisely one of the points of this post. If the gov't was really concerned about your health and mine, then healthy foods would be advocated, and subsidies would go to the production and distribution of healthy foods rather than the crap that's currently cheaper due to gov't regulations. At the same time, I've been a wage slave all my life, and have never made much money. In my experience, staying informed, being a careful shopping, growing a garden, etc. are all possible on a very limited budget. I'm a single mom working two jobs, so I understand time and money constraints, believe me. But once you find the healthy foods available to you on your budget and in your geographical location, and establish the habit of cooking your own meals from real ingredients, it can be done. Not as easily as it should be, but it can be done.

    So I kind of feel like this is an issue we should be proactive about. Complaining about how hard it is to eat healthy foods isn't really as helpful as other things we can do. Consistently advocating for better food policies, critiquing the bullshit that emits from gov't agencies, and sharing info on true health and nutrition, is a better approach, as far as I can tell.

  20. I would add that having a supportive network is really helpful toward the eating healthy while poor. When I lived in student housing several of us were working/student parents, and we shared info on healthy foods, grew a garden together, cooked together at times, etc. I learned a lot from my friends, and we all benefitted from it. My cousin had a similar experience living in a public housing unit that had a community garden nearby. People started sharing recipes and produce, and everyone who was involved in the garden project started eating better, partially becaue of the supportive network. So the isolation of family units in our culture is another obstacle to eating healthy, I think.

  21. Anonymous2/12/2011

    But you're still privileged. For one thing you're educated. Both Rachel and Kelli, obviously.

  22. Kristen2/13/2011

    To be fair, your (rachel) views on the systemic problems in our approach to food in the US isn't really laid out that well here, although it is in many other posts. So I can see how a new visitor to this site could take issue with this post.

    But I also totally agree with you that the solution is not to throw up our hands and conclude that only the very rich can eat healthy. The solution is to work on the root causes of the problem so healthy food, and info about healthy eating, is available to all.

  23. @ Kristen - point taken. I guess I would point to this post as a better explanation of my view of our systemic problems concerning class and food.

    @Kelli - I couldn't agree more. I've also known people who split a CSA share with friends or neighbors to make it more affordable. I was one of the founding members of the natural foods coop in our town, and the majority of the founding members were actually lower income individuals who were working toward a local alternative to driving about 70 miles to the nearest natural foods store. So this is another example of the power of networking to attain better food on a limited budget.

  24. happyfeminist2/14/2011

    This is such a great example of an area where much work is needed on the systemic level to prevent inequity. It does suck that healthy foods are practically inaccessible to many people. There's no questioning that. But the answer is not to stop spreading accurate nutritional info - the answer is to change the system to make good food easily available to everyone.