Tuesday, April 23, 2013

That Time I Wrote Everything I Know About Food (and it was tl;dr)

Food doesn't have to be so complicated, but sometimes it is.
My obsession with food is borderline insane, but there are some benefits to it.  There are a lot of days when I feel like I spend the majority of my time thinking about food (meal-planning, grocery shopping, cooking, eating, looking up recipes, reading restaurant reviews, or just plain old daydreaming).  I would like to share my food/fitness journey someday, but that's another story for another time.  For now, I'm going to try to synthesize all of the food knowledge I've picked up from many years of research and experience.  There is a lot of confusing, sometimes conflicting, information about food out there these days, so hopefully I will be able to clear some things up and explain my eating habits (or at least my ideal eating habits).  I may end up making this a series of posts because there is actually so much that I think I'm going to lose readers halfway through.  As I've said a number of times, my typical "diet" is generally healthy, although I have days (or sometimes handfuls of days in a row) when I won't follow any of my usual rules.  Still, about 90% of the food I eat is: all natural, unprocessed, whole grain, mostly organic, and local/seasonal/small farm-sourced as much as possible. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that it's light.  In order to avoid unnecessary chemicals, I never use the light/fat free/diet version of anything.  That means real sugar/syrup/honey, full-fat butter and oils, full-carb grain products, etc.  I also have to seriously work on my portion control.  So that's why, despite how "healthy" I may eat, I am still overweight.  But I am a certified food snob.  It's one thing that I am extremely passionate about and I promise that I know how to eat right, even if I don't always do it.  I've separated this post into categories so that if you want to skip ahead to something, you can.  Maybe you don't care what I have to say about meat, but you're confused about sweeteners, for example.  This one's a doozy.  Good luck!

Why organic?  Is it really necessary?
"Organic" is a USDA certification for foods that are produced without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, or without hormones and antibiotics in the case of livestock, but which still meet the USDA's regulations for cleanliness (this means that there may be a lot of small farms that don't use pesticides, fertilizers, or other chemicals, but for whatever reason can't get a USDA "organic" certification).  The term "organic" tells you nothing about how big the farm is, how the animals are treated otherwise, or how "healthy" the food is (in other words, switching to all organic foods does not make you automatically lose weight).  HOWEVER, it's obviously better for you not to fill your body with all of those chemicals than it is to regularly eat things that have had toxic sludge sprayed all over them.  Organic farming is also less harmful to the environment, although you kind of have to weigh that against the carbon output of transporting organic meat and produce if it comes from far away.  If it's too expensive for you to buy all-organic (as it is for me sometimes), the foods that are most important are any that you would eat without removing a peel or shell or which have a very thin peel/shell (grapes, berries, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.)  I buy as much organic produce as possible when I can afford it, although I'm often standing in the store trying to decide between organic produce from Mexico or local produce that isn't organic.  It's a foodie dilemma that I struggle with later in this post.

The Chicken and the Egg

This is one of the most confusing and disappointing categories because companies so often use marketing strategies to fool consumers into thinking that their chickens are wandering around in a field on some mom-and-pop farm somewhere.  "Cage free" just means that the chickens are not in cages... they very well may still be stuffed together in a tiny space, standing around in their own filth.  "Free range" may mean that they are stuffed together in a slightly larger space, standing around in a few extra square feet of their own filth.  On the other hand, it may mean that they really are wandering around on that idealized farm.  It all depends on the company.  Now, I should probably mention that I have no ethical qualms about killing animals for food or forcing them to lay eggs for me to eats.  I do, however, insist on eating chickens that have plenty of space and fresh air and are completely hormone and antibiotic free, and I have the same standards for my eggs.  It's cleaner, it's better for you, and (in my educated but unscientific opinion) it tastes better.  Finding such chickens and eggs, therefore, requires some careful searching.  The New Jersey grocery store chain Kings Supermarket offers Pete and Gerry's eggs (also available at Whole Foods), which are currently the only ones that I trust.  You can tell the difference between these eggs and your standard Eggland's Best just by cracking one open... a properly farmed egg yolk will be almost orange rather than yellow and you will find the occasional icky egg that either has blood or a chicken fetus in it.  I'm OK with that because it lets me know that my eggs are from real animals that are allowed to live accordingly, but if you're squeamish, I won't judge you.  Kings also used to carry whole chickens that were labeled with a specific family farm which you could look up and learn more about, but I haven't seen those in a while.  For now, I settle for chicken that has the organic/free range label, but I am always looking for more source information.  I have recently decided to make meat a very minimal part of my diet for that reason.
now that's a proper yolk!  (the paler yellow ones are local duck eggs which I overcooked.)

I'll reiterate that I don't mind eating animals as long as they've been raised correctly, so if you feel differently, you can just skip all of the meat stuff.  My goal is to find the healthiest and best tasting animals, not to support animal rights (although it is convenient that the most humanely raised animals seem to taste the best).  First of all, cows are not supposed to eat corn.  I could explain why so much of our beef is corn-fed, but that's a Pandora's boxful for another post.  The bottom line is that CORN is the reason why beef is bad for you.  Grass fed beef has about as much fat and cholesterol as a chicken breast and it actually has some good fats in it too!  Whole Foods has good grass-fed beef options, Trader Joe's sells grass-fed ground beef, and Kings just started offering a selection of grass-fed beef products.  I also suggest becoming friendly with a butcher.  A good butcher will be able to tell you everything you need to know about where your meat came from.  Of course, this kind of meat is way more expensive and other sourcing information is just as difficult to come by as with chickens.  Again, I've decided to make meat a "sometimes food" (thanks, Elmo) for special occasions because it's just way too hard to tell with the meat that I can find in most grocery stores.

Large, deep-water fish (tuna, swordfish, etc.) are high in mercury and just can't be sustainably produced, whether they're line-caught or farmed.  Furthermore, the world's increasing tuna addiction is severely depleting the population.  As much as it pains me, this means that I've decided to just simply stop eating tuna.  I also never eat farmed salmon.  It's not sustainable to farm large fish and believe it or not, salmon farmers are training the fish to eat all kinds of things that they have no business eating (like corn and even candy).  On the other hand, several small fish can be sustainably farmed (trout and mussels, for example) and are actually a good idea because it will preserve the populations of wild-caught fish that can't be farmed.  Farm-raised shrimp is not sustainable and often of questionable cleanliness (in terms of chemicals used to raise them).  As usual, it's best to buy whatever has been caught closest to where you live.  In New Jersey, this means lots of excellent crab and scallops (sorry, Iowa).  Still, "frozen" does not mean "not fresh" as most seafood is immediately flash-frozen on the boat anyway, so unless you know for sure that something was caught (or raised) in your region of the country within a day or two, frozen is actually a fine option.

It probably goes without saying by now that I only drank organic milk and never ate processed cheese or yogurt.  We seem to be living in a Greek yogurt bubble right now, since every single dairy company (and even a cereal!) is obligated to make its own "Greek" variety.  Real Greek yogurt is thick and creamy because almost all of its liquid has been strained out.  Because of its density and purity, it's higher in calcium and protein than other styles of yogurt.  Unfortunately, many of the "Greek" yogurts sitting on the shelves of your local grocery store are not Greek yogurt at all but are full of chemical stabilizers and texturizers, and whatever else, to give it that "Greek" thickness.  Look at the ingredients list.  It should say nothing other than "live active cultures" and maaaybe some whole fruit or honey or maple syrup.  Avoid yogurts that have artificial sweeteners or colors.  Yoplait still uses a lot of high fructose corn syrup, although they've made efforts to stop.
That being said, almost all humans have some kind of sensitivity to dairy.  As all former vegans or vegan-curious people know, we are the only animal that continues to drink milk throughout our lives and the only animal that drinks another animal's milk.  Even if you're not completely intolerant to dairy, you are probably living with a certain level of digestive discomfort after eating dairy products, but have grown so accustomed to it that you barely notice anymore.  I'm definitely guilty of having a very dairy-heavy diet, but I'm trying to cleanse my system and eating dairy is counter-productive.  Yet another food group on the "special occasions only" list.

So, since I'm neither eating meat nor dairy, you must think I eat a lot of soy products.  Nope -- they're on the "very rarely, in certain cases" list.  Soy has been known to raise estrogen levels, which can occasionally cause ovarian cysts, but more importantly (to me), most soy in the U.S. is produced from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).  I only eat soy that is organic and non-GMO, but even then I only eat it in certain items that can't be replicated without soy.

Nuts and seeds
You're probably asking, "But Jessica, if you don't eat meat or dairy OR soy, how do you get any protein?"  The answer is nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains (which I discuss below).  In order to get the highest nutritional value out of your nuts and seeds, buy them raw.  I also have made the switch to all organic nuts because certain big-name nut brands (especially Blue Diamond) are some of the worst offenders for using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and Blue Diamond has had all kinds of labor problems (they are not union-friendly).  For this same reason, I make my own almond milk and nut butters.  It's common knowledge that almonds are high in nutrients, but there's been a lot of buzz lately about how to unlock the nutrients that almonds offer.  I haven't found a good scientific source yet -- so far it's all been health websites -- but the main point is that you're only digesting a small fraction of the nutrients in almonds unless you soak them overnight first.  Some say that it's because the almonds' skin has an enzyme that makes the nutrients hard to digest (and that soaking will remove this enzyme), while other sources say that the almonds hold onto their nutrients until they have reached the final stage of growth (and that soaking them replicates the moisture levels at which they usually reach this stage).  I'm still skeptical of this new rule until I hear from a doctor or plant biologist, but in the meantime I'm either soaking my almonds or buying "sprouted" almonds which have already reached their highest nutritional stage.  You have to soak almonds for textural reasons before turning them into almond milk or almond butter anyway, so it's not such a crazy hassle for me.  I've also recently started using hemp seeds as a natural protein source in my smoothies.  Ditch the crazy powders at the gym!  Hemp seeds have 11 grams of protein for every ounce!  They also have as many calories as peanut butter, but you get a bang for your calorie buck.

Needless to say, I avoid all artificial sweeteners, no matter what color packet they come in.  I don't know how I feel about Stevia yet... the bottom line is that we just don't know how all of these calorie-free sweeteners will affect us after decades because it takes a while for the impact to start showing up.  Despite what the commercials from the corn-growers association may claim, your body does not treat all sugars alike.  Sugars are made up of either sucrose, glucose, fructose, or some combination of the three.  Fructose has the lowest glycemic index, but it has also been most closely linked with diabetes and the accumulation of belly fat (which is most likely to cause heart disease).  So yes, high fructose corn syrup is indeed "bad" for you.  Surprisingly, agave has also turned up on the "bad" foods list because it is mostly fructose.  Regular cane sugar is all sucrose, but it also is the most processed of the natural sweeteners and it has practically no nutritional value.  If you're going for high-nutrients rather than low-calorie, then maple syrup and honey are great options.  Some new natural sweeteners that you can find on store shelves are coconut sugar and date sugar, which have the same number of calories as cane sugar and can be used interchangeably in recipes, but coconut and date sugar are higher in nutrients and are less processed.  My main goal is nutrition, so on the occasions that I add sweetener to something, it's honey, coconut sugar, or maple syrup for "sometimes" treats.

Grains and the gluten problem
Grains need to be whole because all of the vitamins, protein, and fiber are found in the brown husks around rice, wheat, etc.  White bread and white rice are empty calories; everyone knows this by now.  Sure, a lot of white pasta brands and white flour add vitamins and minerals back into the products, but wouldn't you rather just eat the grains as they are, with naturally-occurring nutrients intact?  As far as I know, I am not sensitive to gluten, but wheat is one of the foods that I am avoiding while I detox for a few weeks.  Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye.  Spelt and bulgur are also not gluten-free.  My head started spinning in the Whole Foods bread aisle, so for now I just have to thank my lucky stars that I don't have celiac disease (and for those of you who do, my heart truly goes out to you).  Because of this, I'm not really eating bread.  If nothing else, it is a good idea to try some gluten-free grains and grain products from time to time because doctors recommend a variety of fiber and protein sources rather than just eating the same one or two all the time.  Just as a good exercise regimen is constantly varied in order to continue seeing positive results, you need to switch up what you eat on a regular basis in order to get the most nutrients.

What about eating local?
This is the issue that breaks my heart most often.  If I'm being really ethically honest with myself, I would have to live in southern California in order to eat the way I really want to eat.  I can't see myself living without tomatoes and avocados year-round, but in order to find an organic tomato in winter -- or an organic avocado ever -- I have to buy produce that has been shipped across the country (or most of the time from Latin America).  The problem with long-distance foods is that a) it's really bad for the environment and b) fresh produce is a clock ticking away the time since it was picked, losing nutritional kick with every passing hour.  Even when I can find local produce from small, family-run farms (which I like even better than the big, organic farms out in California because I'll always prefer to support small, local businesses), it's impossible for me to know whether or not they used pesticides and chemical fertilizers unless I can speak to the farmers myself.  I practically have an anxiety attack upon every trip to the grocery store until the Farmer's Market opens in June.  OK, that last statement was an exaggeration, but I do feel very conflicted about whether it's more important (to me) to buy a non-organic cucumber from New Jersey or an organic cucumber from Mexico.  The choice is even harder when it comes to things like asparagus that I know in my heart should be organic because they have no peel to protect them, but often come from all the way down in Peru whether they're organic or not... but I love asparagus, so what's a girl to do?  One project I'm going to try to tackle this summer is canning what I can get from the Farmer's Market so I can eat local (mostly organic) produce throughout the year.  There are certain foods that I will only buy from independent New Jersey farms -- corn because it's another GMO crop and blueberries because hey, we have the best blueberries.  New Jersey is also one of the largest producers of eggplant.  Why buy them from Florida or wherever when I can get them here?

OH MY GOD YOU MADE IT TO THE END!  Even if you just scrolled through, I'm still surprised you got to the bottom of this post.  Congratulations.  I don't actually expect anyone to sit and read this whole thing, but I'm glad I wrote all of this down so that people (including me) can refer back to it later.  I know all of this is overwhelming (for those of you who didn't already know this stuff) and for most people it's just not an affordable way to live.  I don't follow all of these rules all of the time, but I think it is realistic to do most of these things most of the time and your body (and tastebuds) will thank you for it later.


  1. i read it all! i'm a) exhausted just thinking about the amount of thinking you do about food b) hungry and c) i can't believe you steer clear of dairy now!! cheese!!


  2. well, i'm impressed that you read it all! I do feel like I would free up a lot of brain space if I didn't think about food so much, but I actually enjoy it. Don't you worry... I haven't stopped eating all dairy all the time, I just avoid it most of the time. On weekends, I usually loosen up a little bit (or a lot). I had a few too many meals that consisted entirely of dairy and carbs and decided it didn't make me feel so good to eat that way.