Friday, September 17, 2010

The "junk food" dilemma

More struggles and rationalizations from a not-quite-plus-sized suburban greenmom...

Okay, by now anyone who reads my posts with any regularity probably knows that I have an extreme interest in FOOD. Cooking it, eating it, developing recipes for it, finding ways to make it harmonize with a healthy lifestyle, where it comes from, who grew it, what went onto it or into it before it became food, and so forth.

I've been struggling with some issues lately, not sure how I feel about some things. This has been brought on by a number of different Things happening in my universe.

One is a good friend who is losing a lot of weight and trying to health-up her eating habits, by going on a 30 day "cleanse" program. It sounds a lot healthier and more common-sense than most of the cleanse programs I've seen, but it still involves buying a lot of a particular product and substituting shakes and powder-mixed-with-water kinds of things for actual Food. And she honestly seems healthy and strong and full of energy, and she's really happy with how she feels, not to mention getting into jeans that have been at the bottom of her drawer for a couple of years.

Another is a post by a friend of mine over at Gotta Sing Gotta Pray--this is a blog related to my "real life" stuff of my day job, which is church music. Alan is a fabulous musician and poet, and the bulk of the post might or might not be interesting to you...but scroll all the way down to the bottom, and you will see his recipe for "Poetic Alfredo Sauce": one part butter, two parts cream, three parts cheese. Add salt and pepper. Simple, "real" food. And at the very least something that's not gonna get anyone into the jeans they haven't worn in a couple of years, unless one was maybe pregnant a couple of years ago.

The convergence of these two things has gotten me thinking about food and weight and health...honestly, I've always tended to go with Michael Pollan's "Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it yourself" (Food Rules, #39) maxim--in which case, that Alfredo sauce absolutely qualifies. And in moderate quantities, over whole wheat pasta, once in a while, it wouldn't be a bad thing. Especially if you know where the butter and cream and cheese come from.

Then again, my waistline and thighs attest to the reality that maybe this isn't quite the way to go, especially for someone like me who really enjoys and gets a huge kick out of making my own food, junk or otherwise. Someone who has a crazy-good sense of smell and who enjoys the beautiful layers of some simple (or not so simple) and home-cooked food the way I enjoy the layers and colors of a Mahler symphony. There's joy, and there's art, and there's the feeling of being a human being truly enjoying being human.

Part of me thinks, maybe some kind of "cleanse" (whether literal/commercial or just a drastic simplification of foods and food types to let my system get some of the sugar and fat cravings out and see if I can do a "taste reset" on what and how much I eat) might be a good idea...the other part wonders longingly if subsisting on the culinary equivalent of the early music of Phillip Glass for a week or God Forbid a month is something that would actually be healthy for me. (To extend the analogy, I'd classify most processed foods in the "elevator music" or "anything by Neil Diamond" category--nondescript, backgroundy, distracts from the silence but doesn't actually have any real substance.) (I considered putting Barry Manilow in that sentence too, but, hey, He Writes the Songs...)

I am not someone who equates "being thin" with "being healthy"...but on the other hand, I suspect that though most of what I eat is whole and real food, minimally and ethically produced, I could use a lifestyle change of sorts. And if being "green" goes along with "going with the the natural needs and desires of the earth and the body," any kind of drastic "stop eating food" plan just seems...unnatural.

I'd be interested to know other people's thoughts on all this...I mean, obviously, I know the "everything in moderation" concept, but...where's the balance? How do y'all do it?


Chile said...

Your description of your appreciation for creating and enjoying food (Someone who has a crazy-good sense of smell and who enjoys the beautiful layers of some simple (or not so simple) and home-cooked food the way I enjoy the layers and colors of a Mahler symphony.) could have described me. I looooove food and, according to my mom, always have (they kicked her outta the hospital a day early after I was born cuz I cried anytime they took me away from her ... and the food she provided).

I, again like you, struggle with the wonderfully tasty and not-so-healthy junk food that can be made in one's kithcen. Like you, I've been seriously tempted by cleanses. Even gave in and tried one once, to absolutely no affect.

My suggestion, based on personal experience is thus. If you're serious about trying to reset your taste buds, choose what foods you think comprise a healthy diet and eliminate those things that you don't think are healthy. In my case, this would be whole, minimally processed, low sugar, low salt, plant foods including lots of complex carbohydrates. Eat your healthy foods and none of the unhealthy ones for two weeks...or a month if you want to do something equivalent to the cleanse.

This way, you are resetting your taste buds while still eating real food and not depending on fake foods - and yes, those shakes and powders are fake foods even if supposedly healthy. During your own personal cleanse, avoid all foods you think are unhealthy like the plague. Even a little will set you up for craving more. Wait until the end of a month and then, if you choose, reintroduce them in small quantities. Or don't.

I have consistently found that trying to eat a monotonous cleansing diet is self-punishment and does not have the intended impact. In a way, I think it is a way to try to punish ourselves for we do, as those who really appreciate all aspects of food, have a tendency to feel some guilt over our unbridled enjoyment of food. Punishing ourselves through deprivation, however, is not the answer.

Redirecting the food appreciation towards healthy options is as well as redirecting all the creativity in the kitchen towards making healthy food taste as good and sensuous as the unhealthy stuff.

Sorry for the extremely long comment. It just really struck a chord. Feel free to go peruse some of my recipes on my blog to see my attempts to healthify good food. Skip the dessert section for now, though! ;-)

Kathleen@so much to say, so little time said...

I think the problem isn't so much the cleanse phase, but the maintenance. I was just thinking this a.m. that once I get done having babies I need to join WW or something, and be serious about re-finding my pre-pregnancy weight. I'm not bad--shouldn't complain @ 7 pounds for 3 kids, I know--but still, I feel fat. I've never done a diet program b/c I know that my body finds its own equilibrium based on the proportion of food & exercise, and a diet is not going to find me a new equilibrium at a lower weight, b/c I have no intention of eating at that level permanently. But I'm beginning to think there may not be another way.

Green Bean said...

I love Michael Pollan's comment about eating all the homemade junk food you want. It's easy for him to say. Have you seen the man! He's a rail.

Now, I love to bake and love to do it with local and organic ingredients. Should I eat up alllll that. Probably not. I suspect Chile's comment is a much better way to go - of course, I've never been strong enough (or crazy enough) to give up chocolate. ;)

Great post.

Dea-chan said...

Part of the problem with all of the fabulous, delicious, rib-sticking, homemade foods, is that they're designed for people who are more active than the current average lifestyle. If you were going out threshing every day for a week or so, you'd want a hearty brekkie, a hearty lunch, a hearty dinner, some dessert, and maybe a snack before bed!

I've been noticing the same thing with myself -- Mister and I eat a LOT of dairy products when we cook at home. Lots of cheese sauces, baked ricotta items, eggs, delicious, delicious dairy. Even if the main food is a vegetable, I often fry it, or put it in a casserole of some sorts (covered with cheese and butter of course!).

Perhaps a substitution of sorts could be accomplished -- whole wheat flour for white, egg whites for full eggs (but then what to do with the yolks of course... can't waste!), simple stuff. Or rework your favorite recipes to see what you can cut down on before the flavor is impacted. Do I really need a pound and a half of cheese in this sauce? Well, probably no. I could use a little more skim milk and less cheese and still make a tasty mac n cheese.

There are lots and lots of websites out there with healthier options of everyone's favorite, comfort foods. My stand-by for healthy food is My stand-by for comfort foods is One is healthy, one is not. Depending on my mood, I work from either on a mostly daily basis.

Good luck!

Brenda said...

Here is my two cents worth... I do not get to hung up on healthy recipes, although there are some I have fallen in love with. (Thank you to those fantastic cooks!) I am attracted to anything that is composed of naturally formed ingredients. I will never be afraid to cook with real butter and fresh eggs, love veggies along with salads, and can/freeze home grown food. I do not like diet food or man made generated substitutes which scare me to death to read the chemical composition of. Now this may backfire on me, who knows. But at 42, it hasn't shown up in my labs yet. I do believe in moderation and a well balanced diet. Taking it back to the days of June Cleaver and Donna Reed with a small dessert after a meal. And what is for dinner? I'll make a fattening main dish once in awhile. Portion control and menu planning to balance it out is the key. (Most people's hearts would stop at what a true portion looks like.) I am not training for the NFL and shouldn't eat like I am, but it is important to me to take time to exercise everyday. I do love walks (even on the treadmill if neccessary) and physical activity.

I think it is the prepackaged snacks, desserts in a box, and just-add-water meals that is the true nemesis. I love cooking from scratch, minus the preservatives. Soda pop is another item that does not exist in my life and is not missed.

If my weight wavers, it is always surrounded by something in a package that I slam in under a minute. I found not to let the little temptations into my house. No sodas here for me...just a green tea in the morning, once in awhile a cup of hot cocoa, and water. And the cocoa is from a recipe of my own. I refuse to buy that in a quick little package too!

ruchi said...

Apparently my comment was so long it exceeded the comment limit. So I just published the dang thing on my blog.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Chile--yeah, I think you sort of hit it on the nose. (our exceptionally good noses;-)...

You're right about the re-set thing--now that I think of it, I did something like this about 15 years ago when I went onto brown rice, legumes, and fresh fruits/vegetables, with rare chicken or fish. For about 6 weeks. So then when I re-introduced other stuff, I was much more sensitive to what my body needed/wanted, and even the flavors of those things were even more dramatic and lovely than they'd been before; I enjoyed them more.

So yeah...I think that might be something to try!

(It's harder, though, because my husband and kids, which I didn't have 15 years ago, still want the other stuff, and I have a harder time staying off it when it's in the house...)

Chile said...

I know this is going to sound dumb, but it works for me. Out of sight, out of mind (temptation). If I lay a dishtowel over the junk foods I'm avoiding, I'm far less likely to give in to the temptation to grab them when hungry. Oh, and I don't let myself get ravenous because then I make lousy choices!

Good luck!

Amy Manning said...

Well, I've been thinking a lot about this subject as well. My diet is significantly healthier than most, but I still consume too much food. Cheese and butter are so easy to just pick up at the food store, especially near where I live with so many natural food stores. We have plenty of organic and sustainably raised options, but I still have a good 20-30# that I should lose.

For me, I am hoping to get to the point that mostly everything that goes into my body I produced myself. That does not mean purchasing food at the grocery store and bringing it home to make it. That means making my own butter, cheese, etc., from my own animals. That will drastically reduce the amount of dairy product that is available to me and I will still be able to eat butter and cheese, but far less of it.

This also means that my diet will consist largely of the freshest vegetables and fruits that are from my own yard. I want to focus my meals around the vegetables that are available to me, rather than meat product.

This also means eating less preserved fruit and eating it when it is in season. Fruit preserves have far too many calories and most often require that I purchase sugar, which is bad for my diet, typically not sustainably produced, and introduces too much packaging into the environment.

Those are my goals anyway. I'm far from making it happen, as I am still a novice gardener and keeper of livestock, but I've got the cooking down. Probably a dangerous combination!

Amy Manning said...

Here's my post on what both you and Ruchi had to say:

Jimmy Cracked Corn said...

In my experience, there isn't any diet that can work unless you could imagine eating exactly that way for the REST of your life.

Things that I have found that work:
-Eat from smaller plates
-Learn what a "serving" of a food looks like. Weigh it if you have to.
-Eat slowly so you can stop when you are satisfied, not when the plate is empty.
-Relearn that snacks between meals actually aren't okay, but have a tiny ONE every day anyway. Just not one at 10:30 am, one at 2, one at 8 pm and another one at 10:30 pm.
-Eat ANYTHING you want. Remember, it's the first bite that tastes so good, so don't have too much. Two strips of bacon leaves as good a memory as 6 strips of bacon.
-Drink a glass of water before food passes your lips. It helps.
-Once in a while, goof up and eat too much. It's your birthday, come on!

Most important thing:

MAKE YOUR OWN JUNK FOOD, from scratch.

If you want potato chips, fry up your own. In the end the amount of effort that goes into doing it will have you eating less. If you want cake, same thing. Make your own, from scratch, and not a box mix. Eat one slice and then take the rest of the cake to work the next day and leave it in the break room.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

"If you want cake, same thing. Make your own, from scratch, and not a box mix."

Easy, I do this all the time.

"Eat one slice and then take the rest of the cake to work the next day and leave it in the break room."

Ahh...HAH! Think I may have found my problem. Or else I take it, leave it in the break room, and then (since my cakes tend to be whole wheat and real fruit and not too much sugar) no one eats it, since someone else probably brought donuts or danish, so I nibble away all afternoon. :-)

Lisa Sharp said...

As Michael Pollan talks about we are to hung up on "nutritionism." Nutrition science is a new science and we don't know it all.

Have you noticed diets and what's good and what's bad is trendy?

Honestly I believe if you eat REAL food, as little processing as possible and eat in moderation, lots of different foods, AND stay active you will be healthy.

I have lost 30 lbs by exercising (nothing extreme just Wii Fit and yoga) and eating real food. I still bake almost every weekend and cook with butter and olive oil.

Each meal I make is served with veggies and fruit and I drink a lot of green smoothies. We also pretty much don't eat out. OH and we do eat limited amounts of local farm raised meat and local dairy.

This diet has not only helped me lose weight (finally got told by my doctor I'm at a healthy weight for me) but also got my blood pressure down to where I get told at the doctors office "wow your bp is great" and I had high insulin it's now normal. :) I honestly believe being active, real food, and exercise are the biggest parts of a healthy life style.

Anonymous said...

You should read Goid Calories, Bad Calories (it's Much more scientific than it sounds). I don't agree with everything he says, but he makes a convincing case for it being the pasta, not the sauce, that's affecting your weight.

I'm against dieting. Most diets fail because people can't eat that way their whole life. A short "reset" diet of whole foods makes more sense - you're not depriving yourself of calories, and then you won't need as much of the processed foods when you go back to them. Maybe you can convince your family to join you.

I have found exercise plays a huge role in my weight, probably affecting it more than what I eat.

amy.leblanc said...

a lot of this depends on definitions. i, for example, don't consider cheese or butter "real food", as it's derivative, not a Whole Food IMO, and i also disagree with Pollan in that i don't think that just because you bake an apple pie at home with butter and flour and sugar that it means it's ok to eat.

i also think the flip side of the coin, the super foodie, juice-fasting deprivation diets are ridiculous and unhealthy. it's true that any kind of deprivation diet can "reset" your metabolism and taste buds, but they can also be incredibly difficult on the mind and body.

the bright side here is that if you're already knowledgeable about food, where it comes from, how to cook it, you're way ahead of most people who've grown up with packaged processed and fast food and are suddenly trying to lose weight.

for most people, diet changes need to be incremental, or they won't work. if you're already cooking for yourself, i think the answer is to just be a *little* more healthy than you already are. make substitutions for cheese and butter and eggs and veg oil and flour in your cooking, or just make new/different foods that don't include them at all.

you can also try to eat totally wheatfree-vegan one day a week. not every day. one day. see how it changes you.

finally, it's kind of crazy how complicated our food system and choices have gotten, and i know the Paleolithic diet works for a lot of people as well because it provides distinct guidelines: ORGANIC nuts, fruits, vegs, and meat but NO dairy, wheat, grains or processed oils (nothing a hunter gather couldn't find).

good luck!


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