Zócalo Wellness

Ancient Healing, Modern Times

Decolonizing Your Diet: The Food Stamp Budget Challenge, Part 2

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My apologies for the long lag time since Part 1 of this topic. As is the case with most experiments it didn’t go as planned, but I did learn a lot of unexpected things and it took awhile to digest them all. The big take-away?

Healthy eating is simpler than we think. We just have to change the way we think.

On the surface it doesn’t sound like anything new, and it isn’t. What it is, however, is a reclaiming of what isn’t new. It’s a reclaiming of the way we all used to eat before we were supposed to eat foods in packages marked “low-fat,” “omega-3 fatty acids” and the like. It’s a recognition of how real food, the original “health food,” used to be what everyone ate, then what poor people ate, and now what rich people eat. It is a reclamation of simplicity. It’s also a recognition that it’s not that easy to change our habits or relationship with food.

True confessions: I didn’t make it to my $4/day mark. I know, I know, epic fail. As I said in my last blog post on the topic, my plan was to take stock of my current eating and spending habits and then pare down to $4/day using Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap cookbook. I wanted to see if I could pick up some good pointers for eating healthy on a budget by sticking to one of the strictest budgets around, the food stamp budget, which is about $4/day. But, by the time the cookbook came in the mail I had lost all steam noting each and every ingredient of each and every meal I ate, including snacks and drinks. No one likes keeping a food journal, even less when it involves spending habits. If nutritionists of the world know anything it’s that we will lie like our life depends on it to hide what we think are eating sins, even to ourselves.

I did learn that even though I could pare down my budget considerably while adhering to my food values (organic, local, whole-food), it still didn’t quite cut it for the $4/day budget. Being poor means you have to be on your game all the time. It’s possible, but the system is not set up to help poor folks, or even working class and middle class folks, eat well and with ease. I even changed the title of this two-part blog from “Food Stamp Budget Adventure” to “Food Stamp Budget Challenge” to drive this point home. I don’t want to make light of the very real problem of poverty and its link to poor nutrition. There is no “we’ll just go out for dinner tonight because I’m too tired to cook” when you are eating on food stamps. Having such a narrow budget is incredibly stressful.

Also, if you are a person who has just enough income to not qualify for food stamps but not enough income to raise your food budget the task at hand is almost more difficult. I hope that some of what I found might help folks of any income think differently about their food and their health. The following points flesh out what I think is worth sharing.

  1. Eating healthy is simpler, in theory, than most people realize.

I know I just said that eating well on a budget is hard. It is. But, eating healthy in general is a not. I originally started this project because so many of my clients have asked me what they should eat, usually with respect to one of the latest food fads. Our modern way of thinking about food is to break down what we eat into smaller bits (fats, carbs, proteins, vitamins) and figure out mechanically how we need to combine them to get a healthy meal. This never made much sense to me and I finally found validation for my anti-nutritionism sentiment in Michael Pollan and his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and the subsequent Food Rules: An Eater’s Guide. He does a great job of laying out an entirely different way of thinking about eating healthy than most Americans do these days. Here’s an excerpt from Food Rules:

“But for all the scientific and pseudoscientific food baggage we’ve taken on in recent years, we still don’t know what we should be eating. Should we worry more about the fats or the carbohydrates? Then what about the ‘good’ fats? Or the ‘bad’ carbohydrates, like high-fructose corn syrup? How much should we be worrying about gluten? What’s the deal with artificial sweeteners? Is it really true that this breakfast cereal will improve my son’s focus at school or that other cereal will protect me from a heart attack? And when did eating a bowl of cereal become a therapeutic procedure?” (Introduction, pg. x)

He goes on to explain that food science and politics are to blame for the analytical way we relate to our food. And, what is more, food science is still such a young field that we still don’t really know what makes up our food and what happens when it enters our body. We’ve only just uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and what’s more important, we’re not healthier as a country for the effort. What we do know, however, is that the one diet in the world that consistently makes humans sick is the Western diet, or the Standard American Diet (appropriately termed “SAD” for short), “generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains…” (Introduction, pg. xii). SAD comes with a slew of nasty chronic diseases in a remarkably reliable order: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Humans have eaten a broad range of foods over history, from a mostly seal-blubber-based diet to mostly maize and beans, but SAD is the only diet that is consistently wreaks havoc on us.

The silver lining is that people who get off this diet reverse these health problems very quickly. But, that brings us back to our original problem: What do we eat? Pollan has a solution, three simple rules:

Eat food.

Mostly plants.

Not too much.

Pollan’s Food Rules is dedicated to fleshing out these “rules.” Here is a brief summary:

Eat Food

Stay away from: processed foods, foods your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize, foods with ingredients a third grader can’t pronounce, and food that doesn’t rot.

Mostly Plants

Eat: a rainbow, foods found on the periphery of the grocery store (or get out of the grocery store), and foods that stand on one leg (mushrooms and plants).

Not Too Much

Pay more, eat less; eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored; eat slowly (it takes 20 minutes for the signal from your gut to reach your brain that you are full); eat with others; and spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.

I found these simple rules caused an amazing shift in the way I looked at food. Following them in my budget challenge got me to spend less money and eat better, since I was only eating whole foods. I’m not advising purism; it’s very easy for the great to be the enemy of the good. But these guidelines made it very simple to get a felt sense of what was healthy for my body because it has what has been healthy for generations of humans before me.

2.  Fat-phobia and fat-shaming have not made us any healthier.

Decades of low and non-fat food marketing has not made us any healthier or slimmer. Instead, Americans continue to gain weight and chronic health conditions continue to become more and more prevalent. According to Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, in 2008 one in two adult Americans had at least one of the following chronic diseases: cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Movements like Health At Every Size are calling into question society’s obsession with fat and fat-shaming, and the link between size and health. The following is from an article on Food and Diet from the Harvard School of Public Health:

“Low-fat diets have long been touted as the key to a healthy weight and to good health. But the evidence just isn’t there: Over the past 30 years in the U.S., the percentage of calories from fat in people’s diets has gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed. (1,2) Carefully conducted clinical trials have found that following a low-fat diet does not make it any easier to lose weight than following a moderate- or high-fat diet. In fact, study volunteers who follow moderate- or high-fat diets lose just as much weight, and in some studies a bit more, as those who follow low-fat diets. (3,4) And when it comes to disease prevention, low-fat diets don’t appear to offer any special benefits. (5)”

See the original article for additional resources. Even if your goal is weight-loss, low-fat diets are not your holy grail. And, equating the amount of fat on a person’s body with their health isn’t as simple as comparing BMI’s, the most common parameter used to diagnose obesity. The BMI itself has been called into question many times over the past decades.

Much more important, I think, is getting in touch with what is healthy for you. Body size and body image are full of emotional triggers. It’s not wrong to want to be at a healthy weight for you, but it’s also not helpful to make health only about size. Plenty of skinny people have habits that negatively affect their health, fat people are just judged much more harshly for it. Next time you are in the grocery store, instead of agonizing over the fat content in the food you are buying try refocusing on the quality of it. That brings us to the next section…

3.  Quality over quantity, some things are worth the price: organic and local.

Also from the Harvard School of Public Health article on Food and Diet:

“When people eat controlled diets in laboratory studies, the percentage of calories from fat, protein, and carbohydrate do not seem to matter for weight loss. In studies where people can freely choose what they eat, there may be some benefits to a higher protein, lower carbohydrate approach. For chronic disease prevention, though, the quality and food sources of these nutrients matters more than their relative quantity in the diet. And the latest research suggests that the same diet quality message applies for weight control.”

This quote goes right in line with Pollan’s three rules, that it’s more important to pay attention to quality of the food, not the particular nutrients in it. The “Is organic worth it?” debate is a real one. It seems common-sensical that what we eat eats makes a difference in the quality of our food. If our plants are getting their nutrients from soil whose only nutrient input is chemical fertilizer it seems intuitive to think that it will be less nutritions than plants grown in soil nurtured with the complex chemical inputs of compost and crop rotations. But, the Mayo Clinic says on their website that a review of fifty years of scientific literature has shown that organic food is not more nutritious than organic food. Considering the powerful lobbying sway of corporate agra-business I wonder about the statement on nutritional equivalence between organic and conventional produce. After all, “conventional” produce didn’t become conventional until after WWII when chemicals used in war were converted to use in agriculture. And, can nutritional equivalence really be measured in a lab? Considering how science has failed to help us be healthier in general, I have my doubts.

But, the take-home message for me is more about pesticides. In the same article the Mayo Clinic says that organic produce “carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce.” Avoiding the nerve and hormone-altering effects of some common pesticides makes a lot of sense to me, and so I try to buy organic whenever I can.

Even more important than an organic label, I think, is having a relationship with your food and where it comes from. In Portland we are lucky to have so many farmer’s markets with local produce. You can talk to the farmers, find out how their food is grown, and directly support independent businesses and small-scale farming. Big corporations like New Seasons and Whole Foods are selling an image that doesn’t always reflect actual investments in the community. With farmer’s markets you are investing directly in your neighbors and in transparency regarding your food. But farmer’s markets can be more pricey. All of a sudden you have a palm-sized hunk of sheep’s cheese and a box of berries and have already blown your food budget for the day. If you are a SNAP benefits user many markets will match up to $10. I like to shop at markets for meat and produce that’s at the peak of it’s season. Often prices for peak produce are at or below what you’d find in the grocery store, and the quality is usually far superior. I find this to be especially true for fruit. And hands down the best quality meat comes from local ranchers and buying bulk is the way to go. Coordinating with friends to buy a half or quarter of a cow or pig can get you the best cuts at burger prices. Investing in a used freezer (I’ve found them for less than $100 on Craigslist) will go a long way here.

4.  Be flexible.

In addition to buying in season at the farmer’s markets and elsewhere, I have found that the key to shopping well and cheaply is being flexible with where I shop. After hitting the market I’ll hop around to other stores: Grocery Outlet, Fred Meyers, the co-ops (People’s and Alberta), Trader Joe’s, New Seasons, and Whole Foods. Grocery Outlet, despite it’s nickname “the Gross-Out,” is actually a great place to get some awesome deals. I’ve found non-dairy milk, avocados, organic cornmeal, organic beans, organic eggs, and good cheese there regularly. I hit a certain store when I’m in the neighborhood or need a particular item that I know I can get cheaper at one or another. I know my staples and I’ve price checked enough to get a sense of where the deals are on those items.

5.  The key to eating healthy is honing your skills.

As Leanne Brown says,

“Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In a perfect world, healthy and delicious food would be all around us. It would be easy to choose and easy to enjoy. But, of course, it’s not a perfect world. There are thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes. Money just shouldn’t be one of them. Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food.

She goes on to talk about which fundamental kitchen utensils and appliances to have in your kitchen, which food items to invest in, which to save on, and how to turn leftovers into broths and re-invented meals. Creativity and some basic cooking skills are the keys here. It can be overwhelming to try to tackle overhauling the way you cook for yourself or your family, but incorporating new tricks over time really pays off in the long run. Trying new recipes or perusing recipe books like Leanne’s help to give you new insight and keep food fun. Knowledge is power, after all.

6.  Many hands make light work for you and your budget.

Since my three housemates and I started sharing meals a month ago I’ve seen my food bill shrink considerably while eating more varied and healthy meals. Each of us takes a day of the week where we make lunches for everyone to take the next day. Even if you don’t have awesome housemates to share meal-making duties with, sharing bulk food buying with friends and family will definitely save you money, especially in high quality meat, as I said above. You can find great deals on organic oils, nut spreads, rice, and frozen vegetables at Costco and other bulk bargain stores, and some farmer’s might make deals with you on bulk produce if you ask.

7.  Decolonize your diet.

On a panel with Angela Davis, Grace Lee Boggs once said, “We are at the point of a cultural revolution in ourselves and our institutions that is as far reaching as the position from hunting and gathering to agriculture 11,000 years ago, and from agriculture to industry a few hundred years ago. How do we re-imagine education, how do we re-imagine community, how do we re-imagine family, how do we re-imagine sexual identity, how do we re-imagine everything in the light of a change so far-reaching and that it’s our responsibility to make?” I would like to extend this rhetorical question, and the implied challenge, to the way we think about food. How do we re-imagine our relationship with food that goes beyond ingredient labels and grocery stores?

The word “diet” comes in part from the Greek “diaita,” meaning “a way of life.” Profit, politics, and cultural assimilation have taken the life out of our eating and I think a big part of reclaiming our health as a country is remembering that the way we eat has everything to do with the way we live. When dealing with our food, let’s reach back to tradition and let go of the savior of technology, let’s have less food science and more food sensing. Next time you eat, simply try to savor your food, savor those you share it with, and give thanks. This gratitude, I believe, is revolutionary act of love, an essential part of health, and a true “way of life.”

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