I've started this blog to record my thoughts and research about food and health: how we grow our food, what we eat, the nutrition debate, food distribution, food sovereignty and environmental impact.

My life started down a new path after I read an article a couple of years ago in the New York Times magazine. I became fixated on learning all I could about our eating habits, the way our food is made, and the effects that the industrial food industry has had on our culture and our lives - physically and mentally.

This blog joins an ongoing discussion and is a place to voice interest, intrigue, and discovery. This is not a podium for lecturing, so please extend grace to each other if anything is found to be erroneous. Counter-arguments are encouraged with respect, empathy and compassion for other perspectives.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Causes As Yet Unknown

My food initiative all started (as it most likely does for everyone) when I moved out on my own, out of the range of family eating habits and away from the food program and public housing of college (the food came from Marriot Sodexho food service, which is the worst food I've had to endure eating and how I learned to never take food for granted). I finally had the financial means and the absence of influences over how I ate (I had yet to become aware of how much the food industry affected me) to make independent choices, but I had no clue how to start navigating these new considerations. What did I cook for myself that first year of living in my city apartment? I wanted all those nostalgic meals that I recalled from living with my parents, of course: beef spaghetti, tuna-macaroni salad, sloppy joes, lasagna... those and many others had been my favorites.

Gradually, though, I started to come up with meals that my family never ate: burritos, chili, veggie spaghetti, minestrone, Cajun rice & beans, curries (exotic!). The grocery store suddenly became an entirely different experience, and so, admittedly, did surreptitious trips to fast-food drive-throughs! Don't worry, I've already divulged my secrets to those closest to me, but I wasn't able to give up eating that [really yummy and addicting] crap, and some frozen packaged junk food, for years.

Anyway, this is not a memoir about my formative years, so I'll move on. The point is I started to experiment with my diet and found that I wanted to eat differently than I had in my past: breakfast used to be cereal, toast, a banana and juice; lunch was a sandwich, chips, fruit & veggie; dinner was all four major food groups. My family ate a well-balanced diet, but I wanted to eat less meat-and-potatoes and explore a larger variety of vegetables, legumes and grains.

Getting back to me in my apartment, I switched to soy milk based on whispers of its benefits (this is way back in 2001) and ambiguous naysaying about cow's milk. Here is what informed that decision: I had consumed milk without question my whole life; I had a cousin who was lactose-intolerant; and I'd heard several third-hand rumors that milk is beneficial only for weaning. None of that made a clear case either way regarding cow's milk, but the compulsion to decide felt urgent to me. As a first attempt to make a personal choice for my health, it turned out to be seriously misinformed, yet it was a breakthrough moment nonetheless. I had made a choice of my own, and that felt great.

Then I moved into a house with two friends, one vegetarian and one vegan, and a whole new perspective came into view. I developed a greater appreciation for these diets and partook of many a meal that was prepared, gradually adding more vegetarian options to my table. My friends even delved into the raw diet and both worked at a raw restaurant, bringing some raw "cooking" methods into my life, even though I was still cooking a small proportion of meat (I don't know how they lived with me). As I've written in a prior entry, I've never felt as nourished when eating vegetarian food as I feel when I combine plant and animal foods. At the time I thought I was eating the healthiest I had ever eaten, yet my physical reality didn't correspond - I didn't feel better, sleep was hardly ever rejuvenating, my energy level was low, I had headaches all the time - I was uncharacteristically lethargic and tired.

Skip ahead a few years and I had switched back to cow's milk after reading a few articles of new (rather, recently published) dietary information about soy products, soy milk being one of them [see my links at the bottom for two soy articles]. I learned that the risks of soy to my health - decreased testosterone/sex drive, impaired mineral absorption, hormonal imbalance and presence of phytoestrogen, digestive enzyme inhibitors - outweighed the supposed benefit of healthy fat and protein. While I cannot attribute any positive or negative effects to when I drank soy milk (taking into account I only drank soy milk for three years), I can claim a significant increase of my libido when I stopped drinking soy milk. That positive outcome became the impetus for me to actively consider the consequences of what I eat and to change my eating habits if necessary.

I devoted the following two-plus years to confronting my naivete about food and health: scratching the surface by learning about pesticides, growth hormones, fertilizers and animal antibiotics, seeking out natural, local, whole and organic foods, shopping at farmer's markets and my local co-op as much as possible, getting enough exercise, quitting smoking and trying to eat the recommended 5-9 servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Also, my intake of animal products was making a comeback. I started to eat only whole wheat in my pasta, bread, cereal, etc. and began to weed out anything I was eating with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and any soy products. I also began looking at all ingredient lists, and gradually stopped buying products with ingredients made in a lab (including so-called "natural flavors" - also created in a lab), although it has proven to be very difficult. Chips became only plain chips with salt and sunflower oil, but the oil still has added vitamin E which had to be mechanically extracted. Cereal had to be whittled down to a few choices that excluded high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, any other manufactured sugar, any soy ingredient, MSG has always been a big NO, and be made with whole grain, although even the organic/natural cereals all have those added vitamins and minerals from unknown sources. Everything was scrutinized and the best option chosen: pasta, frozen pizza (not really any best option), ice cream, cheese, bacon, black beans, tomato paste, stir-fry sauce, and on and on. One outcome that happened fairly soon after these changes was that my headaches stopped occurring. Was it something I ate? Probably, but how could I know if it was a pesticide, an antibiotic, a reaction to some substance in the "natural flavors" or a ratio of certain nutrients that I wasn't previously eating?

All of the foods that I had always eaten had to be reconsidered with adult eyes and possibly given up. A few months before starting this blog, my wife and I made the choice to stop eating all grains, including flour, pasta and beer, starchy foods such as potatoes and bananas, refined sugars (this one is painful!) and oils. We're not abstaining 100% - no food rule can be that rigid anymore in our world unless you live on or next to a farm and have control over all the food you eat. We are now eating mostly meat, dairy, green/leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes and seeds, with the occasional exception of a wheat bun or a side of brown rice. The amount of info we don't have keeps multiplying, but I believe we can uncover enough facts to start a contracrop of what foods make the most sense for human health.

So far, I've noticed a few changes in how I feel. Since the days after college when I started to eat a larger percentage of vegetarian food (and possibly more carbohydrates) I've needed to take naps in the afternoon to supplement my nighttime sleep (I get approx. 6-7 hours of sleep every night, including the nap) in order to stay awake through the evening. This is probably related to having had a job that starts around 6:00 a.m. for the past eight years and ends around 3:00 p.m. Another apparent consequence of my diet was that I was always hungry, to the point of getting shaky, getting headaches, losing any function of concentration or exertion, and just wanting to sleep. I don't know whether these things were caused by the reduced amount of animal matter in my diet, or a fact of increasing in age, something unrecognized maybe in the quality or lack thereof in the carbohydrates I ate, or the glucose spike and then crash from eating too many carbs, or a combination of factors.

Regardless of the cause, since changing what I eat that energy crash in the afternoons has greatly decreased in force. I do not take a nap every day anymore, and if I do take one it's reduced to less than half the time it was before. Several other intriguing changes have taken place, but the actual causes are as yet unknown. A related change is an increase in my overall energy level and in my ability to be productive, especially in the afternoons and evenings (which has been difficult for me the past few years). Another change is a decrease in the amount of coffee I desire in the mornings, which is strange because I love coffee and have desired multiple cups for over ten years. A third change is the absence of those shakes and headaches I got when I was hungry (which is not nearly as often), and also an increased flexibility to eat meals at different times of the day, or to skip a meal altogether without physical distress. I am also more satisfied, most of the time, with a smaller portion of food than I was before.

I'm very appreciative of these changes and I hope they continue, but I don't have enough information yet to make a cause and effect connection. I've seen the trap to which trying to sway the available evidence a certain way can lead. I have no interest in that, and none of my money is bet on a particular outcome. If someone scientifically proves that a vegetarian diet is optimal for human health, then I'm moving somewhere with a backyard to start a garden and finding a nearby farm to supply me with dairy! Actually, I'll probably do that anyway.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hiking a Mountain

Everyone is trying to live a good life. Everyone has a different perspective. Everyone has acquired a unique conglomeration of knowledge, and we can all benefit from sharing our knowledge in conversation.

I write these statements because I need to enact my own lesson in humility, especially because I want my blog to be real and honest. I've just read many of the reviews online of 'The Vegetarian Myth' by Lierre Keith, much to my dismay because I thought I was reading an astounding (my own word from an earlier entry) book with legitimate research. It turns out, however, that the book is quite biased, and as many of the reviews pointed out, full of logical fallacies and unqualified references.

To be fair, there are many valid arguments in the book as well, and I feel much more enthused to pursue qualified knowledge after reading this book than I did before. I'm using the embarrassment I feel about thinking this book to be well-researched as a catalyst; it's the food that triggered the serotonin receptors in my brain! (That's a jab at one of the manipulations of fact in the book.) I've realized I need to resist the urge to become hyper-energized by one source of information or one perspective, and to do my own research into the facts, and to seek the other side of an argument.

That's the ContraCrop. My goal for this blog is to explore the mountainous terrain of everything related to food. That may be insurmountable in its entirety, but I'm a stubborn fool with lots of stamina and a predilection towards the unconventional.

When you hike up a mountain, you never just walk straight up. Hiking requires many detours: around thickets, over fallen trees, along a ravine edge, downstream, or scaling up a rock face. Finding a way to the top sometimes involves hiking downhill a ways in order to start uphill again. A steep section is easiest if taken in short intervals in each direction, back and forth, to maintain traction. The detours can be frustrating, if you're on a schedule of some sort, but a hike should never only be about reaching the top - the trail is filled with intrigue and beauty. On my hike up this mountain, I'm going to need help - it's foolish to try to reach a summit by yourself. That is why I've prefaced my blog with an invitation to engage - give your comments, call me out, help me understand, share your agreement, etc..

This entry is good practice for me, as a person and as a writer, to treat detours as an integral part of the process. If any of you have read 'The Vegetarian Myth' and registered its faults, you may have already dismissed me as another fanatic, but I entreat you to extend me the benefit of the doubt. If you're further up the mountain you may be able to see further into the distance...

One experience I had in college has stuck with me: my roommate was reading Karl Marx to educate himself on socialist ideology, and a classmate asked him, in all seriousness, if he was a Communist. My parallel to that story is: I've never been obese, I've never had an eating disorder, and I've never eaten a diet without meat, yet I want to educate myself about these issues. I want to join the conversation about healthy food, how best to grow/raise it, how to make it available to and affordable for more people, and I want to learn the science behind nutrition.

It's the tallest mountain I've ever started to climb - who's with me?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Slight Rhyme & Reason

I've spent several hours over the last few days adding elements onto my blog like links and a blog list, and I've started to search the internet for published research on a few topics. I feel like I'm getting in over my head, but I started a list of resources and topics that I want to come back to - that will help me stay oriented in a certain direction.

Anyway, I've just begun to realize how enormous a project this could become, and I don't want to paralyze myself, so I thought I'd write this out just to have something to post. I also think it's important for perspective, since I am not an authority on any of these matters in a professional sense, yet I am deciding my own level of involvement. It's what Lierre Keith calls "adult knowledge" in her book 'The Vegetarian Myth'. This is my 'Fight Club' moment, when I realize that everything falls apart sometime and we have nothing to lose by investing in what we are passionate about.

Adult knowledge refers to a Mayan concept of the interconnectedness between humans and all other living things. This knowledge comes about at the point when a person ceases to project selfish desires onto the world and accepts the way the earth actually functions.

To sum up what Keith gets at in the first chapter, every living thing grows by ingesting the nutrients that come from the soil. These nutrients get passed along when a plant or animal 'dies', or ceases to grow because it was eaten or destroyed in a storm. If an animal or plant dies, the organic matter decomposes and over time becomes soil - and nutrients - again. All living things are indebted to the longevity (life) or brevity (death) of all other living things.

Keith states, "we need to be eaten as much as we need to eat. The grazers need their daily cellulose, but the grass also needs the animals. It needs the manure, with its nitrogen, minerals, and bacteria; it needs the mechanical check of grazing activity; and it needs the resources stored in animal bodies and freed up by degraders when animals die.

The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators and prey. These are not one-way relationships, not arrangements of dominance and subordination. We aren't exploiting each other by eating. We are only taking turns."

Humans cannot remove themselves from the cycle without causing its collapse. Why? Because the changes we've made (namely, industrial agriculture, amassing population and energy in cities, dependence on fossil fuels) mean that we're taking pieces out of the equation. We've transformed the circle of life into a straight line that ends not with natural perpetuation but with more human intervention. That's why sustainability is becoming such an urgent message, and that's why I'm writing this.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Turning of the Tide

A brief statement today: As with any paradigm shift, a new idea needs to gather the friction before it can start a fire.  Paul John Scott (I looked him up, he appears to be a writer of integrity) makes razor sharp observations, but two points really produced some sparks.  One is when he stated that science has been retreading the same message about obesity for forty-some years, and it is obviously not working.  The second is a logical next step, calling these messages what they are: outdated.

Read this article from the Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune, which ends with a fantastic call to action. Everyone start crowing!

Then find some more articles yourself and share them with everyone you can.

First Post

So, here's where I am at this moment in time, which will be the first blog I've ever written. As my knowledge grows about how our bodies are affected by what we eat, and about the detrimental effects of the industrial model of agriculture on our health and environment, I feel emboldened to risk sharing my opinion with the hope that other people are as intrigued as I am, and maybe as enraged as I am, about the atrocious lies that we've been told about what is healthy.  I am referring to the industries of grains, soy, sugars and oils - that which goes into every packaged product in the grocery store (even in the natural & organic section).

I know I haven't read enough or gathered enough data - there is a multitude out there beyond the scope of my brain or this blog - but the logic behind what I have read is profound, and it's changing my life.  I'm just now finishing an astounding book called "The Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Keith, which chronicles the author's twenty-odd year journey of becoming a vegan and gradually, through self-revelations, reversing that decision to eat meat again.  ANYONE who is a vegan/vegetarian or thinking of becoming one should read this book.

I have never been a strict vegetarian.  I grew up in the Midwest eating meat and potatoes, and since college I have taken the admonition to eat my veggies seriously.  I love an all-vegetable meal, but in truth, I never feel as satisfied or as nourished as I do with a drumstick.  Why is that?  My body responds to eating meat with a feeling of pleasure which I don't feel when I haven't had meat for more than a couple of days.  I used to attribute it to my singular experience in life, to an unalterable disposition that I must have to need meat.  I told myself that because of my upbringing my body was used to eating meat.  If I didn't eat meat I felt weak, tired, and always hungry, so it must just be my body type.  I still found myself, however, listening to the voices of the mega-food-corporations about what I should be eating, namely whole grains, low-fat, low-cholesterol, etcetera.  I was confused because what my body was telling me contradicted what the food industry was telling me.

After reading The Vegetarian Myth, I no longer see myself as an exception to the rule of eating a vegetarian diet.  Keith explains in a section of her book on the brain that soy (and all its processed forms) contains a serotonin inhibitor, which drastically decreases the sensations of pleasure normally accompanied by eating.  I won't go into the details of the chemical interactions between soy and the human body here, but I hope to expound and elucidate upon this and all of the mentioned subjects in this blog, and I hope that many of you will join in the discussion. 

Please understand that this is a discussion, not a lecture, and thus we need to extend grace to each other if anything is found to be erroneous.  Every person has a unique perspective.  Counter-arguments are highly encouraged, yet respect, empathy and compassion are mandatory.  Let the debate begin!