Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Double Standards

Today was a hard day for me. In the midst of my last week of classes, with finals on the horizon and several independent projects in the works, I am also planning a big Hanukkah party for my classmates to celebrate the end of fall quarter. I'd been cruising along West Coast style - sure, I'm fine, I'm cool, got it all under control - and then it hit me suddenly and I was overwhelmed and pressed for time and caught in traffic with no sleep and little appetite and no time to eat or exercise or even shower. Yes, it was one of those days when my entire meal came out of my grocery bag from Trader Joe's (what one of my instructors calls a "faux health food store"). Lunch consisted of an entire chocolate bar (fair trade ... I still have my standards) and dinner was a bag of salty rice chips with a package of dried fruit on the side. I did not eat a single vegetable. There, I said it.

Today's food intake reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago on the subject of my nutrition-student diet. As the recent blustery Seattle weather has driven me to focus more on indoor workouts, after work one evening I went to the gym and met with a membership representative to discuss my account. We made small talk and when I happened to mention that I am studying nutrition, the membership rep's ears perked up. "Are you doing the RD track?" When I told him that I was, he said he'd considered it but was discouraged by the required internship that seemed impossible to obtain (more on this later). After I completed all the paperwork he turned to me. "Can I just ask you, do you follow everything you learn? I mean, I work at a gym and I know lots of exercises that I should be doing to work different muscles and I don't do them," he said. As I looked at the chiseled body around which his fitted red polo shirt was draped I wondered what more he could possibly be doing. I proceeded to tell him a little bit about my diet: I don't eat fast food. I cook and prepare most of my own meals. I focus on fruits and vegetables. I told him for a healthy person most foods are fine in moderation. I eat what I believe to be healthful though if I have a problem area it's probably that I eat too much, at least more than I need. (Studying nutrition can lead to slightly absurd rationalizations: eg. I know that my brain needs glucose to function better so I really need to be eating chocolate while I study.)

It later occurred to me that the gym rep's question wasn't so much about my eating habits - he knew all about micronutrients, he asked me about my thoughts on whey protein (for the record, I don't use it) and whispered to me that most people can't admit that sugar is as addictive as cocaine (which reminded me of Mark Hyman's piece a month ago in The Huffington Post). He had plenty of nutrition knowledge but he wasn't a nutritionist so it was okay for him not to live by it. But what about me?

After our meeting I went to work out and mounted the elliptical machine with an old issue of JADA to catch up on but I kept coming back to his question. Why is it so hard for humans to live by the things we believe in? I remembered grappling with this while studying rationalist philosophy in college. My professor used to ask, "would you see a doctor if you knew that he/she was smoker?" What he meant was, would you trust the medical expertise of someone who doesn't adhere to the generally accepted standards for healthy behavior. During my first year graduate counseling class I remember a classmate raising a similar question: how would patients feel if they were seeing a dietician who was heavy or overweight?

Skimming through the contents of the Journal, a preliminary report on the government mandated restaurant menu labeling (as per the health care act) caught my eye. It was focusing on the ways in which nutritional information will have to be clearly displayed to the public in restaurant chains around the country. Perhaps the most interesting part of the report was the section reviewing the various studies that have been conducted over the years, most of which conclude that simply listing the number of calories or saturated fat an item contains does little in determining what people will order. The only exception was when the consumers were first educated on what they should be eating - how many calories they needed, the maximum fat to consume, etc - and were then presented with nutritional labels on menus that they seemed to consume fewer calories and make more deliberate food choices. The difference between the two situations is that in the first, the consumers have information, in the latter they have information and an understanding of what it means, what relevance it has to their lives. Maybe it's that extra level of understanding that enables us to integrate the knowledge we have into our lives and our beings.

But sometimes knowledge is not enough. At the end of the day eating is more nuanced an activity and isn't just about good and bad, healthy or unhealthy. Having studied nutrition for two years now I can tell you that beyond all the biochemical reasons to ingest vitamins and minerals and nutrients, food choices are more often based on rituals, social settings, emotions, celebrations, religions, ethics, values and other considerations that make it especially difficult to point fingers and judge. And there's a lesson in that for developing empathy, for granting the benefit of the doubt, for recognizing too that a heavier person's diet may be healthier than a thin person's, that things aren't always as they seem. That people choose to eat or not eat for a whole mess of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with health or weight or appearance. And that learning is a process of critical thinking, considering and questioning. I chose to study nutrition because I have grappled with - and continue to struggle with - these issues and I find them compelling and endlessly fascinating. If I can help others realize the complex issues surrounding their relationships to food and health and society then I will be very satisfied in my career.

If you were to meet me today you might think I'd make the worst nutritionist in the world. But tomorrow I will probably go back to my usual routine - exercising in the morning and eating a diet of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts and beans - and I can look a client in the face, someone who comes to me stressed out and tired and overwhelmed and I can empathize and feel the challenge of their situation. So eating that convenience store, low nutrient, high sugar, high salt plastic wrapped diet today might just make me a better nutritionist after all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kosher Conscience

Today's Tablet Magazine featured this interview with Sue Fishkoff, author of the new release, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Foods Answer to a Higher Authority. Raised in a kosher home, the piece confirmed much of what I already knew, but I'm always interested in the greater sociological implications of the expanding kosher market around the country, especially since I am often asked to explain what makes food kosher. Case in point: I recently found myself pointing out that my food science textbook misstates what constitutes a kosher animal. (The book says that an animal must chew its cud and cannot have split hooves. Actually, a kosher animal both chews its cud and has split hooves.) So I thought it was worth sharing this piece that presents a short primer on kosher food in America.

One of the interesting points the interview hit upon is the creation of kosher versions of non-kosher foods: kosher bacon, kosher cheeseburgers, etc. Fishkoff points out that kashrut (ie. the laws of what is kosher) was not intended to deprive Jews of certain foods, though it does teach restraint and discipline. She mentions that some rabbis believe Jews should not eat these faux-treif foods precisely for that reason. As she explained this I thought of my own experience living gluten-free. When I changed my diet (for health reasons, not just for kicks) I did feel a weight of limitation that I had not experienced for a long time. But I soon adapted to the confines of what was permissible and found I still had plenty of options. I also found that I didn't like faux-gluten foods - fake bagels and breads and cakes made with rice and tapioca and bean flours and potato starch (think Passover...) - all these items parading around as the real thing. I'd rather stick with gluten-free food that actually tastes good and I realized that I'm okay with fewer food options. I remember meeting another Jewish gluten-free friend for dinner years ago who said she didn't find it as big of a struggle as she expected. Having grown up kosher she'd always had foods that were off limits; gluten was simply an added dimension. Funny how on the one hand we lament the omnivore's dilemma (ie. with so many options, what should we eat?), and on the other the limited-vore dilemma (ie. with so many restrictions, what should we eat?). I like the attitude of a neighbor who recently invited me to dinner and, when she learned of my dietary restrictions, expressed excitement rather than horror at the challenge of preparing such a meal.

It's an interesting point to consider this time of year. The New York Times has been bracing its eaters for alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving meal for weeks. With pieces on vegan Thanksgiving, gluten-free Thanksgiving and of course, the requisite Minimalist Thanksgiving, everyone seems to be concerned about making sure to get the holiday meal just right, given dietary concerns, food sensitivities or simply time constraints. But missing are the articles about how to make a Thanksgiving meal on a budget (increasingly relevant) or even on the choice of bird. You don't have to be a vegan to harbor ethical concerns about the holiday's centerpiece, yet most people seem far more concerned with finding a stuffing recipe that is not wheat-based. (For an in-depth look at the Thanksgiving turkey question, see Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.)

This brings me back to the kashrut question. Kosher food is not blessed by a rabbi or consecrated in any way. In its purest form it is simply deemed fit by trusted supervision of every step from farm (to factory) to table, bringing a level of consciousness and awareness to the otherwise mundane act of eating. And if that were the reason Americans were embracing kosher food, we would truly have reason to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 5, 2010

From Candy to Cali

It's been an absolutely gorgeous week in Seattle. Yesterday was so clear that I got caught in traffic leaving my house and was late for school. As I inched up the block I wondered what the deal was - an accident? a stalled car? As I inched along toward the top of the street I saw what it was that was distracting drivers - a perfect view of Mt. Rainier surrounded by the rainbow hues cast by the rising sun along the horizon. A very good reason to take pause.

The view of Rainier from Tolmie Peak, July 2010.

On days like this I am grateful to be in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest, nestled between the Cascades and the Olympics, Mt. Baker to the north, Rainier to the south. I try to remember this when the rain is cold and relentless, the sky gray and unforgiving. I also try to remember this when stupid things happen, like the passage of Initiative 1107: the repeal of the soda-candy tax this past week. The tax, which was implemented this past June, taxed soft drinks and candy produced by Washington state companies in the amount of about two cents per can of soda. The revenue was deposited into a general fund, intended for no specific programs, but to generate funds for education, human services and corrections, areas at risk for budget cuts. The groups rallying against this tax found enough signatures to make its way to the ballot and, with the financial support of the American Beverage Association, created an apparently effective tv ad campaign making outrageous claims about the tax raising prices of groceries and affecting local growers. For my first time voting in a Washington state election it was a bit of a letdown.

Meanwhile the city of San Francisco made news with it "ban" on the Happy Meal. Technically the meal itself wasn't banned, but specific nutritional guidelines were voted into place for meals that offer an "incentive item" to children and not surprisingly the signature McDonald's meal does not meet them. They could theoretically reformulate the meal to adhere to the guidelines, which require that the meal have less than 600 calories (!!!) but NPR reports that: The fast-food chain says research shows the proposal is "unrealistic" because kids aren't likely to eat the sorts of meals stipulated by the ordinance.

Inspired by San Francisco's initiative I've decided to abandon Seattle and head south for the weekend..off to Cali!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kitchen Magic

As a kid my school offered after-school activities like aerobics, karate and recorder and one year my sister signed up for a class called "Kitchen Magic." Each week she would bring home a new creation - nothing extravagant, mostly simple snacks like peanut butter balls or ants on a log. At the time I thought it was lame. Who wanted to spend time in the kitchen? I wanted to play sports or create art. If I was hungry I grabbed a bowl of cereal and returned to my preferred activity.

Fast forward twenty years. When I moved to Seattle I used to tell people that I did not know how to cook. Sure I knew how to boil water, scramble an egg or bake a lasagna, but was terrified to stretch beyond my kitchen comfort zone. I distinctly remember my first visit to the Ballard Farmer's Market, amazed at how many stalls were set up and overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar produce on display. I decided that each weekend I would commit to trying a recipe with a new ingredient and see what happened.

The results were pretty discouraging. I only owned two pots and I consistently burned them. Fiercely scrubbing my cooking tools with steel wool, I felt defeated but the next weekend I would recommit my resolve to learn to cook and tried again. I spent the winter experimenting with new beans, the spring and summer with new vegetables and the following winter making soups. I realized that I was burning my pots by setting the flame (in this case, electric burners) too high. I initially believed that increasing the heat would speed up cooking time but I learned instead that, as in life, patience is a virtue in the kitchen (a lesson also learned from repeatedly burning my tongue). I began to notice that I burned dishes when I would leave the kitchen to go do schoolwork, check my email or hop in the shower. Cooking required not only my time but also attention and presence.

There are many lessons to learn in the kitchen. Recently the New York Times featured a piece focused on a cooking as science class at Harvard. (As a side note it sounds just like the food science course I am taking this quarter - a fairly standard required course for any nutrition student.) Cooking is not typically seen as an application of science, though any baker will tell you that it requires precise use of ratios. Understanding the relationship between heat and pressure will significantly affect cooking times and outcomes, as I learned when I tried to cook for my friend at a high altitude in Boulder, CO. The kitchen, in some ways, is the perfect lab. Armed with Harold McGee's magnum opus, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, you can enter this space with hypotheses about outcomes, relying upon materials and apparatus and careful measurements. Eventually, though, with time and confidence the kitchen becomes more than just a science lab, food more than just an experiment, as I learned by trial and error by burning pots in my own kitchen. Since then I've successfully cooked many delicious meals. I've tried different spice combinations, played with Thai, Indian and Japanese flavors, and made new grains like amaranth and millet, tested greens and fish and braised and poached and roasted and blanched. With time I finally came to a place where I feel comfortable in the kitchen.

That said, this morning as I was getting ready for school I decided to throw some quinoa and lentils in a pot so I would have a decent lunch. Then, as I went about my morning tasks the disturbingly familiar smell of burnt food wafted up to my room. In my attempts at multitasking I had forgotten that I was cooking and was back at square one with yet another burnt pot. While I may now feel confident in my culinary abilities - I know how to cook and can even teach basic cooking classes - it seems that I still have a lot to learn from the kitchen.