Personal Struggles in a Political Minefield

In my last post, I left you with some of the things I have been struggling with during this challenge. Beyond the expected (but still significant) issues of cravings and impatience, what struck me most is that this challenge has had overwhelming political implications. I’ve struggled with these, because I feel like I’m straddling the line between two political camps, and each can be quite hostile toward (and dismissive of) the other. Yet here I am, participating in a challenge that is partially by choice, and partially not by choice, trying to make sense of the conflict. At the heart of my own struggle with this “in between” space is the uncertainty of how this challenge will affect my eating habits in the long term, and a desire not to let anyone down or come under even more intense scrutiny for those choices. So in this post, I’d like to seriously share with you some of my experiences in making sense of food politics and my place in them.

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(I’m the rope in this scenario)

A sketch of both sides of the issue.

I want to quickly sketch some of the contours of this conflict that I have gathered by doing my own research, reading blogs and articles on the subject, and talking with many people. This is, by no means, a full and comprehensive discussion of both sides of the conflict. But for the purposes of this post, it is worthwhile to make sure that we are all on the same, only-partially-complete page.

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The “Real Food” Proponents are hyper-critical of the industrialized food system. Their main critique is that industrialized “food products,” in the process of being ‘made’, lose many nutrients that later need to be added back in and/or become laced with chemical food additives or processes that change the structure of the food away from its ‘natural’ state. Though the critique is focused on food and the industrialized system from which it comes, most of their critique settles on the American food system, which is often regarded as corrupted by the influence of large food business and ineffective regulations and officials.

Many in this camp focus their critique on the very real and problematic environmental and public health consequences of breeding agricultural monocultures, widespread use of pesticides, keeping meat/dairy animals confined in close quarters and subjecting them to prophylactic antibiotics, and letting animal and agricultural waste run into water/soil supplies. A compelling number of people in this camp are anti-GMO, either because they disagree with the corporate practices of Monsanto or because they believe that GMOs have detrimental health effects (even though there is not enough science to verify these negative health effects, they believe science will eventually catch up and GMOs will be banned). There is a significant (and rather unfortunate) overlap between the “real foodies” and anti-vaxers, who do not vaccinate themselves or their children because they believe vaccinations damage our natural immunity and cause negative health effects.

Most of these people advocate for widespread changes in the food system, but are skeptical that it will ever happen. Instead, they focus their efforts on reforming how individual people eat – advocating all natural, organic, and minimally processed food. They thoroughly believe that processed food, especially cheap “junk” food, is either nutritionally vacuous or altogether corrupted and should be avoided at all costs. Their message is not framed as a suggestion, it is often framed as a moral discussion about what we “should” be eating and how we “should” be feeding our children. There is very little discussion of the various kinds of resources required to make their lifestyle work in the long term.

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The “Real Food” Opponents are critical of the “real food” advocates’ misappropriation of scientific evidence and narrow mindedness surrounding “acceptable” food. They take  issue with the narrow attack on any and all “processed” food, stating that processed food can be made nutritionally and responsibly. They also advocate a more even-handed approach to food – that all food is eaten in the context of daily, weekly, and monthly food habits. They would concede that only eating Doritos for a month will probably affect a person’s health negatively, but would argue that so too would eating only organic apples for a month. These opponents take issue with lumping all food into two or three categories then systematically vilifying an entire category – nothing is that simple.

I think many people on this side of the issue would share similar concern over pesticides, farming and animal practices, and building large monocultures that can be completely decimated by evolving pests. However, they are quick to point out that while these things could be reformed, the incredible efficiency of this system has completely eliminated the prospect of massive food shortages and famines. Today, global hunger and food scarcity are not caused by a short food supply (which was the case in the past), they are caused by economic inequality and unfair trade/ownership practices. But the food system itself can surely feed everyone, a fact that has only become realized with the advent of industrialized food. The opponents are also critical of dismissing GMOs out of hand, stating that there is a reason science has not verified any detrimental health effects of GMOs, and that genetically modifying an organism in a laboratory essentially mirrors the same process that decades of cross-pollinating and hybridizing would achieve “naturally,” just in a faster and more efficient fashion. They argue that waging an ill-informed and one-sided war on all GMOs is creating an unnecessary fear among people. Because of the unfortunate association with anti-vaxers, many opponents unfairly dismiss the “real foodies” as, at best, uninformed or unrealistic about science, and, at worst, science-deniers that are too stubborn to let go of their narrow views.

The opponents of the “real foodies” also take issue with framing food choices as a kind of moral critique – who are they to tell anyone what they “should” be eating? The very use of the word “real” implies that everyone else is eating “fake” food or “crap” food. They also point out that the individuals who advocate for “real food” the loudest are usually the same people who are privileged with a number of resources.

Food Choices: Everyone Has an Opinion

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When I first started the challenge this month, I thought my biggest struggle would be having to make all my own food all the time. But I quickly learned that, while that is a struggle, the biggest challenge overall has been listening to everyone’s opinion of this month’s challenge. Some have been very critical of the challenge’s premise that these food choices are inherently “better” or “healthier” while others accept that as gospel (and stick to it!). Some assumed that all “real” food is healthy food and applauded the challenge, while others thought that “real” food is less healthy because it is so calorie dense, while still others were skeptical of any singular association between “real” food and health. Everyone seemed a bit curious about what I was eating, and everyone expressed some kind of concern that I would judge what they were eating.

I think this last point speaks to a very real truth about our collective relationship with food and why everyone I speak to seems to have an opinion on the challenge this month. For most of us, food is personal. We have particular tastes, habits, and preferences. We also have unique constraints that are outside our control: available income, access to stores that carry food, free time, allergies, and health problems. Most of us give some thought to our food and our health/life goals – whether that’s to feel healthy, lose weight, eat the “right” food in a particular social context, learn to cook, avoid cooking as much as possible, etc. When we listen to someone talk about food, we translate what they’re saying into our own personal food language – their relationship with food is translated by our relationship with food. I think this is one reason why talking about the challenge has elicited so many thoughts and reactions about food choices in general. Even though our experience with food is personal, talking about food is social – and we all bring our own cards to the table.

Food isn’t just social, it’s political.

I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t tell you, with absolute certainty, that not everyone can eat this way. As much as the ‘real foodies’ advocate changing your individual food choices, I am here to tell you that the substantial amount of resources required to eat this way is, without a doubt, exclusionary. More than anything, this food is expensive. I’ve already spent two times the amount of money on food for this challenge than I would in an entire month before this challenge, and I’m only 2/3 of the way through the month. Though the good-humored “real foodies” put out a lot of “budget-friendly” meal plans and ideas for stretching your dollars, it just doesn’t work if you make very little income (as grad students typically do) and live in a large southern California city (like San Diego). EVERYTHING is more expensive than the real foodies account for in their Midwestern budget meal plans. The only way I’ve managed to keep up with this level of spending is to deny almost everything else that costs money.

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But let’s talk other resources required for this lifestyle. The next biggest resource suck is time. Everything about this lifestyle requires so much time. It takes longer to walk through a farmers market getting what you need than running in and out of the grocery store. It takes longer to chop and dice fresh produce than heat a package of frozen veggies. Whole grain rice takes longer to cook than minute rice, and basically everything takes longer than putting a pre-made entree in the microwave. But the important thing to remember here is that just because it takes longer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘home cooking’ in this lifestyle because its assumed to be healthier, but there is very little emphasis on the fact that the only people who could reasonably achieve this are blessed with time – either because they don’t work (like many of the suburban moms who double as real food blog writers), have a high-income regular-hour job (unlike anyone who is working two jobs struggling to make ends meet), or because they do not have other significant time constraints (like me – a single, childless person with a relatively introverted social life).

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And what of the question of access? A significant proportion of the population lives in a food desert – a neighborhood where there are not stores that carry fresh produce. Most of the stores in these neighborhoods only carry processed foods (that, again, can vary in nutritional quality). It should go as little surprise that most of these neighborhoods are low income and nonwhite. So, from the benefit of economic and race privilege, I get to take for granted that the only thing standing between me and an organic, locally farmed apple is a quick walk to my car (another resource!) and a drive to a farmers market – in San Diego there is always at least one farmers market operating within a 40 mile radius.

Forging a Treaty in the Food Wars

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As I enter into the final days of this challenge, I propose a treaty between the two camps – I no longer want to straddle between the two sides. Instead, I offer to you my own way of dealing with this conflict, a personal way that makes the most sense to me. You can disagree or agree with it as much as you like.

  • Real foodies, please stop telling people how to eat. Stick with your own food choices and be done with it. You don’t need to proselytize your habits – you’re not saving anyone.
  • Opponents of real foodies, please stop dismissing real foodies as science deniers and fear mongers. There are many reasons to ‘eat organic’ that have nothing to do with the science behind food.
  • Everyone, realize that food is personal, social and political. Your food does not exist in a vacuum, and neither do your food habits.
  • Dispense with the phrase “real” food and other words that imply a moral critique, like: better, healthier, junk, crap, etc. All words have power, all words convey a meaning. Be careful with that meaning. For me, I am going to favor the terms “Whole, minimally processed” to describe what I’m eating this month.
  • I am going to avoid artificial foods,  not because they have been definitively proven to be bad for health, but because what I can get as an artificial food I can probably get as a non-artificial food. And since I’m not an artificial person, I think I want food that isn’t artificial either.
  • I think we don’t know definitively whether GMOs are harmful or not. I’m not convinced we should dismiss them out of hand as dangerous, and I’m not convinced that more longitudinal studies will reveal that GMO’s don’t have any negative health effects. The only thing I do know is that I don’t know. And because I’m just not sure (also because I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto’s legal and labor practices), I’ll err on the side of caution. To that end, it would be nice to have a label on foods with GMOs. However, I don’t think that label should be a warning label akin to what is put on cigarettes and alcohol.
  • Check your privilege. Always. Forever.

Thanks for reading! I’ll continue to send you updates about this months “Whole, Minimally-Processed Food” challenge!

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Lessons from the First Week: What am I Eating?!?!

I have been sticking with the real food challenge for twelve days! As you know, this month’s challenge is to eat “real” food that is minimally processed, local and organic as much as possible, and containing absolutely nothing artificial. A good way to think about the challenge, I’ve learned, is to ask myself “did they have this in the 1700s?” If the answer is yes, I can probably eat it. This question is pretty easy when I think about processed food – “Did they have Cheese-Its in the 1700s – NO.” That’s pretty easy. But it isn’t always easy; the answer gets infinitely more complicated when I think about the conditions under which my food was grown/raised. For example, say I’d like to have some corn. They definitely had that in the 1700s, so it gets the green light, right? But wait, they didn’t have genetically-modified corn in the 1700s. So therein lies the complication. As I mentioned in my previous post, the spirit of the challenge is not just thinking about what I’m eating, but also where my food comes from and the kind of food/nutrients my food eats. But I’m learning that being aware of not just what you’re eating, where it comes from, AND the process of how it got to you is incredibly complicated. We have engineered a food system that is more opaque than transparent. As you can imagine, my food choices can get very complicated, very quickly. But I’ve managed the best I can over the last twelve days, and I’m quite proud of myself for sticking with it.

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Pretty accurate…

When starting the challenge, I first needed to take stock of what I already had in the way of food and decide what was and wasn’t going to work. Most of the produce in my fridge wasn’t organic, so I gave it to my roommate. About half of my non-refrigerated food was okay, and everything else I had to set aside so that I won’t eat it this month. Take a look:

Before Food

Top right are the okay foods…

After clearing out my food, I took a trip to the farmers market then to Sprouts to get what I thought would be a week’s worth of food….

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This is not a week’s worth of food…

I know my haul looks pretty impressive, but it is not a week’s worth of food. What it is missing is any coherent plan for MEALS; there are beautiful fruits and veggies here, but it lacks any plan for what I’ll be eating, day in and day out, for a week. I found myself needing to go back to the market a few days later. This brings me to Lesson #1 of October’s challenge: 

Always, always, ALWAYS have a meal plan.

Having a meal plan is not only necessary for avoiding repetitive trips to the market, it’s also very practical. When you’re unable to eat out because you cannot verify the ingredients in your meals, it makes grabbing a quick bite on the fly extremely difficult. Everything I eat needs to be made at home, including all my snacks. In addition, the need for a meal plan makes economic sense. Let’s face it, this food is expensive – and I don’t want any of it going to waste. In order to squeeze every last penny out of my food, I need to make a plan to be sure I eat all of it and not buy more (or less) than I need. So, what has my meal plan looked like? Let me give you a breakdown:

Breakfast: Fruit and Yogurt (often blended into a smoothie). This is such a staple. It’s easy, convenient, and if I blend it up, portable! I’ll usually add some flax meal to my smoothies for some added fiber and protein. Last week, I felt a bit more adventurous, so I boiled some farm fresh eggs, chopped them up, and placed them atop some local, all natural bread – both ingredients I bought at the farmers market. Yum!

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Lunch: As fresh as possible, with minimal cooking, has been my motto. Over the last twelve days, I’ve usually opted for a salad or another mostly cold veggie lunch. For a few days, I made some “Zesty Zucchini” which is basically just zucchini slices tossed with lime juice, cilantro, chili powder, and cumin. I paired the zucchini with organic pinto beans, tomatoes, and avocados. Quite delicious! I’ve also delighted in making new and interesting salads. For one salad I took leftover tofu and added it to some baby spinach, tomatoes, and avocado. I also got a bit creative and made a kale salad with carrots, red cabbage, home-roasted almonds, barley, and tomatoes. For the salad dressing, I use a sauce that I buy at the farmers market that is so phenomenal it is LITERALLY called “Bitchin’ Sauce.”

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Zesty Zucchini with Pinto Beans, Avocado, and Tomatoes

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Salad #1

Lunch

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Dinner: This has been my least-developed meal because I usually only make dinner on Mondays and eat leftovers for the rest of the week. Also, there were a couple of nights that I made my own organic popcorn and ate that for dinner (don’t judge me!). Also, I went to visit my family in Arizona for a few days and my dad was in charge of the cooking; I picked all the ingredients and my dad cooked them to perfection. Last week, I made dinner on Monday (10/6) that lasted me throughout the week. I added free pastured-chicken to southwest style veggies and cilantro and topped the whole thing with THE BEST smoked cheddar I have ever tasted in my life. YUM!

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I might make this again, super easy and tasty!

I also made a birthday dinner for my friend tonight but forgot to take a picture. I bought handmade linguini at the farmers market and added it to a bunch of veggies that I also got at the farmers market today. I made pasta primavera with a very tasty white wine butter sauce made from organic butter. I didn’t take a picture, but I have leftovers! I’ll take a picture of my leftovers along with my other dinners this week – I plan on getting a bit more creative!

Snacks: Almost always a piece of fruit just for the convenience of it. But I also made some awesome snacks of my own: home-roasted almonds and roasted chickpeas. For the almonds, I tossed a bunch of raw almonds with olive oil and some seasoning and baked in the oven for about 25 minutes. For the chickpeas, I rinsed a can of organic beans and let them dry completely. I baked those at 400 degrees for over an hour to make sure they were nice and crunchy. I then tossed the roasted chickpeas in some olive oil and spices. Two delicious snacks made with not too much effort (the oven does most of the work!).

 Snacks

As I mentioned previously, last weekend I visited my family in Arizona, which is lucky for my food challenge because my dad could probably barbecue an old shoe and make it taste good. While I was there, I had my dad take me fishing so that I could follow my dinner up the food chain and try one of Pollan’s suggestions in In Defense of Food, which is to eat wild food as much as you can. After spending the day fishing with my dad, I learned Lesson #2 of the October challenge: 

Honor thy food.

This is serious business. When I was living in China, it was very clear to me that most people there are much more in touch with their food. When you order fish in a restaurant, the waiter brings out a bucket of live fish and you choose the one you want. You can order a whole chicken from a market and the chicken you get will still have some feathers attached. Especially when it comes to meat, the message that I got in China was clear: this food was once alive. But in the United States, most of us buy our food in neatly packaged plastic containers, freed of most reminders that this thing was once alive. We can let meat spoil without realizing that something had to die just to be thrown away. We can let produce go bad without realizing that that plant had to die just to be thrown out. Now, to be clear, I’m not making an argument for vegetarianism necessarily (been there, done that). What I’m saying is that it is possible to neglect that our food, even our plant-based food, exists. Our food, whether plant- or animal-based, was alive, from organisms as alive as you or me. When you bite into a plum or cut into a piece of meat, you are eating an organism that was in the process of surviving on this earth, and now that organism has become part of your survival. To eat mindlessly, without a consciousness and a gratitude for your food, is just arrogant.

I learned this lesson very acutely after spending the day fishing with my dad. The day started out nicely – I was convinced we were going to catch a ton of fish.

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“I’m on a boat!”

We had just dropped anchor and set up the fishing poles when, just like that, we caught a fish! Well, actually, my dad was the one that set up the poles and reeled in the fish, but I was there for moral support!

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Go Dad!

I thought that was a great sign – we caught a fish and we were barely even trying! Surely we would catch more and we would all have a delicious fish dinner! But four hours later, we had still only caught one fish.

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You win some, you lose some….

After a long and rather uneventful day on the river, we packed up and headed home. I was grateful that we caught something, and that we weren’t dependent on fishing for survival. By the lottery of birth, we managed to be members of a society where we didn’t have to be dependence fishermen, so I knew that, even though we only caught one fish, we wouldn’t go hungry. But that is certainly not true for everyone in this world.

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Our little fish…

We took our fish home and my dad taught me how to fillet it properly. As it turns out, filleting a fish well is not something you know how to do automatically. But I managed, and while I was cutting the flesh I thanked the fish for being my dinner. My dad noticed that the fish didn’t have anything in its stomach, and that it must have been hungry when it caught the bait and got reeled in. That small fact made me feel so badly – this poor little guy was just looking for some food when all of a sudden he was caught and pulled to the surface. I thanked the fish again and silently apologized for tricking it into thinking it had found a meal when, really, I had found a meal. Then I handed my fish over to my dad to cook. I paid attention to how he cooked it, knowing full well that I could never make it taste as good as he could. And that night, I ate my little fish and thanked it once more.

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My fish along with some wild dove my dad had hunted previously and some veggies

All of your food, from the meat to the plants, was once alive. It had to die so that you could eat it. When you eat food, you’re eating something that once lived so that you can go on living. I have learned that all my food deserves for me to honor it by making sure it doesn’t get wasted (cue lesson #1 about a meal plan) and being aware of the life that it gives me.

I have other lessons that I’d like to share with you, but this post is already getting rather long. This weekend, I had a lot of really intense cravings and felt a bit impatient about needing to constantly prepare food, and I’d like to share some of my strategies and struggles with getting over those. I have also realized over the past twelve days that this lifestyle is fraught with political problems and questions of privilege and access, and I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t let you know how I’m thinking about and dealing with those issues. In addition, I want to clear up some of the misconceptions a lot of people have about these kinds of food choices. Believe it or not, “real” food does not equal “healthy” food. I’ve also noticed that everyone I talk to seems to have an opinion about this challenge that is good, bad, and everywhere in between. I’d like to unpack that a little.

All those lessons, and more, are soon to come in my next post. Until then, bon appetit!

October’s Challenge: Real Food

This month’s challenge comes from my dashing and daring older sister, Jessica.

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Jessica is a bit of a stickler when it comes to feeding herself and her family. She insists on buying organic as much as possible, avoiding food additives (such as artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives), and she categorically rejects foods made with GMOs, hormones, steroids, and excessive antibiotics. She’s really passionate about her food habits – I’ve seen her school people about food on more than one occasion – but she’s not necessarily dogmatic about them – I’ve also seen her eat Cheetos from time to time – but as a general rule of thumb, she tries to keep her food as clean and natural as possible.

So, when I asked my sister to think of a challenge for me, it came as little surprise that her challenge would be about food. But even more specifically, her challenge is about REAL food – meaning food that is (at some point) alive, close to the earth, minimally processed, non-artificial, and…well…real. Basically, if people were able to eat it in the 1700s, it’s probably a real food. So for the month of October, I can ONLY eat REAL FOODS.

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The Rules

(translation: what can’t you eat?)

Before I get into what I can’t eat, let’s talk about what I can eat. Throughout the challenge I’ll be using a cool blog for inspiration and clarification: 100 Days of Real Food. They have a really handy infographic on what real food is, which I’ve reproduced here.

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essica wants me to follow these guidelines, but she also wants me to step it up a notch. She wants me to make all my food organic as much as possible and keep in mind where my food is coming from so that I can try to eat as locally as possible. She said to me, “The challenge is not just about you learning more about your food and what kinds of food you’re eating, it’s also about seeing how your food affects the environment and trying to be as green as possible with your eating.” The local part is going to be difficult – especially when it comes to meet and dairy. But luckily, I live in San Diego, which is a veritable mecca of farmers’ markets! So for the challenge, I’ll be shopping at Farmers’ Markets as much as possible, noting where my food comes from as much as possible, and stopping by a local butcher. Yikes!

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Here’s what’s off-limits: refined grains (such as white/enriched flour), refined sugars (white sugar/corn syrup), artificial sweeteners (duh!), nothing out of a package that has more than 5 ingredients, no fast food, no fried food. In addition, Jessica wants me to be sure that I don’t consume GMO products, which means avoiding foods containing corn and soy (and their various derivatives) unless they are certified organic.

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In addition to these general rules, I’ll be using Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food as my guiding compass throughout the challenge. His motto for healthy eating is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Throughout the book, Pollan stresses that our food system is intricately connected to the Earth as well as all of our social customs surrounding what eating is and how it should occur. The farther our food gets from it’s natural connection to the Earth, the less nutritious and more hazardous it becomes. And, of course, we cannot change our food habits unless we also interrogate the social contexts surrounding our food habits. Pollan sets out some useful guidelines that he argues can equip a person to change their food habits while in the midst of a social food system that is incompatible with eating healthfully and naturally. Here are his suggestions that can apply to me during this month:

  • Don’t eat food that your great grandmother (or great great grandmother) wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Avoid food products (this means anything that isn’t a whole, natural food) that have ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Difficult to Pronounce
    • More than 5 in number
    • That include high fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket, stay out of the middle
  • Shop at farmers’ markets as much as possible
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
    • Meaning, it’s not just enough to avoid corn and soybeans if I want to avoid GMOs, I also need to look at the food that my food eats. Were the cows and chickens that supply my meat, eggs, and dairy fed corn (which they can’t digest and thus makes them more likely to get sick, thus the need for preventative antibiotics)? Are the plants I’m eating raised in synthetic fertilizers full of nitrates or sprayed with pesticides? Since all food is part of a system, I need to see my food as connected in a chain. I need to not only pay attention to the food, but also the earlier links in the chain!
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Eat as if you come from a traditional food culture (like French, Italians, Japanese, rural Chinese, etc)
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner (woo-hoo!!)
  • Be willing to pay more for quality food
  • Eat meals
  • Eat all your meals at a table
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does (i.e. no gas station food!)
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook and prepare your own food

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I know, it’s a lot.

This is all a bit overwhelming. But, I have confidence that I’ll be able to do it. I’ve been eating real food for 5 days now, and I’ve already learned a lot of lessons, like:

  • Shopping for groceries takes forever when you are reading every single label.
  • This lifestyle is NOT cheap (more on this later).
  • This lifestyle takes a lot of time and patience.
  • This is HARD – there are so many things in the grocery store that are NOT food!
  • Eating out is basically impossible.
  • When eating only real food, I’m eating less sugar overall.

I’ll get into these lessons, as well as my meal and snack strategies, in the next few days. I’m only 5 days into this challenge, and already it is quite difficult. But, I know it will be worth it at the end of the month. Stay tuned! 

Lessons from September’s Mindfulness Challenge

I’m late to update you all on the lessons I learned in September by practicing mindfulness. September was a busy work month for me. I spent most days writing, so I had little motivation to write for fun.

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I finished up the challenge by spending the last weekend in September without clocks. I took down or covered up all the clocks around me, including on my phone! I spent Friday evening through Sunday totally time-free.

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The point of going all weekend without being able to tell the time was to be more in touch with myself: sleep when tired, eat when hungry, etc. What I found after doing this was that I really did feel more in touch with myself, and allowing myself to operate according to my own body’s schedule kind of took some of the pressure off. I felt a general sense of easiness – like I didn’t have to do anything but check in with myself and act accordingly. That was nice. But it was also helpful that I didn’t have much going on that weekend, and I wonder if someone who has an active social life or kids would find the experiment to be rejuvenating or stressful. I personally liked it. I couldn’t make it into a lifestyle, especially because scheduling anything with anyone is virtually impossible if you can’t set a specific time, but as an occasional break, I think I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

In general – here are some of the overall lessons I’m taking away from September’s challenge:

#1: Life is full of noise. 

We are surrounded by noise! I learned this every time I had to meditate during September. I would settle myself down and begin to meditate, but would always be astounded by how incredibly noisy everywhere was. Even if it’s relatively silent there is still noise – planes flying overhead, the sound of traffic, the sound of birds, people walking by, someone in the house watching TV. This is something that, eventually, became so overwhelming to me. In my quest for silence, I could never really find it. Even during my moment in nature, it was still noisy. Now, I’ll take the noise of birds and breeze over the noise of a dump truck any day of the week, but I longed for the absence of sound. At one point, I actually put in ear plugs during my meditation so that all I could hear was my breath going in and out. Even then, I would hear the ringing in my ears. Everywhere, at every moment, there was sound!

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#2: Meditation can quiet the noise.

I eventually found that, as noisy as the world is, I could eventually drive it out during meditation. Not only would I quiet down my noisy mind, I eventually quieted the noisy world. By focusing on my breath and trying to calm everything down, eventually things got quieter. There were still noises, but I didn’t really register them. In other words, I couldn’t find the absence of sound, but I could find silence.

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I know, right?

#3: Yoga is okay, I guess.

I’ve never been a huge fan of yoga, which I briefly explain in this previous post. But I’ve been doing yoga more and more over the past couple of months, and it can be really nice as a form of meditation and a way to quiet the world. I don’t think I’ll start up yoga as a form of working out, but doing it to get in touch with my breath and my body has been quite nice. I’m going to take a yoga class over the next couple of weeks to keep up with the meditation aspect. But I don’t think I’ll become a yogi anytime soon.

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All things in moderation

#4: Habits are hard to break. 

In my last post I wrote about behavioral links – behaviors that, through the force of habit, I tend to do together. Well, even after a month of consistently challenging those links, I am still struggling with them. I suppose they took a while to get cemented, and cement breaks down really slowly. I know that my habits will take a long time to break down, and that I’ll have to continue using these mindfulness tools to make that happen.

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This is totally a metaphor for my life…

#5: When I feel the least able is when I need mindfulness the most.

There were so many moments in September when I didn’t want to meditate or when I was getting so utterly tired of not being able to multitask. I mentioned earlier that September was a busy work month for me, filled with lots and lots and lots of writing and intellectual theorizing. I wanted so many times to just veg out with some popcorn in front of the TV, and I would get so irked that I couldn’t do it. But then the challenged forced me to interrogate what I was really after: relaxation and turning off my brain (and a snack!). By forcing myself to ask, “What am I really seeking in this moment?” I was better able to give myself what I needed in a conscious, deliberate way. Likewise, there were moments when I really, REALLY wanted to multitask. I often wanted to check my email while riding the bus. I would think, “Ugh, it would be so much more efficient if I could get that out of the way!” But, again, I had to reflect on myself and my state of mind in those moments. I had to ask myself why I wanted that kind of efficiency, if there was something stressing me out that made me resent the few minutes I had to sit on the bus listening to music. I could usually find the motivation that was causing me that stress, then I could meditate on it. I would imagine it was a tight, knotted ball of string somewhere in my body, then I would breathe and imagine that with every out-breath the knots slowly loosened. That was enough to help me get through a frustrating moment, but the same stressful feeling would return again the next day (or a few hours later!). Each time something like that happened, when I started to resent the challenge, is when I knew I needed the challenge the most. When working through each of those moments, I knew I was doing myself a favor.

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That’s it for September’s challenge!

Thank you to Julia for thinking of such a great challenge for me.

Stay tuned, I’ll be posting about October’s challenge later tonight!