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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Resolute

We are two weeks into the new year...how are those resolutions going?

Good intentions pave the way at the beginning of the year for many people, especially with perennial favorites like starting a diet, exercising regularly, giving up bad habits of all sorts or getting your personal finances in order. The morning talk shows have had non-stop features these last two weeks on the latest and greatest diet plans and fitness trends. I don’t really have resolutions so much as an ongoing commitment to better health in general and to being aware that my food choices affect my mood, my energy level and my brain in addition to my weight.

I bought a condo last year and one of my first “resolutions” then was to stop spending so much money on eating out (I did that a LOT). That was partly a commitment to healthier living and partly a commitment to reduce my spending.  Conventional wisdom holds that cooking for yourself at home is much less expensive than eating out. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal shows the cost gap might not be as big as we think. (The BMJ study is interesting, if dense...here’s a briefer, easier to read summary from Runner’s World magazine’s Australia edition.) The variables can make a big difference in calculating costs: are you comparing the expense of groceries and time for just one meal for one person or taking into account that purchasing ingredients to cook at home usually yields several meals? Are you really going to buy the $20 an ounce flavored oil used by the restaurant or are you more likely to buy something similar but much less expensive? Also, this study assumes direct comparison in terms of what is included in a meal, as in recreating a restaurant version of steak and potatoes in your own home.  The reality for millions in the United States is that even creating that same meal from fresh ingredients is too expensive or time consuming. It is faster and easier to reach for the box of “instant scalloped potatoes” on the grocery shelf than it is to buy the fresh potatoes and do the work ourselves. The trade-off in food quality and nutritional value is enormous, though. This post comparing eating out vs. eating in addresses some of those variables.

If you want some extra incentive to change eating habits, check out a few books or documentaries about the food industry and processed foods. Having read quite a few of these books and seen several of the documentaries, I can tell you that they have definitely influenced the way I shop for food and eat. I “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store and make an effort to get to a local farmer’s market whenever I can. I also pay attention to the “small print” on packaging. It can be surprising how many foods are “flavored with” things rather than containing the real thing itself (juices are a notorious example). Remember the documentary Super-size Me? In case you don’t, Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but fast food for 30 days. The changes to his body in that short a period of time are incredible...and not in a good way. The shock factor made it memorable and I think it heralded a new wave of interest in and investigation of the food industry and American eating habits. Many high school students in Montgomery County have chosen Fast Food Nation as part of their summer reading. (You’ll never think of chicken nuggets the same way again.) Here are some other suggestions for reading and viewing:
Even fiction writers pull elements of agribusiness and food culture into their books, like David Liss in The Ethical Assassin and Daniel Suarez in Freedom

Full disclosure: reading some parts of these books may have the opposite effect of what the author intends. The chapter in Salt Sugar Fat about how manufacturers scientifically calculate the perfect “mouth feel” of their foods had me salivating for my favorite crunchy, salty junk foods. And yes, I indulged myself that week even though I knew exactly how that wicked deliciousness was calculated to create an addiction. The good news is that I managed to stop after a handful (or two).

Tina

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