Food has Something to Say

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Hi. We’re food. You know us. No need for fancy intros.

Well, we’re the new celebrities. Step aside Bieber and Miley. You’re not edible and no one needs you to survive (we know someone out there disagrees with this statement). We’ve been in several documentaries (Katie is our newest fan), we’re always in the news, and social media devours us too. But just like celebrities, most often it’s our notoriety that grabs headlines… too much, too little, too expensive, too cheap, to this or too that.

Well news flash.. you made us this way. Yup. YOUR fault. Well sort of.

Through a series of perfect storms, you inadvertently made us what we are. Celebs that you love and hate. And now you’re all loving and hating on each other because of how you choose to hang out with us. Seriously, we’re laughing here!

So let’s talk about our so-called ‘bads’. You see, some of us are forced to go through a series of makeovers, wardrobe changes and make up routines because 1. you’re addicted to some of our special effects (sugar, fat, salt) (oh, we’ll discuss rehab in a minute) and 2. you want to trick your mind and body by taking away calories and adding a lot of ‘fluff’ to us so that we taste good but don’t do any harm to your waist lines, bowel, allergies… Trouble is, both 1. and 2. are on a collision path to a bigger and sicker you. It’s rocky convincing addicts and deniers. Truth is when you’ve messed with us beyond a point of recognition, well, we fight back. So don’t blame us. You did this.

What else makes us bad? Oh yeah… you want more of us for less. Sure, cheap is nice. But when we’re cheap, we are SO far removed from our original states which often means (drum roll)… defer to paragraph 4 above.

What’s bizarre is that the cheaper we get, the more we profit just a few… and it’s those few who pretty much have a LOT of say on how we roll. That’s your fault too. You’ve allowed them to do all of the above, and then to paste us just about everywhere. Too much sugar? Too much fat? How about too much visibility? We believe that you are smart enough to cue in to when you really need us. Why are you putting us everywhere? When you see us ALL THE TIME, your need to eat turns into must eat. Healthy relationships always need a little space.

And all this visibility gives you a false sense of knowing a lot about us, but you don’t really know us. Many of you don’t know where we come from, let alone how we come to be. You’ve become dependent on others to make us and you just want to eat and be left to do other things… like watch Food Network or play on your smart phone. THIS IS US DAMN IT! YOU EAT US! You can’t be ignorant of how we evolve and what we do to you. We really cackle when we are fads. You all want to be gluten-free but many of you don’t know what the heck this is, let alone need this. Only a few do. Geez. You probably do more research on the next generation smart phone than on us, period.

So prefer us cheap and bad… I’m sorry, did you I hear you say there is NO bad food? Well, just like there are good and bad people, good and bad dogs, good and bad hairstyles…  there is good and bad food. And like all of these, there’s a bunch in between. Please stop trying to convince yourselves that there is no bad food, just use moderation. The truth is, heck yeah we can be bad, and because of this, use moderation. It’s all in how you word it.

Ok, what else? Your constant desire for perfection that you’ve projected on us. You experiment with our DNA to make us look flawless, bigger and better. Some of you think this is all bad. What do we think? Well, we marvel at how smart you are but while we appreciate your help, we don’t need cosmetic surgery or performance enhancers. We accept ourselves in whatever shape, color or form we produce and if we get the right dose of water and soil nutrients, we are truly nutritious. We think another reason you’re digging around with our DNA is because your food production choices (aargh) are forcing you to fix us to cope. Add to this your worries that Mother Nature, our true boss, won’t do her job to help us adapt to the climate you’re messing with too… well, we’ve coped for millennia. Survived extinctions too. Just sayin’… . And that theory about not having enough to feed the world? On our last check, there is enough of us to go around. It just so happens that your wars, politics and greed keep us in some hands, out of others.

Boy, this freakin’ (we’re keep in this kid-friendly) complicated paradigm you have built upon us stinks and we’re getting all the flack for it. Even those of us who are good, you know, the local and organic, the omega 3s and resveratrol… even we get the flack. And since when did food, grown in ways your grandparents and generations before chose, become elitist? Back in the day the majority of us were ‘organic’. Many of you make fun of us when we’re grown on farms that take care of their biodiversity or choose to, well, just be different in their approach to producing us. Huh? Since when did mother nature get weird? Or backward? She’s laughing at you now. You don’t want that.

So because we’re celebs, and clearly frustrated, we’re going to remind you about some things:

– We don’t like to be adulterated too much and wish you’d accept and try us more, minus the make up, surgery and special effects.  We’re kind of in the midst of an identify crisis here and could do with your help to help us find our true selves again. This starts by you committing to rehab. A farm, farmers’ market, cooking demo, cooking class, or even just gazing at the produce section in the mega stores may help you rediscover how beautiful and unique we are in our most original forms.

– We don’t like to be too cheap. We should be valued because we impact your health more than anything else in your life. So if you choose more of us ‘baddies’ we’ll treat you bad. If you try to hang out with more of us ‘goodies’ well, the possibilities are fruitful. Now we know some folks struggle to find balance. You know, our biggest mission from the get go has been to not only feed, but to nourish too, regardless of how you look and how much money is in your bank. We like to call ourselves a ‘right’. We despise food injustice. Do something about it.

– And our last ask. Please stop picking on us. You need to be accountable for everything that has gone wrong with food because you did it. When we first arrived, your creator tasked mother nature to task us to feed you and to help you flourish. Well mother nature ain’t happy that we are barely recognizable, being exploited, making you fat and sick, and, oh yes, are actually partly accountable (because of you) for the destructive forces she’s having to discipline… NO NO NO! This is ALL because of your doing! We ask that you unmake all this. You can do better with us. Everything from choosing better to fighting for us.

Please.

Sincerely, your biggest celebrity,

Food

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(Channeled by Jessica Avasthi. Apparently she’s a registered dietitian. And she’s a mindful eater and wants you to be the same. How convenient.)

 

 

 

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5 Food Fundamentals

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We consumers have plenty to juggle when we navigate the food-scape of the twenty first century, and with limited time, stretched paychecks, and other areas of life to manage, it’s invaluable to know how to source good food quick on our feet. ‘Should I get my produce from farmers’ markets? Is all organic food healthier for you? How can I afford to eat good? How do I make time to eat good?’. These are just some of the many questions from consumers’ mouths.  And where do we source our food and nutrition information from? It appears that we rely on the internet. The sheer volume of information on the net is not necessarily a good thing. Not all sites are reliable, and often information is conflicting, leaving consumers befuddled or mislead.

Being a registered dietitian, its important for me to communicate sound and evidence-based information on the health benefits of food to all consumers. But it in addition to this, it my responsibility to encourage consumers to consider important philosophies regarding the growing, raising and processing of food. Food is much deeper than just nourishment, so to make good food easier to understand and access, here are Five Food Fundamentals all consumers should know.

1. Know food terminologies and labels: See all those colorful labels on food? Spend some time examining these. What are they telling you? What does cage free really mean? You’ll be surprised to learn the hard facts. For example, ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ sounds lovely, but it boils down to very little. It doesn’t concern how found is grown or raised, it mainly refers to how the final product comes to be. Buying natural beef? All this implies is that no colorants have been injected into the meat to make the red that much brighter. In contrast to this, ‘Certified Naturally Grown’ refers to produce grown following organic standards, but the growers have refrained from the often tedious and costly organic certification process. It can take hours to research all the labels and terminologies, but thanks to a smart phone app called Eco Label, some of these are demystified at the press of a button.

2. Plan: Armed with a plan takes the admin out of food. What are some of your favorite recipes? Get your week of meals planned, and schedule cooking days to cook a few meals in advance. This translates to not needing to cook daily. Once you have your week menu planned, take a look at the ingredients you need. Is everything is season? If not can you make substitutions? This is a where a good measure of creativity is employed. The beauty of cooking is that it’s not baking. You can experiment without the risk of a flopped cake. Thinking Italian? How about Bruschetta? No tomatoes, no problem! Radishes, turnips, beets and tender beet greens make a gorgeous bruschetta. Now for some pesto… no basil? Look around at the farmers’ market and what do you see? Kale, Swiss Chard, and Collard greens, longing to be substitutes! ( collard and pecan pesto is delish y’all!). Of course, we don’t expect you to do everything seasonal but give it a shot. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. So you have your menu, and a shopping list. Time to find some coupons for some of the products you need. One great resource is the Best Organic Coupons site. Every penny counts, especially when feeding a family. You never know… you may become the first ‘extreme organic couponer’…

3. Shop: We all depend on grocery stores and supermarkets for the essentials. When shopping in the naturals foods section, there are a few money-saving strategies to keep your wallet afloat. Check use-by dates on products. Unlike sell-by dates, use-by refers to food quality and not food spoilage and safety. If you notice products close to their use-by date and you’re willing and able to scoop these up, you may be able to get these at a discounted rate. Store managers prefer the idea of selling, not chucking, food. And does all your food have to be organic? Not necessarily. Many consumers believe that organic food is healthier. A box of mac ‘n cheese, organic or not, is highly processed and tends to run high in sodium. Best not to spend to spend your money on something like this (go home and make mac ‘n cheese from scratch folks!). Now produce is a different ball game. If you want to eat meat from happily raised livestock, or you want to avoid pesticides, organic is the way to go. In the same breath, you can be selective in fruits and vegetables if you’re on a tighter budget. The Environmental Working Group has a great resource, the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to help consumers determine what items can be organic or conventional, with the overall goal to minimize pesticide exposure.

There is life beyond the grocery store. Shop around a little. And shop local. How about joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share? This is a great time to sign up, just as the farmers start sowing the spring crops. If you’re on your own, or if you know your family is not enthused by idea of having green leafy vegetables three nights a week, split a CSA with friends or family. You can save (again) and avoid waste, awesome for your bottom line, health, and local economy. If you’re an online shopper, you can select products from multiple farmers and artisans and collect these from a designated market using a great online resource, Locally Grown. Then again, grab a shopping bag or basket, and step out the door. Farmers’ markets await! With spring just around the corner, the market season will be in full swing in a matter of weeks. Being outdoors and seeing the gorgeous produce and friendly farmers’ faces is a world apart from the supermarket aisles. Local is lovely indeed.

4. Cook: Delicious food is an easy feat! If you have fabulous ingredients, these will speak for themselves. Simplicity is a cherished friend to food integrity. Five fundamental ingredients to have on hand at all times: olive oil, garlic, fresh lemons, sea salt, and freshly crushed pepper… you’ll work wonders with these. Cook in bulk and freeze some leftovers for a rainy day. If you’re a meat-eater, determine a couple of simple vegetable sides to complete your meat choice. Want a happy, meaty meal minus the drive through and acid reflux? Lemon basted chicken pairs beautifully with braised swiss chard and roasted root vegetables (it’s breakfast time right now but seriously, I could scoff this now!). If blueberries are in season, buy and freeze, repeat, and repeat some more, and in the winter you’ll be making blueberry compote full of the peak summer flavor. If you’re part of a family unit, recruit family members to gather and cook. And stressed out about planning a dinner party? Pot lucks aren’t tacky. Host a pot luck show casing local ingredients. This will be a great way for your guests to chime into the season. And if you have plenty of wine, they’ll come!

5. Advocate: I know what you’re thinking. ‘Wait a minute, here she was talking about all this good food stuff now she’s thrown in a spanner, politics!”. Well, sorry to say folks but if you truly care about what you eat, you need to speak up. Food is a BIG picture. It starts with soil health, and ends with our health. The journey in between is long and complex. Concerned about farmers’ rights, animal treatment, the environment, food access, small-scale farmers, food corporatization… concerned about anything concerning food? Advocate. And this is the year to break ground on advocacy, if you haven’t already. Heard about the Farm Bill? Bet you have. This bill is a blueprint for our food system, and it’s far from perfect. Join advocacy groups. If you’re in the Georgia region, Georgia Organics is a super start. Nationally, the Food and Water Watch organization is also a great resource. It’s always a good idea to examine candidates before voting, but it’s equally important to examine the issues they are going to work on during their terms. You’ll never know everything, but knowing something is empowering, enabling you to truly ‘vote with your fork’.

These Five Food Fundamentals are what I try to apply, and what I believe we as consumers can all try and apply. Treat food as an investment to long-term health for us and for our planet. And treat the current emerging reforms (more farmers’ markets, more small-scale farmers, more local food, better food transparency etc.) not as ‘trends’ but rather as reforms that our generations to come will continue to support and thrive on.

Jess Avasthi MS, RD, LD

Minding my Peas & Food

Can Nutrition Experts coexist with Big Food?

I’m a registered dietitian (RD) and one of the 74,000 members of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (AND). While you can call me ‘nutritionist’, I prefer RD. I have nothing against nutritionists, after all, I am one. It’s just that ‘nutritionist’ has morphed into a fairly generic term for anyone who provides nutrition advice and may or may not have formal education and training in the field. I have had over 6 years of college education and training, and like other RDs, I continue to polish my credentials through rigorous continuing education. And I’m also licensed, which means I am monitored by my secretary of state licensure office for adherence to safe and ethical practice regulations. So yes, I want my credentials to be distinct from ‘nutritionist’.

I have been fortunate to have worked in public policy for our profession, thanks in part to AND, and it was during this experience that I learned our profession must be vocal advocates to safeguard our credentials and expertise. Many entities who want to practice nutrition believe that AND are monopolizing the field of nutrition by lobbying for its RD members. Well, in this day and age of ‘health awakening’, I am sure that given the opportunity, any entity would want to lead with expertise, especially if they are trained rigorously in the field, and right now RDs are ‘food & nutrition experts’, so why wouldn’t AND want to protect our professional interests? Let alone protect the interests of the public. While healthcare is altruistic, and despite its exponential growth, it is very competitive and many want to take advantage of it and its users. I’m relieved that AND lobbies on my and the public’s behalf, and even I’m happier to be a vocal advocate myself.

But for a while, I have sensed that RDs are facing some challenges. While we have AND supporting our membership on the issues mentioned, it appears that somewhere along the way, we are struggling to engage the public, my proxy for ‘consumer’. While I believe that most (in every profession there is good, mediocre, and bad) RDs are experts in their scope of practice, I’m concerned that our expertise doesn’t quite resonate amongst consumers. From my own experiences, consumers aren’t too sure what RDs do, other than ‘put them on diets’. I have lost count of the number of times I have been labelled ‘food police’, in jest of course, by healthcare providers, educators, and really anyone who eats. While RDs are ‘out there’ as food and nutrition experts, consumers don’t always connect the dots. The result: our messages appear to be falling short of our intended audience. Consumers are seeking or following new food movements, new food trends, fad diets, or the panacea for health and wellness, but they’re rarely seeking RDs. According to the January 2013 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a publication of AND, just 14% of consumers turn to health professionals for nutrition information, and dismally, only 5% refer to a RD. And let’s be honest. Some RDs are doing a great job in the media and public relations (I love that Ellie Krieger is ‘one of us’ and on the Food Network), but when it comes to the honchos, it’s Dr. Oz who is providing nutrition expertise for Time Magazine.

So why are we so good at what we do, but we have to work so hard to convince anyone from physicians, to the government, and yes, consumers, that we’re top notch in the field of food and nutrition?

The answer could be any number of reasons, but last month, one of the potential reasons resonated pretty loud. Trust.

Over the years, consumers have challenged my profession’s relationship with big food companies. I always reassure them that we are not swayed or paid by big food. What I advocate as good food and nutrition is based on part science, part logic, and a good measure of the human element. My go to ethos: eat whole food, preferably cooked yourself, and enjoyed sitting down without your electronic device. I also appreciate that there is a big picture to food and its system, and as a RD, I have an obligation to navigate the ‘grey’ areas in order for me to do a better job for the sake of our communities, environment, and health.

Most RDs I know are on the same page.

But it really does take just one voice, a very vocal and recognized voice, to unravel our legitimacy as food and nutrition experts’. Michele Simon, prominent lawyer, public health advocate, and whistle-blower on how big food is profiting on the backs of American consumers’ at the price of deleterious health consequences, has blown a very loud whistle on how AND is tied to mega food industries through corporate sponsorship.

To many RDs, AND corporate sponsorship by big food may or may not be a surprise. Regardless, this report and it’s outreach should be. We shouldn’t take lightly to our professional ‘liaisons’ being questioned in the New York TimesForbes and Huffington Post. And honestly, maybe it is time to revisit this contentious issue. I know many RDs, myself included, who have struggled to find a good fit with some of our big food sponsors. Why? Because we’re challenged, professionally, and yes, ethically. For example, some of our sponsors produce the very food and beverage products that we, as RDs, are struggling to communicate to consumers as ‘have only in moderation’. We’re also at the receiving end of when moderation goes wrong: obesity, in adults and especially disconcerting, in our children. Moderation. Turns out it’s subjective and influenced by choice, desire, and need. Sure, science-based dietary guidelines help us conceptualize moderation, but from my own experiences, what is moderate to me may not be to you. So where does the science-base sit here? Therein lies our daily professional challenge; science versus reality.

But is it possible that big food industries, several of which are supporting my profession, capitalize on this inherent flaw of nutritional moderation?

Maybe… And therein lies our ethical challenge…

RDs can yell ‘moderation’ until we’re blue in the face, but the nature of our food environment appears to be shaped by big food capital. And I’m not going out on a limb about this. There is plenty of literature and evidence to support this. And if you don’t have time to peruse these, tune into logical observation. Whose running the prime time ads on your T.V.? Whose dominating the billboards? Or just visit your supermarket and observe how food products are displayed. At eye-level, or on the bottom shelf? Are consumers strictly to blame for making poor nutritional choices?

Another maybe… But what would RDs make of this: I have been in the middle of nowhere in Africa and have been able to get my hands on an ice-cold Coca-Cola. I know Africa well enough to vouch that it takes tremendous capital and marketing strategies to place a product of this nature in the unlikeliest of places. A place where a balanced meal is a tough find, refrigeration is almost non-exisitent, yet the consumer can access chilled sodas and feel happier for it (as depicted by the ads in the dusty tin shack).

Granted, some of these perspectives are entirely my subjective opinion but I believe that logic can either trump or support literature and evidence, including science-based assumptions.

So for the sake of consumers, I strive to view things from several perspectives, besides absolute science. I consider culture, socioeconomic status, beliefs, morals…

What would any logical and somewhat moral consumer seeking accurate nutrition information see if they learned that Coca-Cola and Hershey’s are sponsoring my profession? Is it possible that they see a questionable co-existence and potential for ‘conflict of interest’? While we advocate ‘healthy eating’, consumers may be befuddled and bordering on distrustful when they glance through our list of sponsors. Why should they turn to us? And if they do, why should they listen to us? AND may be able to legitimize its ties with big food for RDs, but can it do this as effectively with the public, the consumer, our livelihood?

Michele Simon’s controversial report is no help to this dilemma, but it may present opportunities for RDs and AND. And now more than ever, what with healthcare moving into challenging territories, and the state of our country’s health at sub-optimal levels compared to other industrialized countries, it’s absolutely necessary for AND to reclaim and reassert ‘food and nutrition experts’. However, it’s up to us, as RD members, to steer AND in a direction we believe to be most prosperous for us. Let this be good time for RDs to determine if we are in fact dissatisfied with AND’s business model for big food corporate sponsors. Although some members have been surveyed before, in view of this recent report, this is a ripe time for AND to canvas its members again. And how about the public too?

Ok, time for reality. Even if it turns out that thousands of RDs question big food and AND, can we truly believe that big food will just go away?

What could RDs do then? Leave AND? Start anew? Or demand some other changes? I understand that for many organizations, corporate sponsorship is necessary. In fact, I’m aware of an urban agriculture organization seeking funds from several big food sponsors.  Funding helps organizations with good intentions and altruism to grow and thrive. And as Ms. Simon reports, there are many organizations with credible healthy food products and practices who support our annual conference. I also have to disclose that my father works for a cane sugar industry in South Africa. That’s right, big food paid for my college. Despite many heated arguments, my dad always listened to my concerns about ethics in big food industries. On a positive note, and despite the notoriety of sugar, the bottom line is we all eat it at some point, demand is high, but the industry is also addressing issues of sustainability. Regardless of whether ‘sustainability’ means ‘fiscal’ or ‘environmental’ (an argument I’ll save for him), big on my father’s agenda is using ethanol by-products of sugar processing to operate sugar mills. It’s a start. Maybe we need to credit the ‘good’ deeds of big food, but be more instrumental in demanding and outlining more of these? There is no easy solution, and I don’t believe anyone is going to come out a winner. It is perhaps long overdue, but never too late, for RDs to have this dialogue, amongst ourselves, with our leadership, the public, and big food. And may this dialogue be fruitful in solutions.

I guarantee you that while most RDs I know are have some conflicts concerning big food/ag sponsorship, none have a ‘conflict of interest’. They’re honest, highly experienced, and very committed to promoting our profession and mitigating nutrition-related health issues. They are practicing in many sectors, providing sound nutrition counseling and education, and their utmost desire is for Americans to be happier, healthier, and more attuned to good food. They just don’t toot their horns enough about the remarkable work they do. And yes, they may or may not be happy about AND’s corporate sponsors but just haven’t tooted their horns enough about this too. My upfront apologies, but I can’t avoid gender stereotyping with these next few statements. Most RDs are women, many married, working moms, students, caregivers, and daily jugglers. Some of our personal obligations lie above and beyond AND and what Ms. Simon has written. But one stereotype hard to ignore is that as women, we’ll continue to find our voices, we’ll continue to challenge the status quo for the betterment of our profession, and that with our male colleagues, we continue to be ‘Food and Nutrition Experts’.

Jessica Avasthi MS, RD, LD

Mindful eater, Mindful RD