As soon as people find out that I made a film called In Organic We Trust, they assume that I have perfect eating habits, that I only ingest the "right stuff." Then, they either stereo-type me as "a foodie snob," or they confess their bad habits. "I love Cheetos." "I ate at McDonald's last week." "They know me by name at Dunkin' Donuts." They ask me to absolve them of their guilty stomachs.
The proper diet has been pondered for centuries. More recently, Michael Pollan, and Marion Nestle, among others, have written prodigiously about what to eat and not to eat. Their knowledge and research have helped shape my understanding of the food world, but truth be told, they depict an ideal that's a little hard to swallow or follow.
After years of research, I know how and what I should eat, but I confess to being imperfect. My eating habits have progressed every year, but in my crazy, fast-paced, urban life, I sometimes fall short of what is ideal. When I'm stuck at an airport, have 15 minutes for a working lunch, or at a BBQ with friends -- my food choices can be far from exemplary.
Yet knowing what I know about food, there are certain principles I try to follow, and most are well-known if not respected. Even before contemporary research, our mothers were right to tell us: "Eat your vegetables." A plant-based diet is healthier for people and the environment.
Next, I aim to eat chemical-free, local produce that's organically grown in healthy soil, conserving resources. I try to consume only whole grains. I eat with the seasons -- tomatoes and strawberries in the summer, squash and tubers in the winter -- as much as possible. I attempt to only eat foods that have not been processed, or at the very least, minimally processed and containing only ingredients that I can pronounce. On occasion, I eat some fish, but I avoid the ones that are likely to contain high levels of mercury, like tuna, swordfish and mahi-mahi. That's basically it. Doesn't sound too hard, does it?
Well, it is. In order to follow those rules, you'd have to do a lot of planning and be very deliberate about your food choices. You would have to shop a couple of times a week and at several different outlets. You would have to make meals and always carry them with you. You would have to excuse yourself from some social engagements or eat at off-hours. Don't get me wrong -- it's do-able. But if you live on a budget and don't have a lot of free time to plan your meals, you're going to have to make some compromises.
My real food world is modeled on the ideal, but with some exceptions and allowances. I start off every week with "Meatless Monday," and most weeks, my vegetarian diet extends beyond Monday. I love a good burger, but I limit the amount of red-meat that I eat. It's pretty easy when you only seek out grass-fed beef.
I try to buy food that's fresh and ripe. I eat a lot of USDA certified organic food, including Mexican produce because it's essentially local in Southern California and it meets the USDA standards. But certified organic food is not the only source of my food for several reasons -- it could be out-of-season, imported from a land far-far away, or produced by a company that doesn't share my philosophy on sustainable agriculture (check out the graphic from the movie below), and of course, because it can be quite expensive. For the produce that I don't buy organic, I usually try to get it from farmers who I know at the market, or I rely on the Environmental Working Group's Clean Fifteen/Dirty Dozen list, which identifies the most and least pesticide laden fruits and vegetables.
I also try to avoid processed products, which is basically stuff that's claiming to be something else -- margarine (trying to be butter), diet beverages (wannabe sugar), veggie sausage (wish they were pork), no-fat anything (how do they get it outta there?), flavored products (tastes like...?). Although I miss Doritos, I can do without them. I almost never drink soda, but when I do, I get Mexican Coke with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Or a micro-brew root beer. Yum. I read labels and say "no" to long lists and ones that call corn by any scientific name (dextrose, maltodextrin, sucrose, xantham gum, etc.).
No matter how strictly I adhere to the eating-right-rules, every now and then, I'll breakdown for something off the list. During football season, I'll eat hot wings at the bar. I'll feel like crap for hours to have 30 seconds of joy, but by the next season, I've forgotten the bad part.
Overall, I try not to beat myself up too much about eating. The food that makes you feel bad is bad. You rarely feel that way if you eat good food. Have you ever heard someone say, "that broccoli really tore me up!" or "that cauliflower is making me fat"? No. The broccoli probably makes you feel better, gives you more energy, protects the health of your body, and improves your mood. But I am not so good that I eat broccoli all the time. Kale, maybe.
People always ask me for specifics. I wish there was a simple mantra. There's not a list that you can just memorize and live by. Good eating requires a life-style change. It requires more time to learn, more time to shop, and more time to cook. It all begins with better education. An old Chinese proverb shows the way: "If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people." We're talking about a lifetime. Most of us aren't perfect. We will indulge in fast-food from time to time, but keep your eyes on the prize: find the brands, farmers, and relationships that put the good life-force back into you. And eat more of that Right Stuff.
My documentary, which launched today, also has some other ideas. You should check it out. DVDs of In Organic We Trust are now available on our website. The film is for rent and sale on iTunes. Or you can watch it on these outlets On-Demand.
If you want some more specifics, check out the resources below. These are my goods:
- Good Guide. Gives ratings based on health, environmental, and societal impacts from product and company. Their app can scan barcodes to give you the scoop.
- Environmental Working Group. Home of the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen," and other well-researched info on what's good or bad for you and the environment.
- Be Food Smart. Searchable ingredient database provides alternate names, uses, health effects, and ratings.
- Cornucopia. This is your go-to stop for detailed scorecards and reports on organic food and brands.
- Meatless Monday. Excellent source of vegetarian recipes.
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