The American predicament: fast food, nutritionally bereft

This food thing is new to me. I've always enjoyed cooking, but only over the past two years have I really paid attention to how food works and how much better it can be when you use fresh, natural ingredients. It's something I've been talking about a lot at work, much to the chagrin, I would imagine, of my colleagues.

Michael Ruhlman (I'm beginning to sound like such a fanboy) rants this week about food, ingredients, economics and the French.

As ever the French can teach us about a healthy relationship with food.  American’s scratch their heads over the so-called French Paradox—how can the French eat all that rich fatty food and have lower levels of heart disease and associated problems.  I’ll bet their red wine does help, as has been suggested, but what is more likely the case, in my opinion, is that the French eat more natural foods than Americans, and they eat it in appropriate quantities.  That, I would bet money, is the root of their ability to eat a heavily salted duck confit, dripping with duck fat, and not have a problem with it, to luxuriate in Epoisse and Reblochon.  They can do this precisely because they don’t eat “low-fat” granola bars and blueberry muffins that have more sugar than flour and eggs.

The French paradox. It can’t be their diet—given all that evil stuff they eat. Must be that red wine they drink!  Can we really be so stupid?  You bet! 

In 2000, I worked for an Internet startup in Orlando. The company went bankrupt in the end, but before then, it limped along month after month, sometimes not meeting payroll. During those times, eating was difficult. Seriously. My family could afford two types of foods: those that took a long time to cook and those that were nutritionally corrupt. With long commutes, my wife and I often didn't get home until nearly 7:00, and neither one of us felt like spending an hour in the kitchen after a 12-hour workday. So we resorted to fast and cheap, which meant food that was horrible for us--frozen dinners and lasagnas and burritos. Or we ate out, and I don't have to tell you that a McDonald's value meal isn't the path to rude, red health.

In for a pound

Good eating and health devolved to a daily struggle, as I figure it does for many of the working poor in America. Those citizens who can least afford to be unhealthy are forced to it. They don't have a lot of free time, and they don't have much disposable income. So they commute and work and eat in the unhealthiest combinations. Some might argue that it's education, but I would bet that most everyone they should eat fiber and fruits and vegetables. What I think they don't know is they can make a delicious serving of peas in about 10 minutes.

I would also think everyone knows by this point that physicians recommend a certain amount of daily exercise. This, of course, is the second part of America's unhealthy relationship with food. We're sedentary, as a culture. If we continue to cite the French as an example, we can claim the French get regular exercise as part of their everyday routines, in cliche. Think of your imaginary Paris. Think of chic women and suave men cycling cobblestone streets and walking to and from market with paper sacks bursting with a fresh baguette and unnamed cascade of greens (Why they would walk to market with a sack of groceries is anyone's guess. But it's our daydream, and they're French. So go figure, right?). Anyway, the point here is that many peoples across Europe incorporate exercise into their daily routine. It's probably why so many New Yorkers are in fair shape. They have to walk places. And it's why so many in Houston are overweight. They drive.

So how can we create a nation of healthy eaters? I don't know. I think we have to pay attention to the scale at which we operate. 90-minute commutes are no way to live. Nine--ten-hour workdays are no way to live. And a high-sodium, high-sugar meal-in-a-box that advertises itself as "a pound of food!" is the fast-track to an early grave. But I think things are slowly changing. I think people are becoming a little more conscious of their food. Those with enough time and disposable income have finally begun to sway advertising and marketing--have finally begun to prove to retailers that healthy food is important.

And now it's up to the rest of us. Share those fast, simple recipes. Make others understand that good food, fast, is possible. Not ideal, but possible. And keep cooking. For yourselves, for your families. It's probably the best thing we can do at this point. Cook and talk about it.


Yes said...

I agree whole-heartedly about cooking your own dinner. I grew up on frozen foods, and now my boyfriend and I make a point of cooking from scratch, using fresh vegetables and fresh ideas when we cook.
I think that the most difficult
thing about cooking is planning what to eat. An easy way to solve this dilemna is to plan before shopping. Buy vegetables, meats, and items that can spoil according to a meal plan, and plan to use everything you buy. For example, two bell peppers will make four omelettes, or two omelettes and two to four servings of black bean soup. If you know what you're going to make, the difficult part's done. Getting things mixed up and cooked is the easy part. A trusty back-up plan is a good idea too--I make homemade pizza when what I planned doesn't sound good anymore or one of my vegetables has rotted.
I know I'm preaching to the choir, but it's an excuse I hear too often, and you gave me a place to say my piece.
-Jess (from Poets&Writers)

Yes said...

Thanks again for the link!