How to Eat Consciously

I have been known to discuss, at long length, what I consider to be the appropriate diet.  And when I say diet, I do not mean South Beach or Atkins, raw foods or vegan.  I mean diet in the original sense, before it got associated with restrictions and weight loss and counting calories.  I mean diet, as in the foods eaten, as by a particular person or group.  I think at this point, some of my friends, and certainly my family, have probably heard various statistics at different times that all add up to one thing: Lauren really can talk about food.

However, I rarely go into conversations planning for it to come up, so I tend to spout incomplete thoughts. This blog entry is my way of fixing that.  This is my whole argument, about what I (and many others) consider to be an appropriate diet.  In writing this, I hope to reaffirm my own beliefs, answer any questions I may have left behind in previous discussions, and hopefully even get some of you thinking about this in your diets.

Please keep the following in mind while reading this: in life, there are things in which we get no say at all. There are some things we get to vote on every four years, and others more or less often than that. But with food, you vote three times a day.  What else in life gives you that much choice? The choices we make impact what the food industry produces.

The following are the principles I base my diet on and why. Enjoy!

  1. Eat Less Meat: I currently average about 4 ounces of animal meat each day.  By animal meat I mean all animals: chicken, fish, cow, etc.  The typical American (and citizens of most industrialized nations) eats an average of 8 ounces of meat each day, nearly 10 times more than what people in developing nations eat.  If the entire world ate this way, there would not be enough land on this planet to raise all of the animals needed.  The only way to raise enough meat to feed this habit of ours is on feedlots.  Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs for short, were developed in the US to produce large quantities of meat in smaller areas than traditional pasture.  The conditions in CAFOs are at best miserable. With cows, for example, they stand in their own waste, are fed a diet of grain and in some cases animal products which in turn makes them sick, so they are given antibiotics to keep them alive until they reach slaughter weight.  In fact, more than 50% of the antibiotics used in this country are given to animals! This practice has led to various problems, from mad cow disease to antibiotic resistant infections in humans.  But producing animals in this nature allows for a lot of cheap meat. And that is what our diet is asking for, as long as we continue to demand high quantities of meat. There is an added bonus in cutting back: meat production is responsible for releasing more greenhouse gases than transportation – so eating less will reduce your carbon footprint too!
  2. When eating meat or dairy, eat the best product you can get: I do my best to eat only sustainably-raised meats.  Whether this means choosing wild-caught salmon instead of farmed salmon, grass-fed beef instead of CAFO beef, or eggs from a chicken that hasn’t been raised in a cage, the meat & dairy I do eat comes from animals that are raised by more traditional methods. And if you’re not comfortable eating sustainable meat and/or dairy, vegetarianism and veganism are certainly options.  I am comfortable with my choice to eat animals, but it makes it an even easier decision if I know the animal was raised properly with care.  Yes, this can be more expensive – but if you’re eating less, it doesn’t matter!  I am making a personal effort this year to cut out all unsustainable meat.  There are some situations where this could be difficult, but I think I am willing to skip the meat in those cases.
  3. Eat organic produce: there was a time when farming was the occupation for more than 40% of the people in this country. Clearly it is not that way anymore – but when it was, farmers used traditional methods of crop rotation and cover crops to take care of the soil.  Different plants require different nutrients and when you plant the same crop in the same place over and over again, you deplete the soil, which is standard practice for industrial farming. In turn, the soil requires fertilizer to properly sustain plants.  Industrial fertilizer is harmful and depletes the soil even further. The runoff of this fertilizer and other products used in industrialized farming into the Mississippi River alone has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. While the practice of industrialized farming causes immense harm to our environment, in addition, I just prefer to not eat products laced with oil-based fertilizers and frightening chemical pesticides. If you can’t manage all organic, Environmental Working Group has great information that shows which fruits and vegetables soak up more pesticides and fertilizers – if you want to, you can buy the non-organic versions of the items that are least affected.
  4. Eat as locally as possible: Because organic asparagus from Chile in October just doesn’t make sense.
  5. Avoid processed foods: this one, for me, is pretty simple.  Just read the ingredient list.  If there’s something in there that you can’t pronounce, have never heard of, or would never be used in your own cooking, why the heck would you eat a processed food that contains it?  This includes high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrogenated oils, guar gum, etc.
  6. Limit intake of sugar and refined grains: The average American eats one cup of sugar per day.  That’s just gross.  And, it turns out that grains, when refined to their common state (white flour, white rice, etc.) lose all of their health benefits.  Since your body can gain nothing from them, eating refined grains is basically like eating sugar.  Your body can’t do anything with it – so if the calories aren’t used, they are stored as fat.  Remember 20 years ago when everyone started the low-fat diet craze?  Well, people more often than not gained weight because of the increase in intake of refined carbs.  Now, I like a little sugar in my coffee, the occasional dessert, and I love freshly baked artisanal breads – but in limited quantities.  When consuming grains, I aim for whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, cornmeal, whole grain bread and whole wheat pasta.

I could go on, but these are the basic ideas that I try to focus on.  I don’t worry about fat intake or counting carbs.  I don’t restrict myself or ban anything, I just try to eat consciously.  I could expand on so many things, but this is the essential information. I hope you find this helpful and interesting!

If you have questions or want more information, please leave a comment and I am happy to help.  In addition, the following are great sources:

From Michael Pollan:

From Mark Bittman:

From Marion Nestle:

In film:

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