What the food movement has accomplished, and hasn’t

I’ve written here before about the food movement–the range of initiatives and concerns, many distinct and even inconsistent–that relate in some way to the American way of growing, raising, manufacturing, marketing and consuming food, and the larger economic and political developments in the food economy.

This piece from The New Food Economy collects reflections from 20 perspectives, marking the 10th anniversary of Michael Pollan’s groundBook cover: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollanbreaking book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Those responding to the request for input include writers and academics, as well as farmers, activists and organizers. They were asked about the most important or surprising changes in the last 10 years, and the things that need to change but haven’t.

The editors note at the outset that “food movement” is “a broad term for a political, social, and economic revolution,” with “no one leader, no single belief system, no agreed-upon primary goal.” Those of us who have been paying attention have noticed the lack of anything like a national food policy that moves us toward a better, more sustainable, environmentally responsible way of feeding ourselves collectively

And yet, the signs of the food movement, or movements, are apparent everywhere around us–from local farmer’s markets, changes in what is marketed at grocery chains (such as organic produce, gluten-free and non-GMO food products), the politics of food labels and agriculture subsidies, the arrival of vegan cafes and the expansion of healthier fast food and meatless options, and many, many other changes and developments.

What is the impact of all of these on the larger food culture and economy? Where are we going?

A few of my favorite observations from the post are below:

Marion Nestle:

Today, I can hardly visit a college or university that does not have courses, programs, or departments devoted to food culture or food systems and an organic garden to boot. Did Omnivore’s Dilemma have anything to do with the hordes of students eager to study about food? Absolutely. These students are the future of food system transformation and reason for optimism that it will change, and much for the better.”

Eric Holt-Giménez:

[O]ur food isn’t allocated by choice, desire, values, or even by need, but through market demand. Capitalism is the silent ingredient in our food. It means that the 50 million people living in poverty in the richest country on earth—many of whom grow, harvest, process and serve our food—can’t afford to be foodies; they’re too busy worrying about where their next meal is coming from. If we care about people as much as we do about food, and if we really want to change the food system, we’d better become fluent in capitalism.

Mike Callicrate:

A critical mass of concerned eaters are now demanding food produced in a healthier, safer, more dependable and humane manner. The challenge going forward will be to continue to help consumers sort fact from fiction, even as Big Food keeps spinning out advertising copy to promote its industrially produced products.

Samuel Fromartz:

But one thing that has not happened? The meaningful coalescence of a broad-based political movement based on  reforming the food system, one that is powerful enough to prompt changes in the very policies that Pollan did so much to expose. Journalism can go only so far. Entrepreneurs and their customers can do only so much. More substantive change has to come through a political movement akin to the Farm Bureau, or the NRA with its millions of members on email lists and speed dial. And frankly, that has yet to happen. Without it, change will be piecemeal, hard fought, and slow to arrive.

Sleep, health and calling it a day

I had a sleep problem most of my life. As a boy, I hated being told it was time to sleep. Going to bed was mostly something imposed from above. Just as there were “times” to eat, there was a “time” to go to bed. I recall lying in my bedroom, staring at the blue light at the bottom of the door, thinking of the television shows that the grownups were watching a few feet away.

By being relegated to the bedroom, I felt I was missing out on life. That was a belief I carried into adulthood. Staying up later felt grown-up somehow, the way I later thought about smoking and drinking alcohol.

At least that was the story I came to believe. I resisted going to sleep then, and often feel the impulse to resist when drowsiness or a yawn signals to me that it’s time to call it a day. There is often a sense of something else that could be done, something not to be missed, something to stay up for that’s better than going to bed.

Sleep matters

There is a huge amount of research now on the benefits of sleep. These include studies that show sleep helping with everything from reducing stress and inflammation to better sex to stronger immunity and slowing the aging process. Further, sleep deficiency is associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes and even a greater chance of being involved in accidents.

But the point of this post is not to convince you that getting enough sleep pays big dividends. You probably already know you should be getting at least seven hours of sleep, just as you know to eat your vegetables, drink enough water and get regular exercise.

The growing chorus of voices making the point about the importance of sleep includes Mark Hyman, Christiane Northrup and Arianna Huffington, whose 2015 TED Talk is a fine, short introduction to the subject of sleep and the high cost of sleep deprivation.

Now that you know

The hard thing about self-care isn’t knowing what to do. It’s getting from where we are to where we know we need to be, despite cultural norms, conflicting priorities and time constraints. We develop habits over time, and sometimes our habits about things as basic as how we eat and when we go to bed are among the hardest to change. Something as basic as determining what would be an appropriate bedtime, in order to get the sleep you need, can be daunting.

Other things may have to be adjusted. You might, for example, need to tape Stephen Colbert’s show, to watch it the next day, rather than see it live. You might need to stop drinking fluids a couple of hours before that bedtime, to avoid having to get up several times overnight. It may be necessary to curtail Internet use and do something more conducive to sleep in the hour or two before your bedtime. It may help to define when to do everything from walking the dog to flossing your teeth.Cover: Arianna Huffington, The Sleep Revolution

As my experience suggests, getting to bed at a reasonable hour is one of those basic things in adult life that can stir up very child-like resistance for those of us who stopped being children decades ago.

If you’re inspired by Huffington’s video, you may be interested in her recently published book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.


Calling it a day

One of the best ideas about sleep was suggested to me by a mentor years ago. Pick a bedtime or a time just before you go to bed, and treat that as the beginning of the next day. So if this time is 10:30 p.m., your Tuesday begins at 10:30 on Monday, rather than at midnight or sunrise the next morning. If you stay up past that time on Monday, you’re stealing from Tuesday. When you think about it, this makes sense, since it’s on Tuesday that you’ll experience the diminished energy, alertness and productivity.

It may help to stop thinking of it as something that carries over from the previous day, something that happened in the past. The sleep you choose to get on Tuesday plays a large role in how you experience Tuesday.

This notion of when the next day begins can help to anchor a new ritual around sleep. If 11 p.m. was the designated end of your day, you might decide, for example, not to eat or drink anything after 9 p.m., to turn off televisions and computers by 10 p.m., and use the last hour only for things that help you prepare for your bedtime (like walking the dog, turning out lights or brushing and flossing your teeth) or that help to bring you to a drowsy state, like reading or meditating or writing in a journal.

The latter can be especially useful. A simple exercise such as writing down three things that went well that day and one that could be improved upon might help us to reach a point when we feel ready to release the day. We can stop resisting sleep and let go with acceptance, knowing we can begin again tomorrow.

Sleep can be approached as mindfully as eating, driving or any other activity. If you’ve already developed good sleep habits, good for you. If you haven’t: there are few more important habits of health, and if  you haven’t started yet, there’s no better time than tonight to begin to cultivate this one.

Book review: Dan Harris, 10% Happier

Ten years ago, it might have been news to report that meditation had arrived in the American mainstream. The signs have been everywhere for some time now: meditation retreats, classes and workshops in Yoga studios, hospitals, universities and office buildings; articles celebrating meditation in popular magazines, from AARP and TIME to Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health, and the rising popularity of new publications like Mindful; news stories report research findings that highlight the benefits of meditation: reducing stress, fostering emotional stability and helping to heal or prevent a wide range of medical conditions.

Today, these ideas are in the air. Go to any mainstream bookstore and you will find at least one shelf, and maybe many, displaying books on Buddhism and meditation. They may be shelved under Eastern religion or spirituality or self-help. Increasingly, they may be showing up in other areas too, including the best sellers section.

Meditation books break through

harris_10percentOne such book is Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2014. That may be partly due to name recognition: the author is an ABC News personality familiar to viewers of Good Morning America and Nightline. Beyond that, it was time for such a book to reach readers who had not picked up works by Buddhist thinkers and meditation teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sharon Salzberg. And there is the refreshing candor of the title, which doesn’t over-promise with guarantees of unending bliss or total transformation.

Who doesn’t want to be 10% happier?

Harris tells some of his personal story as an ambitious, skeptical and troubled television reporter. He describes the on-air panic attack (see below) and candidly reveals the recreational drug use that may have caused it. After Harris was recruited to cover the religion beat for ABC by his mentor Peter Jennings, he writes, he covered not only evangelical Christian leaders, such as Ted Haggard (before his downfall), but also self-help figures such as Eckart Tolle and Deepak Chopra–both of whom are profiled in this book.

He discusses a nagging problem: the constant stream of negative mental chatter, the “asshole” in his head, that made him unhappy and obsessive much of the time. Tolle’s ideas on “ego” mind and the power of the present moment had resonated deeply with Harris, who read Tolle’s The New Earth and tried without much success to spread the word to colleagues and friends. The chapter on Chopra (Happiness, Inc.), whom Harris met after Tolle, expands on a familiar theme: he is drawn to something these teachers have to offer, but cannot buy the whole package.

He was introduced to Buddhism through the books of Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and Buddhist practitioner, and was quickly impressed. But his reportorial skepticism clashed with aspects of Buddhism also. Throughout the book, Harris repeats his opinion that meditation has a huge public relations problem. In the minds of many, it is associated with hippies, Beat poets and “robed gurus.” Suffice it to say that these images did not appeal to Harris, who wanted to remain who he was while–in the words of the book’s subtitle–taming the voice in his head, reducing stress without losing his edge and finding self-help that actually worked.

He can be scathingly funny when writing of how the sharper edges of his personality clashed with the self-consciously spiritual presentation style of some leaders in the Buddhist self-help world. At a meditation gathering featuring the Tara Brach, the popular Buddhist teacher and psychologist, he writes:

She was holding forth in a creamy, cloying tone. The style was astonishingly affected–artificially soft and slow, as if she were trying to give you a Reiki massage with her voice. She exhorted us to love ourselves, “invited” us to close our eyes and “trust in the ocean-ness, in the vastness, in the mystery, in the awareness, in the love–so that you could really sense, ‘Nothing is wrong with me.’ “

Harris came to appreciate Brach and others to whom he took an initial dislike. It’s one manifestation of his growing ability, through meditation practice and studying Buddhist concepts, to respond more and react less, to become a nicer, more tolerant and compassionate person. In time, his mindfulness practice–30 minutes a day–helped him professionally as well. But that didn’t come overnight. There was a dry period, when he seemed to lose his competitive edge and observed passively and with growing frustration as news stories he wanted to cover were assigned to other correspondents. After some period on the sidelines, he learned (on a friend’s advice) to “hide the Zen” and advocate for himself more effectively. Having cultivated qualities like kindness and compassion, he learned to pursue his goals without being a jerk.

One of the most interesting aspects in the book is watching Harris, as he sees it, separating the wheat from the chaff. Eventually, he came to see the qualitative difference between what he sensed was the untethered mysticism of Tolle and Chopra and the solidly grounded value of meditation practice. Harris came to embrace Buddhist concepts and practices, including meta (or loving kindness) meditation, while remaining unconvinced about reincarnation, karma, and other cultural and religious baggage in Buddhism that he has chosen not to carry. Instead, he is drawn to the practical benefits of meditation, including improvement of health conditions ranging from asthma to stress among cancer patients. Notably, one of the few books that Harris recommends in an appendix is Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Becoming convinced

The most memorable chapter may be the long one that features a detailed account of his first meditation retreat, 10 days of noble silence at Spirit Rock in California. During those days, of course, he came face-to-face with himself. The experience brought many highs and lows: the dread of enforced silence; the boredom, tedium and fatigue of long hours alone with his thoughts; a period of euphoria, and tears of joy, brought on by a session of metta meditation; his private consultations with Joseph Goldstein, the lead teacher, whom Harris came to admire; and maybe most important, the teachings he could apply in his daily life.

Harris shares nuggets of wisdom that were especially significant for him. One came during a Q-and-A session near the end of the retreat, when Goldstein told the group not to spend too much time thinking about what they would need to do, post-retreat, when they reentered the world. Harris raised his hand to question this: If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.” Goldstein conceded the point, but added, “when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful?’ ”

Harris comes to understand the Buddhist concepts his teachers have emphasized: impermanence, mindfulness, choiceless awareness, sympathetic joy. He also learned what Buddhism doesn’t teach: being unfeeling, detachment from our practical concerns or nihilistic indifference to the world around us. He comes to realize that happiness and compassion are not rare qualities possessed by a few highly evolved beings, but skills that can be cultivated and learned by anyone. Many newcomers to meditation are struck by hyperactivity in their minds and frustrated by the unending need to return to the breath. Harris quotes Salzberg: “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”

If you wonder what meditation might be able to do for you, consider this passage from Harris’ review of brain research:

The old conventional wisdom was that once we reached adulthood, our brain stopped changing. This orthodoxy was now replaced with a new paradigm, called neuroplasticity. The brain, it turns out, is constantly changing in response to experience. It’s possible to sculpt your brain through meditation just as you build and tone your body through exercise–to grow your gray matter the way doing curls grows your bicep.

This idea contradicted widespread cultural assumptions about happiness that are reflected in the etymology of the word itself. The root hap means “luck,” as in hapless or haphazard. What the science was showing was that our levels of well-being, resilience, and impulse control were not simply God-given traits, our portion of which we had to accept as a fait accompli. The brain, the organ or experience, through which our entire lives are led, can be trained. Happiness is a skill.

I’ll leave you with a video of Harris summarizing his journey and telling the story behind the book.

Good readings: health, nutrition and self-care

In a career as a librarian, one of my greatest satisfactions has been to connect people with information they needed or could use. This is also a benefit having a blog: to share some of the best readings I have encountered with your audience. I hope that one or more of these will bring you useful information, insight or inspiration, as they did for me. To your well-being and happiness!

Readings on health and healing

Gabor Maté, How to Build a Culture of Good Health (Yes! magazine).  This is a remarkable article that brings together many threads: the limitations of the current model for doctoring; the relationships of emotions and trauma to physical health; connections between specific diseases, self-imposed stress and coping patterns dating from childhood.

It also suggests some ways we can create a healthier environment for optimal health: “Find alternative sources for what most physicians cannot provide: a holistic approach that considers not organs and systems but the entire human organism. Take responsibility for how you live, the food you ingest, your emotional balance, your spiritual development, the integrity of your relationships. … Give yourself, as best you can, what your parents would have loved to grant you but probably could not: full-hearted attention, full-minded awareness, and compassion. Make gifting yourself with these qualities your daily practice.”

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Gabor Maté, this is a fine introduction to his thought and work.

Linda Jackson, What is healing? From a friend and fellow blogger, this beautiful reflection on healing expresses an understanding of healing as much more than the absence of a disease or illness. Rather, healing involves “finding a sense of well-being and peace within our lives as a whole — spiritual, emotional, mental, relational, and physical — and learning to live fully with or without a condition or disease.” Whether a trip to the doctor brings wanted or unwanted news, whatever the diagnosis or prognosis, these are words to revisit and explore.

On nutrition and eating

image: reading on hand-held deviceU Chicago News, Sleep Loss Boosts Hunger and Unhealthy Food Choices. Reporting on a research article from the journal Sleep (abstract only available; article is blocked by paywall), this report summarizes the findings: “Skimping on sleep has long been associated with overeating, poor food choices and weight gain. Now a new study shows how sleep loss initiates this process, amplifying and extending blood levels of a chemical signal that enhances the joy of eating, particularly the guilty pleasures gained from sweet or salty, high-fat snacks.” Among the findings of the study: the cravings for satisfying snacks among sleep-deprived people mimic the cravings that follow marijuana use.

Mental Floss, The Top 20 Most Addictive Foods, According to Study. This report summarizes findings from a research article (in the journal PLOS One) about what foods have the most addictive qualities, among a group of young study participants.  “[O]f the 35 food options, those that have been processed and contain more fat and a higher glycemic load are most frequently associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. ” The top 5 among 20 listed foods in one study were (in order): pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, ice cream. This report quotes from the research article: “It is plausible that like drugs of abuse, these highly processed foods may be more likely to trigger addictive-like biological and behavioral responses due to their unnaturally high levels of reward.”

On self-care

Karen Koenig, The Necessity of Self-Care Routines (Eating Disorders Blogs). This reflection is always timely for those of us who can relate to the phenomenon of abandoning our self-care practices when we need them most.

“One of the worst things you can do when you’re experiencing distress is to drop your self-care routine—eating regularly, getting enough sleep, exercising, and doing the small activities that give your life structure and publicly proclaim ‘Look how much I love me.’ Emotional health includes keeping up with attention to self no matter what’s going on in life. This is exactly what many dysregulated eaters don’t do when life tosses them a curve ball or there is a change in their normal routine.”

Nobody’s perfect: the wisdom of an 80-20 split

When I studied positive psychology through the Whole Being Institute, Tal ben-Shahar, the lead instructor, emphasized the importance of giving ourselves “permission to be human.” In his book Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life, he notes a fundamental distinction between the perfectionist and the “optimalist”:

The Perfectionist expects her path toward any goal–and, indeed, her entire journey through life–to be direct, smooth, and free of obstacles. When, inevitably, it isn’t–when, for instance, she fails at a task, or when things don’t quite turn out the way she expected–she is extremely frustrated and has difficulty coping. While the Perfectionist rejects failure, the Optimalist accepts it as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success…. I was unhappy in college, in large part because I could not accept failure as a necessary part of learning–and of living.

There are countless diets, plans for healthier eating, and nutritional programs. Millions of people are pursuing these programs, often with dedication and motivation. And yet everywhere we look, we can see that, far from being easy, most diets are unsuccessful.

Most people find there are cravings, emotional triggers, bad days, lonely nights. Resistance arises. We slip. No matter how convinced we may be that our program is sound, most of us will deviate, make mistakes, spin off the rails now and again. The circumstances of these episodes will very among people. It may be a big holiday meal with the family, the platters of food at a Super Bowl party, negative comments in a performance evaluation at work, a noisy neighbor playing loud music in the apartment building, or something else–boredom, loneliness, unfinished grieving, falling into an old coping pattern.

Critical self-talk

One of the most common responses when these setbacks occur is severe self-criticism (I’m stupid, I’m  weak, I can’t believe I screwed up again). Another is to concede failure, to give up, to decide the eating regimen is just too hard. We may lament, I just can’t do this.

There are alternatives that can help to guide us away from the tyranny of the inner critic. We could acknowledge the deviations and learn from them. We can learn to become comfortable with imperfection, to embrace ourselves as we are. And then to resume, to continue with our program.

Image: perfection is stagnationWhat if the slip was not viewed as a devastating defeat, but as an unsurprising part of the program? Doesn’t it make more sense to acknowledge it may happen–to accept our imperfect application as part of who we are–rather than to make perfection a test of our worthiness?

Similar choices could be made about other self-care commitments–about eliminating caffeine, getting 7 hours of sleep per night, increasing our level of exercise. Following the intended pattern most of the time is a lot better than giving up the effort altogether.

The perfect, the good and the S.A.D.

I have written here about the health consequences of refined carbohydrates and added sugars–the central place they hold in the Standard American Diet (SAD), the impact on blood sugar, weight gain and diabetes. There is broad agreement about the undesirability of eating foods made with highly processed grains and added sugars.

And yet: If I tried to eliminate these factors entirely from what I eat–if I tried to implement a 100% non-SAD approach to eating–my dietary experience would be much more difficult. It would be harder to eat out with friends or accept an invitation to dinner at a friend’s home without bringing my own food for myself. It would be harder to negotiate the food culture in which I live. I would be thinking that never again could I have a donut or a bag of chips. And the inner rebel in my mind would be waiting to seize on a moment of weakness, to tell me What could it hurt? and then to feel defeated when I took that advice and had the forbidden thing.

I have written here about the benefits of reducing and limiting consumption of meat, even if you’re not prepared to become vegetarian or vegan. Eating 50% or 75% less meat is a lot healthier than making no behavior change while  lamenting the downside of animal agriculture and the effects on human health of a heavily carnivorous diet. Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6pm approach is consistent with this approach.

wisdom perfectionismThe same principle applies to those foods that can be viewed as treats or occasional indulgences. If the tortilla chips or coffeehouse muffin or ice cream cone is an occasional indulgence rather than the forbidden fruit, my experience teaches me that I’m more likely to succeed with my program if I make the mindful choice to make room for it–or to plan on it–rather than to take a permanent pledge never to touch it again, to label it “bad” and take a lifetime oath against it.

The headline for this post speaks of an 80-20 split. The idea is to build a healthy way to eat and stick to it most of the time. There is nothing magical about 80% or any other precise number. Joshua Rosenthal, who founded the Institute for Integrative Nutrition–where I studied nutrition and health coaching–speaks of a 90-10 diet, which allows people to indulge their cravings 10 percent of the time, while eating more healthily most of the time.

The addiction exception

There is an important caveat to this principle: Many of us may have identified certain things that we have come to realize we cannot consume, because the price is too high to justify the indulgence. The classic example is the object of an addiction: for an alcoholic, the first drink; for others, it could be a trip to a casino, bringing a binge food home from the grocery store or making some other choice that may lead to a downward slide that one has experienced before, and possibly many times.

Many people view certain specific foods in similar ways. Some have come to see their relationship to sugar, to white flour, or to other foods as similarly disordered.  Scientific studies suggest similarities between the way humans and animals respond to certain foods, particularly sugar, and the responses to substances of abuse.

It is not my point here to argue against the concept of food addiction or to challenge the central premise of groups like Overeaters Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous. If our inner wisdom tells us that we have such an issue with sugar or white flour, other specific foods or food in general, it makes sense to heed that wisdom, listen to that voice. For those who have found a social support system and a program of recovery–a place to go and share and learn–then it is sensible to make use that source of support.

Beyond dieting

There is much more to say about deprivation dieting–and also approaches to eating that do not set us up to fail in the same way that most diets do. Among the keys are flexibility, eating enough of the right things to be satisfied, finding a workable outlet for dealing with uncomfortable emotions, and learning from both personal experience and scientific evidence. I look forward to addressing these themes and hope you will return to this space.

Book review: Mark Bittman, VB6 – Eat Vegan Before 6:00

Before leaving his position as food and opinion writer for The New York Times, Mark Bittman published an innovative book that summarizes much of what he knows about eating and health: VB6 (which stands for Eat Vegan Before 6pm). The title contains the essential message: eat whatever you want for dinner in the evening, but during the day, avoid meat and other animal products entirely. Moreover, he emphasizes, also avoid processed foods with refined carbohydrates, added sugars and other components of the Standard American Diet (SAD).

image of book cover: Mark Bittman, VB6 Eat Vegan Before 6:00This VB6 program evolved out of Bittman’s own needs. Some years ago, he had a blunt conversation with his doctor, who told him, “You should probably become a vegan.” At the time, Bittman had been “eating without discipline” for decades as a cookbook author and food writer. He was overweight, pre-diabetic and had high cholesterol levels. Despite his doctor’s suggestion, he was unwilling to forego all animal products, at least all the time. Instead, as an alternative, he developed this part-time vegan plan, which he has followed for several years.

The book is arranged in three sections. In the first few chapters, Bittman offers the essentials of nutrition and health and explains why the SAD has fueled a health crisis in the United States, with rising levels of obesity, type-2 diabetes and other chronic conditions. In the next few chapters, he explains the principles and practicalities of implementing his VB6 plan. And finally, he provides  recipes to help those who are persuaded to give this program a try.

Nutrition for the layman

In this first section, Bittman provides a primer on nutrition for the layman–with just enough science and medical jargon. He explains good and bad carbohydrates (especially whole and processed grains); omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, HDL and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides; insulin, leptin, blood sugar and the usefulness (and limitations) of glycemic index and glycemic load and measuring tools; and he references what research tells us about how the way what we eat affects weight, cardiovascular health and other health conditions.

Like many other writers and nutrition authorities, Bittman concludes that we should eat less meat and processed food and more plant food, including a variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. In making his case, Bittman implies that the elimination of most refined grains and sugars is really more important to human health than the decision to go meatless for most of the day. But he argues persuasively for both.

I’m not aware of a more concise and readable treatment of this material in a recent, popular book. The first third of the book would serve as a great introduction for anyone interested in cleaning up the way they eat, whether or not they choose to adopt the program.

Living the VB6 plan

In its second section, the book explains what his plan entails and how to implement it. Bittman devotes a chapter to laying out his six main principles of VB6, including such guidelines as “eat fruit and vegetables in abundance,” “eat (almost) no junk food,” and “cook at home as much as possible.” To change habits as ingrained as those involving the way we eat, Bittman writes, we need to move mindfully through four steps: decide, plan, act and maintain.

Having made the case for deciding to try VB6, Bittman addresses the remaining steps in some detail in this section of the book. He identifies his three “food groups”: Unlimited, foods that can be eaten without concern about portions (this includes most vegetables and fruit, and many condiments and spices); Flexible, more calorie-dense foods that must be eaten in moderation (beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, oils and sweet condiments); and Treats (meat, fish, dairy, processed carbohydrates such as white pasta, alcohol, desserts, sweets and fast food). Nothing is forbidden in this program, but treats must be chosen sparingly.

Bittman is a man with well-informed preferences and strong opinions, and he doesn’t like perfectionism and purity. He makes many references to inevitable slips and occasional indulgences–and acknowledges they are part of the program. You have permission to be human and deviate now and then. The author acknowledges his decisions to do this, and encourages us to do the same. Just make an adjustment in your next meal or resume on the next day. Punishing self-judgments are, like deprivation diets (which he repeatedly condemns), part of the problem, not the solution.

Getting specific with VB6

It wouldn’t be a Mark Bittman book without recipes. The last part of VB6 provides them, with detailed nutritional information per serving.

Many nutrition and health books include a section for recipes offered by the doctor/author or a nutritionist hired to provide suggested dishes that fit the program guidelines. Bittman’s suggestions are likely to pack a bigger punch than those in other books. He’s been teaching people how to cook, and writing cookbooks, for decades. The number of recipes included here is modest, but they are not too complicated and more than adequate to get a convinced reader off to a good start. These suggestions follow VB6 principles: vegan choices before 6 and dinners that include meat and cheese.

  • Breakfast: cold and hot cereals, fruity choices and smoothies, and hot selections including a tofu scramble and a Turkish breakfast with chickpeas
  • Lunch: soups and salads, hot cooked pastas and dishes like black bean tacos and chickpea ratatouille
  • Dinner: chicken, beef and seafood dishes, and a few vegetarian options such as baked ziti with vegetables and cheese
  • Snacks: though Bittman prefers fruit and nuts as snacks, he suggests some satisfying recipes here: tofu jerky, tortilla crisps, vegan “creamsicles,” and a few others
  • “Building block” recipes: much more than supplements and extras, these are the essentials for a new way of eating, including a “daily salad bowl” and home-made dressing, and “big batches” of rice/grain, beans, tomato sauce and vegetable stock

For readers who want detailed instructions of exactly what to do–Obligers and Upholders, in Gretchen Rubin’s terminology–Bittman provides a 28-day plan featuring his recipes for each meal over a month. For most others, these recipes include some useful suggestions that could be adopted one or two at a time. For those seeking to implement more plant-based eating, without taking a cold-turkey plunge into full-time veganism, this section–and the “building block”recipes, in particular–could be an excellent start.

VB6 in perspective

One strength of Bittman’s part-time vegetarian approach can be found in troubling facts that are not always acknowledged by those with a more ideological approach to veganism: There are clear benefits to meatless eating, an approach supported by powerful ethical and environmental arguments. Nonetheless, according to various surveys, stubbornly low percentages of Americans have adopted vegetarianism (maybe 5%) or veganism (1%, if that). And there are many smart and articulate people who, having been vegan or vegetarian for years, abandoned those diets, citing cravings for animal products, nutritional deficiencies and health concerns. Many meat-eaters are fit and healthy people. And research on nutrition and health suggest that the worst health problems associated with the SAD are related more to added sugars and refined grains than to meat-eating as such.

Bittman’s VB6 program dovetails with Michael Pollan’s oft-cited guidelines to eat real food, “mostly plants,” and not too much. Bittman emphasizes that final  standard with suggestions to watch portion sizes and be mindful with inevitable indulgences. He argues that VB6 is likely to lead to reducing meat-eating even in the evening hours, as he reports it has for him. He also suggests that those who give up junk food and treats for most of the day are likely to curtail their indulgences even in the hours when it isn’t cheating to enjoy them.

Dr. Dean Ornish wrote the foreward to this book. Though Ornish is one of the most prominent advocates of plant-based eating, preventive medicine and a pre-eminent researcher of the health benefits of lifestyle change (including a vegetarian diet), he writes that “It’s not all or nothing. You have a spectrum of choices.” Ornish praises both book and its author for their non-judgmental, non-absolute, pragmatic approach to addressing America’s health crisis. He notes that the more we change what we eat, the greater the impact on our health and the environment. Implicit in this part-way approach is the notion that the perfect can become the enemy of the good–and the good often leads to even better. With so much at stake for ourselves and the world, it’s a shame to let perfectionism block progress.

Pros, cons and finals thoughts

Photo of Mark Bittman, author of VB6

Mark Bittman

You may know Bittman from his long career as a food writer with The New York Times, his cookbooks, and for several years, his NYT opinion columns that focused on food-related issues. In September, he submitted his final column, and a list of some of his favorite NYT columns. Sustainable agriculture, the reckless use of antibiotics on food animals, the low wages paid to farm and fast food workers, absurdities in the school lunch program, the need for a national nutrition policy–Bittman has addressed them all. Many of the ideas from his columns and previous books (especially Food Matters) show up in VB6.

The VB6 approach will work best for food-lovers who enjoy well-prepared and tasty food, those who like to cook (or are willing to learn) and people who are interested in vegetarianism but find going completely meatless too daunting. As with other vegetarian and healthier approaches to eating, Bittman’s plan may be most popular among those with a serious health concern, a passion for reducing animal cruelty or an understanding of how unsustainable the Western way of eating has become.

Those who will struggle with VB6 may likely be those who don’t like to cook, who eat most of their meals away from home or who feel too time-pressured to spend the time in the kitchen that VB6 will require. Bittman’s new project is helping to design plant-based meals for The Purple Carrot, a meal-kit delivery company. That enterprise is predicated on understanding how challenging it can be for those with limited time and/or cooking skills to shift to a mostly plants way of eating, especially if they have high standards for food quality.

Passionate, committed  vegans probably won’t adopt this approach, and neither will consumers who are unwilling to give their bodies and taste buds time to adapt to this new way of eating. The more a person loves the familiar comforts of a can of Pringles, their favorite cheeseburger smothered in ketchup made with high fructose corn syrup or sugary or diet colas, the harder it will be to begin an approach like VB6. It takes time and dedicated effort to wean oneself off of the overload of sugar, fat and salt–and the refined grains–that occupy so much space in the SAD.

By the way, I have not adopted Bittman’s VB6 plan. Having been vegetarian for several years, I have not chosen to add the meat-based dishes he suggests for the evening hours. But there is much here to be adopted, spades of common sense and a range of great ideas. He includes chapters, sections and sidebars on numerous practical concerns–from how to stock a pantry and how to make time in the kitchen most efficient to what to put in a vegan sandwich and how to make your own non-dairy milks.

Some food writers have tried the plan, and have posted their results. See the pieces by Emma Christensen on the kitchnLisa Schweitzer on WebMD and this long post by writer and blogger John Shanahan. The consensus view is, not surprisingly, What’s not to like? Whether you see it as a modest step forward or profoundly transformative, going VB6 is positive movement with few drawbacks that are not present to a much greater degree in the way most of us currently eat.

I like the book for the accessible exploration of nutrition and health, its attempt to reach an audience that might otherwise miss the meatless message, and for the practical tips and recipes.

Along with Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Marion Nestle–and many others with less prominent perches and smaller audiences–Mark Bittman has helped to teach millions of Americans how to eat. With this book, in effect, Bittman is passing the baton. If we want to change ourselves, our destinies and to the extent we can, the world, here’s a way to do it.

It’s up to us now to decide, and act.

Eating out: strategies for restaurant dining

Eating out can be challenging. If you’re like me, you’ve had this experience many times: You go to a familiar restaurant and order a favorite dish, or maybe something you haven’t had before. When it is delivered, you think, This is more food than I need. If you had a separate container, you could easily put half of it aside for later and have a satisfying meal on what remains.

Image: divide a large meal in two; save half for laterBut probably you didn’t bring such a container to the restaurant, and it may feel awkward to ask the server for a “doggy bag” when your meal has just arrived. It isn’t what most people do. And besides, the containers supplied in restaurants are often styrofoam or cheap plastic or aluminum with clear plastic lids. You may have a fleeting thought of leaky containers leaving a stain in the car or that using them will add more non-biodegradable bulk to your community’s landfill.

You begin eating the meal. At some point, perhaps, you notice that you’ve eaten the half that you guessed would be enough. Maybe you pause at this point. The food is tasty enough to eat more. If you’ve eaten quickly, your stomach may not have sent the “full” signal, that it’s time to consider stopping. You take another bite. You’re with a friend, maybe, and the conversation continues, or maybe you’re alone and reading a magazine or checking Facebook. A bite here, a bite there. Soon enough, you’re down to the last two or three bites, so you might as well finish it off. Why let good food go to waste?

And so it goes. A very large plate of food that could have served for two meals, and sometimes more than that, is gone. (I recall an Italian restaurant in Boston that was famous for servings large enough food for three or four adults.) How did this happen? Why does this so often seem to happen?

Now, this may not be a pattern you can relate to. You may be a “normal” eater who chews your food slowly, enjoys long stretches of conversation between bites, stops eating when sensing that your stomach has had enough, and says “yes, please” when the server eventually comes around to ask if you’d like the rest wrapped to go. If that’s you, great. I know people like you, though I have never been one of them. Until recently, through most of my adult life, I could have counted the number of times I followed this pattern on my fingers.

Old tapes, old behaviors

For many of us, when eating patterns are engaged, old tapes play in our heads.  Don’t waste food. Don’t let good food go to waste. There are hungry people in your community, and starving people around the world, who would be grateful for a meal like this. It’s selfish to waste food. It’s wrong. Clean your plate. It’s the right thing to do.

Do any of these messages resonate for you?

Many of us learned these lessons from our parents or other caretakers, who may have been trying to coax us to eat our vegetables or to finish the main meal before asking for dessert. Those adults may have worked hard to put that food on the table, and they didn’t want to scrape half of what they served us into the garbage. If a child rejected a meal prepared by a parent or grandparent, it might mean an argument with hurtful words, silent anger or some other unpleasantness.

Parental pronouncements were often delivered with moral or religious authority. And the message stuck; it’s echoes reverberate in the subconscious mind many years later. You should clean your plate. It’s wrong not to.

As adults, we know that cleaning our plates–this often means overeating–will not relieve the suffering of hungry people around the world. But many of us clean our plates anyway. Evidently, it’s better to use our digestive tracts as a waste disposal system than to discard food that we do not need–or even want. Is it because, if we eat this extra food, we’re more virtuous than the person who “throws away” the food? Be good and eat it. Don’t be selfish and let it go to waste. For lifetime members of the Clean the Plate Club, it’s as if a parent is still whispering in our ears, reminding us that the old rules still apply.

For many people, these lessons, when carried into adulthood, are counterproductive. For compulsive overeaters or those with serious, eating-related health concerns, they may be at the root of painfully destructive eating patterns that have lasted decades.

It helps to see this ancient conditioning for what it is, more like the barnacles on a ship’s hull than useful dietary information or ethical guidance. If you become aware of it, you can let it go. Awareness is powerful.

Choices that serve us

Consider those images at the top of this post. Is there anything preventing you from carrying such a container (or more than one) to a restaurant and dividing up the portions as you see fit?

When this becomes part of one’s eating-out strategy, choices proliferate. At a Thai restaurant, for example, I can order a curry dish, a large portion cooked in coconut milk, served with rice, and also order an order of steamed vegetables. On my plate, I could spoon some of the rice, the curry and the steamed vegetables, mix them together (maybe with a spoonful or two of the curry sauce) and have a satisfying, flavorful meal. And of the ample portions remaining, I could put the rest in my container(s) and enjoy another meal at home, or parcel it out as a tasty side dish for multiple meals.

We can be pro-active and use the food we pay for in a way that works for us, rather than act as if, in this adult restaurant experience, we’re still eight-year-olds following a set of rules that no longer apply. In an era when eating out was a rare experience, this may not have been a major issue. For many of us today, it’s something we deal with often, possibly several times a week. Many workers eat out every day on their lunch hours. Through repetition, the impact of the decisions made when eating out keeps growing.

Often, we have freedom to choose, far more than we are aware of, throughout the day. We can make choices that serve us rather than follow patterns that undermine what we want for our health and well-being. These patterns can play a large role in determining how much suffering we experience, and how much happiness.

Some new questions can help to interrupt the old tapes: In this situation, what choices would serve me best? What can I do that is consistent with having the healthy body that I want? What options would help me enjoy this meal without regrets?

Slow down and enjoy the food

Once we have an idea about what to eat, many writers, nutritionists and health advocates have suggested strategies for how to eat, which usually includes slowing down and savoring our meals. For example, Geneen Roth’s eating guidelines emphasize eating in a calm environment without distractions. Religious traditions have taught followers to pause for a prayer of thanks before beginning to eat. (As with having a sabbath or day of rest, one can appreciate the wisdom of this teaching, whether or not one adheres to any of those religions.) Many have noted the value of chewing food thoroughly, reducing it to liquid before swallowing, as an aid to digestion. Other techniques include such mechanical approaches as allowing at least 30 seconds between bites or setting down the fork while chewing between bites.

For many people, it can be difficult to slow down while eating. We may not have learned to do this when growing up. If we had parents who ate quickly, that may have been modeled for us from an early age. If we were raised in a large family and competed for what was provided in serving bowls, taking your time may have meant missing out. If we ate with television or other distractions, or heard firm commands to clean our plates, we may never have developed the ability to notice our body’s internal signals that we’ve eaten enough. Few patterns are more ingrained than those involving eating, and many of us never learned when to stop.

Workshop leaders often include a mindful eating exercise in which each participant gets the same item of food–for example: a raisin, an almond or a piece of chocolate. Participants may be invited to study the item, contemplate where it came from and those who participated in producing it; feel the texture, weight and shape of it; experience it with other senses, including smell; and finally to feel it in the mouth, taste it and chew it very slowly or let it melt until it becomes liquid.

Image of message while eating: SLOW

A simple reminder can help to change an eating habit.

Doing this with the first bite of a meal is one way of pausing to bring more mindfulness to eating, to set the pace for the meal. At times, I have found it helpful to place an index card or piece of paper with a simple focus word (“SLOW”) where I can see it during a meal. Many find it helpful to take a few deep breaths or to sip a glass of water during a meal. Each of us can create his or her own list of strategies for slowing down while eating, a crucial but often forgotten piece of self-care.

There is a growing body of evidence of a biochemical link between eating too quickly and eating too much. As noted in this Harvard Medical School article:

Scientists have known for some time that a full stomach is only part of what causes someone to feel satisfied after a meal; the brain must also receive a series of signals from digestive hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract.

Stretch receptors in the stomach are activated as it fills with food or water; these signal the brain directly through the vagus nerve that connects gut and brainstem. Hormonal signals are released as partially digested food enters the small intestine. One example is cholecystokinin (CCK), released by the intestines in response to food consumed during a meal. Another hormone, leptin, produced by fat cells, is an adiposity signal that communicates with the brain about long-range needs and satiety, based on the body’s energy stores. Research suggests that leptin amplifies the CCK signals, to enhance the feeling of fullness. Other research suggests that leptin also interacts with the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain to produce a feeling of pleasure after eating. The theory is that, by eating too quickly, people may not give this intricate hormonal cross-talk system enough time to work.

Slowing down when eating out

Applying this knowledge can be both simpler and more difficult when eating in restaurants.

As noted in a previous post, many restaurants have created strategic distractions that can make conscious choosing harder to do. If there are multiple television screens with different sporting events and speakers with music that is just a little too loud and intrusive for diners to enjoy conversation, the meal is a different experience. Just as we can become distracted by a very large menu with many dozens of choices, your ability to make mindful choices can be diminished by the sound and chaos in the dining room. Fortunately, if we’re thinking about it, those restaurants can be spotted, and avoided, pretty easily.

Slowing down can be easier if you’re out with congenial friends and the focus is as much on the conversation as the food. Likewise, if the habit of chewing each bite, say, 30 times before swallowing–or pausing for a minute before taking the next bite–has become established, this way of eating may become as automatic as eating quickly is for so many others.

If this is a difficult new practice to follow, you might want to build in some assistance to get different results. Among the restaurants you know, choose those that are most conducive to having a leisurely meal. Eat with other slow eaters, or go out with a friend or accountability partner, who supports what you are trying to do. Include some techniques that you’ve chosen to help, such as putting down your fork between bites, or pausing to take 2-3 deep breaths before the next bite. Embrace imperfection, and examine your struggles with curiosity (avoiding self-criticism). Remember: As with any important pursuit, there will be resistance. Eating habits tend to be old ones that developed over time; they won’t likely be changed quickly or effortlessly.

New habit formation: A slow eating exercise

If we need some structure in order to slow down when eating, then it may help to consider a model like this one for a 30-day challenge. Consider these steps for forming a new habit:

  1. Identify the new habit and state why you want to adopt it (the benefits, what difference it will make in your life)
  2. Describe the actions you will take for 30 days to incorporate the new habit (details: what, when, how often)
  3. Journal about your experience each day, and the obstacles (resistance) that arise (hint: do not expect perfect compliance; deviations are part of the process)
  4. At the end of the 30 days, reflect on the results. You may decide you need more time to establish the new habit, and give it another 10, 20 or 30 days; or you may conclude that the habit is now established. If so, it may be time to focus on another new habit you would like to develop.

This is the second in a series of posts. For the first, click here.


Eating out: from mindless to mindful

Few things signal the change in the way Americans eat more clearly than the decline of the home cooking, dinners when household members sit together to enjoy a meal that may have been made with fresh ingredients. What used to be a norm is now often seen as the province of foodies in a culture where eating out is more common than cooking from scratch. It says a lot that there was a perceived need for a “slow food” movement to counteract fast food and what it represents.

Often, when people over 50 talk about the experience of eating in restaurants when they were children, they point out how rare it was then. “We almost never ate out, maybe twice a year, and it was always a special occasion,” one friend said. “My father thought it was a waste of money,” explained another.

I almost never hear people talk that way about eating out today. There are a variety of reasons for that. They include the proliferation of fast food outlets, take-out restaurants, and drive-thru lanes; the relentless marketing of convenient and cheap ways to eat away from home; and government policies that subsidize the major ingredients of fast food (corn, wheat, soybeans, not to mention grain-fed cattle, hogs and chickens), but not “specialty” crops, such as broccoli, carrots and apples.

photo of string of fast food outletsEating out, grabbing something on the way between appointments, having a snack or a meal while driving–it’s all part of the way we live now. It’s been that way long enough–and has become such a deeply ingrained pattern–that many of us don’t remember another way of eating.

It’s simply easier and usually cheaper to pick up a burger & fries or burrito or chicken nuggets, together with a soda, than to have, say, a chicken breast or piece of salmon with a vegetable side and a salad. The dominant food culture guides us away from eating well.

Studies show that the percentage of Americans who cooked, and daily time devoted to cooking by those who did, both began to decline in the 1960s. Last year, news reports noted that a Commerce Department survey of businesses showed that sales at restaurants and bars had overtaken grocery sales for the first time. Think about the implications.

It’s hard not to be influenced by a grab-it-and-go food culture, which serves the interests of fast food outlets, makers of food-like products and operators of convenience stores, gas stations and vending machines more than it serves our health and well-being. Generally, the choices we make in these situations are not optimal. Often, they are really bad for us.

In a market-driven environment, convenience and price have trumped other considerations.

Pollan’s guidance and restaurant reality

Several of the problems are well noted in this Huffington Post article based on Michael Pollan’s slogan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” To paraphrase:

  • Eat (real) food: the primary driver for ingredients that restaurants use is cost, not their healthiness or realness
  • Not too much: restaurants (and not just fast food outlets) supersize to give customers the sense that they’re getting their money’s worth, to encourage people to come again
  • Mostly plants: it’s less profitable to use plants, because “fresh produce has a shorter shelf life and is more challenging to ship and resell compared to most processed foods and animal-based products such as dairy and meat”

It’s easy to see the consequences of these factors when we eat out.

The high price of convenient, cheap food

In major fast food chains–think of McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway–the food is made mostly from these categories: meat, white bread, cheese and white potatoes. Vegetables are often treated as condiments, or limited to chips, french fries, onion rings–i.e., starchy vegetables, usually frozen and deep-fried.

We are so used to this pattern that it seems normal to eat this way. Many people eat this way more often than not.

As Mark Bittman has written, “It doesn’t help that Big Macs–or whatever your junk food of choice might be–aren’t just convenient, they’re super-convenient. Their perpetual availability fuels a cycle of reckless indulgence by making it easy to eat inexpensive, often harmful meals at any time of day or night, without even leaving your car.”

Image: Morgan Spurlock's film, Super Size MeFrom Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation to Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me,” many artists and writers have developed ways to explore, in Schlosser’s phrase, “the dark side of the all-American meal.” Even if we haven’t studied the evidence, most of us understand the health consequences of this way of eating. Spurlock’s movie highlights the physical and emotional effects of eating nothing but McDonalds food for a month: it was devastating. Millions have pursued their own less extreme versions of this feat and have experienced the results.

Given the consequences, why would anyone eat this way? It’s cheap and convenient, to be sure. And there is compelling evidence of the addictive qualities of junk food, as Dr. Mark Hyman summarized here. The more fast food you eat, the harder it is to stop.

The more recent generation of faster food outlets, such as Chipotle, Panera Bread and Cosi, have offered more nutritious meals to the standard fast food fare of cheeseburger, fries and soda. (Even with “traditional” fast food, some choices are better than others.) The newer chains have challenged the dominance of McDonalds, which has seen its profits and market share stagnate.

rallysBut the lowest common denominator in fast food quality isn’t going away. The largest international fast food companies are also challenged by numerous national, regional and local companies that crank out their own version of the standard, fast food meal: from chains like Sonic and Rally’s to gas stations, truck stops and convenience stores that sell their own portable meals.

Of the actions that we take repeatedly, few are more consequential than settling for whatever is cheap and convenient when choosing what to eat. While we all find ourselves in situation where going through a drive-thru lane may be the most practical decision, it is rarely one that serves us well. That is especially true when we do it habitually.

Planning and flexibility when eating out

At the same time, it’s a lot easier to pick a restaurant that meets your needs than it used to be. Most independent restaurants and nearly all chains have websites. Restaurants with websites usually post their menus, and chains often post nutritional information (at least calories, sometimes more). Before choosing a restaurant, or agreeing to go to a place that others in your group prefer, it’s often possible to check ahead and see if the menu has options that meet your needs. If you’re looking for low glycemic alternatives or vegetarian or gluten-free options, say, checking before the restaurant is chosen can help to avoid an uncomfortable dilemma. It is usually the case that restaurants with menus that highlight these alternative options will be better choices for those who know they have particular needs–and also for those who are seeking healthier meals.

In most sit-down restaurants featuring American cuisine, the menu features servings of meat or fish with some kind of vegetable side dish or salad, or possibly pasta, pizza and other similar entrees. Food publications and writers have noted how backwards this is and noted the benefits of meals that feature more vegetables and less meat. In Mindful magazine, the chef Dan Barber’s vision of “three plates” explores the traditional, meat-centered model, a farm-to-table alternative, and a third plate that flips the emphasis, with vegetables as the centerpiece and meat as a side dish, more for flavoring than the anchor of the meal.

We are nowhere near the point where Barber’s third plate is the norm in more than a tiny fraction of restaurant meals, but in a free society individuals can make their own personal shift. When eating out, flexibility is key. If the menu structure guides diners to order a large piece of meat, think of other approaches. Many restaurants have altered their menus in recent years, offering a range of entrees and appetizers, large and small plate items, and/or ala carte choices. It’s easier now to work with what is offered and select the type of meal you want.

Japanese restaurants can provide a model for how to pick an assortment of small items, rather than one main course. I’ve found that combining three or four small items (e.g., a tempura, edamame or tofu appetizer, plus a side of brown rice and a seaweed salad and/or sushi roll) may meet my needs better than a bento box or other assortment chosen for the restaurant’s convenience, or an entree with a much larger serving of protein than I need in one meal.

If the restaurant automatically serves a dish with sides you don’t want or need, it helps to ask about alternatives. Yes, that’s a very basic point, but it surprises me sometimes how often I have to re-learn certain basic things, or to summon the energy to ask for what I want. Accepting what is offered may be appropriate when visiting someone’s home. But when eating out, appropriately assertive is often a better stance than nice and passive.

At a favorite diner in St. Louis, I like the omelettes, but don’t need the large serving of fried potatoes and toast that are included with them. Neither do many other customers. When asked, the servers explained they could substitute tomato slices for the heaping mounds of carbs. By giving up the added “value,” I pay for a much healthier (for me) meal that leaves me satisfied but not stuffed or regretful.

Beyond the menu, consider the environment provided by the restaurant. Is the seating conducive to relaxing and enjoying your meal? If not, you may feel a subtle pressure to hurry up and finish. That doesn’t just undermine your dining pleasure; it may prevent you from slowing down enough to receive your body’s messages that you’ve had enough food.

When seated, are you surrounded by television screens showing multiple sporting events, with music blaring from a loudspeaker overhead? It’s one thing if you’re there in part to watch the game. But if you went to the restaurant for dinner and conversation, or a solitary meal with a book or magazine, there may be better choices. I’ve also found that, if a restaurant is not terribly busy and the noise is intrusive, staff members usually respond favorably to a request to lower the volume. If they refuse, that’s information to consider when contemplating a return visit.

The shift from mindless to mindful when eating out is an empowering one that can make a big difference.

This is the first in a  series of posts on eating out. To be continued.


Healthy eating, in a place like this

A few months ago, after more than 20 years away from my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, I moved back from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The move brought many changes. Transitioning from very blue state to a red one, I have noticed many social, political and cultural differences. The Boston area is a great place to live, if you can pay the rent and cope with severe winters. I miss many things there–among them, adult education programs, world-class museums, diverse neighborhoods and restaurants where healthy eating was fairly easy–as well as the extensive network of buses and trains that made it mostly easy to go places without a car.

Not everything I enjoyed in Boston is available here, but St. Louis has changed a lot–in ways that are specific to this area and others that reflect larger shifts in American society. For one thing, it is easier to eat well here than it used to be.

Restaurants then and now

From my childhood and young adult years, I remember steakhouses, pizzerias and load-your-tray cafeterias. The main dining room was usually full of cigarette smoke, and the waitress would look at you funny if you asked about lower-fat salad dressings. In the St. Louis of my youth, ethnic dining consisted largely of Americanized Italian cuisine (pasta with heavy meat sauce and iceberg lettuce salads loaded with provolone and creamy dressing) and old-style Chinese restaurants (where MSG was king). Though many of these places are long gone, some continue to prosper today. The smoke is gone now, and even in places that have done business here for generations, salads usually come with dressings other than French, Thousand Island, bleu cheese and Italian.

There is a much more diverse and expanding array of alternatives today. The change makes it easier for people to find restaurants that feature different ethnic cuisines and healthier choices than were available a generation ago. In addition to many choices among Mexican, Thai, Indian, Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and Vietnamese restaurants, there are now establishments featuring Ethiopian, Himalayan, Russian, Polish, Somalian, Bosnian, Persian, Korean and African food, among other cuisines. Adventurous cooks can shop at Asian, Mediterranean and worldwide groceries.

photo: lunch at lulus vegan eatery: veggie burger and buffalo cauliflower bites

Lunch at Lulu’s Local Eatery: veggie burger with buffalo cauliflower bites on the side

Vegetarian restaurants were rare and vegan bistros were unimaginable then in St. Louis. That has changed. My favorite vegan restaurants here include Pura Vegan Cafe and Lulu’s Local Eatery; both are friendly, vibrant places, with interesting menus, doing good business. Vegetarian and vegan-friendly places include Seedz Cafe (juices, smoothies and mostly vegan, light fare), Small Batch (featuring an extensive whiskey menu and inventive vegetarian food) and The Treehouse (American and Asian favorites remade with meatless recipes, on the Sound Grand restaurant row).

More significant for carnivores, most “mainstream” restaurants are offering much better meatless options for diners than before. Beyond the occasional veggie burger, there are good entrees that meat eaters might enjoy. To note just a few: the sweet potato enchiladas at Frazer’s, the “match meat” options at The Royale and the vegetarian menu at Cafe Natasha. The veggie torta at Gringo’s is one of the best sandwiches in town. And there are chains like Jason’s Deli, and coffeehouses like Kayak, that include vegetarian options among their good and healthy choices.

One favorite eatery, Big Sky Cafe, long has placed “locally sourced and naturally raised” meat and eggs at the heart of its menu, along with items that meet the needs of a wide range of customers. Other restaurants featuring locally sourced ingredients range from Death in the Afternoon, Foundation Grounds coffee house and Onesto Pizza & Trattoria. Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions stands out for its “pasture raised promise” that all its meats come from small farms whose practices include non-confinement, rotational grazing and diets free of grain, antibiotics and hormones.

Grocery chains and product lines

Photo: gluten free section in mainstream grocery store

The change in grocery stores is at least as great, with innovations from the coasts moving inland in the last decade. St. Louis has Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s outlets now, as well as the not-quite-national Lucky’s Market. The big supermarket chains, Schnuck’s, Shop ‘n Save, and Dierberg’s, have rows of “natural” foods brands, a range of gluten-free products and organic sections in their produce departments. There are frozen Indian and East Asian meals and plenty of options from product lines such as Amy’s, Bob’s Red Mill and Field Roast.

The shift to whole foods by millions of consumers and the demand for better options among processed foods have had a nation-wide impact. The resulting changes are happening in most of the U.S., if not exactly everywhere. Just as second-hand smoke ordinances removed the clouds of grey smoke from dining rooms, consumers in cities like St. Louis can choose from an expanding variety of ethnic and meatless processed foods, products with shorter lists of ingredients (and fewer chemical additives) and reductions in trans fats and added sugars.

I’ve noted before the New York Times article from November, The Seismic Shift in How People Eat, which outlined the way consumer behavior is forcing traditional food companies to create new product lines, alter the contents of “iconic” brands and offer more natural and healthier ingredients. From the coasts to the heartland–from New England to the deep south to Rocky Mountain country–an empowered generation of food consumers has emerged and has demanded changes. While the transition to a better food culture is coming too slowly for some, for those in the processed food and grocery industries, it’s increasingly hard to keep up.

Healthy eating and a newer food culture

Long stereotyped as a project of foodies from Portland, Brooklyn and other coastal enclaves, the food movement is having an impact almost everywhere. That includes St. Louis.

In addition to Soulard’s Market and other farmers’ markets, there are more than a dozen community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations in the St. Louis area. Most distribute to select pick-up locations throughout the region; and some of them deliver to homes. Another aspect of the changed restaurant scene is the food truck and catering scene. Guerilla Street Food sends its trucks with Filipino cuisine to select locations in the area and has added a bricks-and-mortar location in the Tower Grove East neighborhood. There are many others.

Food lovers are served by several freely distributed publications, including Sauce and Feast magazines.The public libraries in both the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County have dozens of books (print and e-book formats) on nutrition and health, vegetarian cooking, sustainable agriculture and related subjects. Likewise, bookstores have expanding sections of cookbooks and every aspect of health and well-being. Thousands of people in the area have joined Meetup groups focused on urban farming and sustainable agriculture, slow food, vegetarian or vegan eating, animal rights, and other projects that relate in some way to the food system.

The food movement and social change

I’ve commented here before that the dominant food culture in the U.S. has featured relentlessly marketed processed foods, calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, loaded with added salt, sugar and fat (and equally well-marketed products to alleviate painful symptoms that result from that way of eating). It has become increasingly obvious that the way we eat is shaped by powerful corporations and directly linked to the ways that millions of us get sick and die.

As Michael Pollan wrote in The Food Movement, Rising (a 2010 essay), the food movement (really, movements) challenges this model through a range of initiatives: calls for candid disclosures in processed foods, such as the campaign for require labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs); buying and consuming locally grown foods, through, e.g., farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations; animal protection measures, ranging from vegan activism to buying meat from humanely raised animals to opposing indiscriminate use of antibiotics on food animals; and addressing the devastating environmental impact of large-scale, confinement animal agriculture, including the advancement of climate change.

Each of these projects (and others) address fundamental questions of political and economic power. Pollan writes:

Though seldom articulated as such, the attempt to redefine, or escape, the traditional role of consumer has become an important aspiration of the food movement. In various ways it seeks to put the relationship between consumers and producers on a new, more neighborly footing, enriching the kinds of information exchanged in the transaction, and encouraging us to regard our food dollars as “votes” for a different kind of agriculture and, by implication, economy. The modern marketplace would have us decide what to buy strictly on the basis of price and self-interest; the food movement implicitly proposes that we enlarge our understanding of both those terms, suggesting that not just “good value” but ethical and political values should inform our buying decisions, and that we’ll get more satisfaction from our eating when they do.

The way we eat is related to, and has an impact on, almost everything else we are and do. The issues are multiplying, and the stakes are very large.

St. Louis is a rather conservative city that for generations has been heavily influenced by the corporations headquartered here, including Monsanto. If the food movement can bring about major changes in a place like this, it can happen anywhere.

What kind of New Year’s Eve are you having?

You may have some clear plans for New Year’s Eve: a party invitation or restaurant reservation, a stack of movies to watch or an annual ritual watching the ball drop in Times Square on television. Perhaps you’ll be with a spouse or partner, a few close friends or a large group. Maybe you’ll be alone, by design or due to circumstances. I’ve experienced all of these, as many of us have, and have some good memories to go with some neutral, odd and downright bad ones.

Image: Happy New Year party hatsAs with other holidays, New Year’s Eve can be a marketing-driven experience that’s defined by a dominant cultural narrative. Many of us have a sense of what we should do on December 31. There are advertisements reminding us what to buy, where to go, what to do. If you’ve watched network television and cable news programs this week, you’ve probably seen segments on how to host a party, complete with hats and horns; in the spirit of Martha Stewart, demonstrations show us how to make festive decorations, distinctive party favors and fabulous snacks; suggestions about libations to serve and how to get guests who’ve been drinking home safely. It’s the sort of holiday when, it often seems, people do what they have seen others do and then wonder why–or do what they’ve done before without giving much thought to whether the pattern works for them.

Happy new year!

Cheers go up when the ball drops in New York and the clock strikes midnight. But why? Is it that we are so glad to leave behind the year we just lived through, or because we are so eager to make the next one better?

What does “Happy new year!” mean to you?

When people tell us this, whether written or spoken, it may well be intended as a sincere wish for a rich and full year of life, with all the love, peace and well-being you deserve. But often, in my experience, it is expressed as a kind of command–an instruction to hurry up, get with the program and have a great time! Don’t be a party pooper. Get happy!

Two New Year’s Eve memories

My thoughts about NYE are informed by the experience of two particular years.

One was many years ago. It was in during my early exploration of one sliver of St. Louis’ gay subculture. I accepted an invitation to a party hosted by someone I’d met recently but didn’t know well. Some of the guests were from the host’s social circle; like me, others were new to the group. Several men held court from a couch in the living room. As the evening wore on and the liquor flowed, the comments about other guests became nasty and demeaning. One of the newcomers, seemingly a nice guy, left after becoming a target. After an unpleasant interaction with a man who was angry when his interest in me was not reciprocated, I left, anxious to get away. Later that evening, driving around trying to decide what else to do–on the downward side an icy hill–my car slid off the road into a ditch. I spent the next couple hours waiting for a tow truck. Not long after that, the insurance company cancelled my auto coverage. Apparently, the accident–on New Year’s Eve, no less!–may have suggested drinking and driving.

The other was much more recent. In Boston, I took writing classes from a marvelous teacher, Kathryn, who guided students through a process of journal-writing based on Natalie Goldberg’s booksWriting Down the Bones and Wild Mind. The instruction is to begin with a prompt, start writing, and keep the pen moving for a designated period of time, such as 10 minutes. Allow whatever percolates up from the subconscious to find expression on the page. As much as possible, write without stopping and let go the impulse to edit and improve what emerges. This type of writing can be a meditation, a font of unexpected creativity, a source of clarity and direction.

Kathryn told students about a NYE practice that had become her ritual:  Date your journal entry a year from the current date. (Doing it this year, that would be December 31, 2016.) Write of the next year as if you had just lived it–well and successfully. Rather than writing about where you want to be, write as if you’re already there. Reflect on the experiences and accomplishments, the new adventures and opportunities, the challenges overcome and the goals met. Go into detail and explore the steps and choices taken. What made the year so special? How did you get from here to there?

On December 31 that year, I gave this exercise a try for 30 minutes. Another year, I wrote for an hour. It didn’t change my life, not right away. But as often happens with that style of writing, things emerged on the page that I hadn’t expected. Bigger and better possibilities came into view, and also a sense of how to explore them. It was a doorway to change; the time spent was a small down payment on the life I wanted to live.

These two memories have stayed with me not because they were the best and the worst experiences that I’ve had on New Year’s Eve. Instead, looking back, they reflect the opportunities I had, and the choices I made, at two very different points in my life. Also, they represent different understandings about what was for me authentic and true at those times, what experiences I did and didn’t enjoy.

Resolutions and intentions

Making new year’s resolutions can be part of the cultural narrative. Like diets, resolutions may stir deep skepticism from the wiser part of our minds. Don’t we consistently fail to keep them? Aren’t they usually a waste of time?

Image: happy new year 2016

New year’s resolutions may seem doomed to fail. We’ve all seen people begin gym memberships in January and abandon them by April. And the same with diets leading to weight loss, followed by even more weight gain. Millions of us make pledges to develop wholesome new habits, to reform and enlarge our lives. It’s easier to make the commitment than to keep it. The words may come from a place of deep knowing, but often they don’t reflect awareness of the weeks or months of repetitive effort required to establish the new pattern, to cultivate the new habit.

Some resolutions aim for something too large and vaguely defined. We may resolve to lose 50 pounds, when it would be more practical  to commit to a plan, for example, to walk 30 minutes a day, bring a salad each day for lunch (rather than eating out) and consume alcohol only on weekends. Rather than pledging to live more in the moment this year, we might set an intention to practice meditation for 5 or 10 minutes each morning. We can undermine our efforts by committing to a changed life rather than to the small, daily actions needed to make the change happen.

As with each new day, a new year brings with it many choices. We can spend the next year like the last one or the last ten. It can be a year of surviving to pay the bills and meeting the expectations of others, or it can be a year of risk-taking, wonder and exploration. It can be one of too much stress and noise, a continuation of old routines and familiar patterns. It can be a year of moving forward–even a time for transformative change.

upward stepsOne way to approach New Year’s Eve is to live it as we want to live in the following year. If there must be an imagined boundary between this year and the next, we can still choose to begin the new year a day early. If our resolution, intention or plan is to eat in a different way, or do a certain form of exercise or have a new spiritual practice, why not begin it today? We can choose to begin the new thing now rather than make a promise to do it later. If we want meaningful change, we can set an intention to release the procrastination habit, without delay.

Happy new year! What does that look like in 2016?