Monday July 25, 2011
Like most of us children of the sixties, I grew up with an eclectic idea of good nutrition. My grandmothers were both good solid southern cooks, right up to their deaths in their nineties. Both saved bacon fat in Folger’s cans, although Granny was a Virginian and Grandmother a native Oklahoman. Apparently some things are universal. Mother was born in Oklahoma also, and Pop spent his life through graduate school in Blacksburg, Virginia, a hot bed of ham and other good things.
The end of WWII left a number of US food companies with huge factories producing highly processed, shelf-stable foods for the troops.* which was the beginning of convenience foods like TV dinners and baking mixes.** Television and the availability of advertising into living rooms was a lucky coincidence, all converging in the avalanche that created ‘Fast Food.’
Of course, the purpose of this revolution was convenience, not the collective malnutrition of the country, and it was decades before the damage began to appear. And the enemy is the refined carbohydrates and hydrogenated fats. While shelf stability seems to be a desirable quality, another way of expressing it is: so lacking in nutritional value that even bacteria and mold won’t touch it.
That sets the scene- a good background in country cooking, and a sudden turn towards convenience. Who doesn’t remember Swanson’s Fried Chicken: mashed potatoes, corn and fried chicken and a piece of something vaguely apple-ish. My mother was an early convert, and Salisbury Steak was suddenly a common dish, albeit a frozen one. Mother simply didn’t enjoy cooking, and once I was tall enough to reach the stove, I began to learn, mostly in self-defense. Baking, as an addendum to meals gradually morphed to me doing much of the cooking. I loved it!
My first year in college, I bought Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ and thus began a lifelong habit of reading cookbooks like novels. While the dorm kitchen and the efficiency apartment kitchens were not up to her requirements, her exhaustive passion for her subject still enthralls me. I spent a couple of summers cooking for archeology camps in northern Arizona, then moved to Hood River, Oregon, to begin my career as a psychologist.
That went about as well as anyone could expect from a 23 year old trying to tell Viet Nam veterans to cheer up. It did give me enough income to open a vegetarian restaurant in the back of a health food store, and thus began 5 years of dining meat free and a 30-pound weight gain. A stint cooking for logging camps in Idaho, Montana and Alaska after selling the restaurant give me some of my happiest and most challenging culinary times.
Fast forward five years, and I am newly single, living in Austin Texas with a baby, with most of my household investment in cookbooks. A few years later, I am remarried, still cooking, occasionally professionally, and writing about food. Finally, five years as a ‘Foodie’ for Central Market, and an accident led me to early retirement. While there, I was in Foodie Heaven, as my job description was effectively: ‘Food Geek.’ Be prepared to answer any question a customer might have about food. My perfect job!
This whole time, I am reading, cooking, getting certified as a nutritionist, and fighting my weight. The accident put me in bed and a wheelchair for most of two years, and let me tell you; there is no more efficient way to gain weight than bed rest. Not only did I lose muscle (25 years with the YMCA disappeared quickly!) and add fat, but food, and eating and reading about food became my life, and by the time I could move again, I had gained somewhere north of 50 pounds.
Of course, the first order of business was to get the lard off. I had certified in 1998 as a nutritionist, knew the food pyramid, and had been a gym rat long enough to know what to do. Thirty pounds came off pretty readily. Then I plateaued. For two years. Kismet and pure luck led me to a nutritionist whose first words were: ‘Calories in and calories out doesn’t apply any more, does it?”
Eight surgeries in three years had taken a toll, exhausting my endocrine system, including my adrenals, the last to go. My MD offered a reprint of the USDA Food Pyramid, and suggested that I might not be clear on the methods for keeping a food diary. My nutritionist (and acupuncturist, mentor and dear friend) on the other hand, gave me this: ‘get your carbohydrates below 60 grams a day, most of it from vegetables.’ Not only did the weight begin to come off again, but also my palette became much more sensitive, my head clearer and my general health much better.
Here’s the deal. Back when I started writing this - the post war fifties and sixties, people simply had very little access to refined foods. A normal diet might provide between 50 and 100 grams of carbohydrates, and few of them refined. But as the huge food corporations grew, the availability skyrocketed, to the point that a child in 1950 consumed, on average, less than 10 pounds of sugar in a year, and in 2009, averaged over 200 pounds. High fructose corn syrup makes such an astounding number very accessible.***
My diet, because of my love of cooking, was better than most. Still, I was always fighting to lose the same 30 pounds. This new concept of nutrition engaged me completely, and I entered a yearlong training course to become a Nutritional Therapist. Graduating in June, I can say that this has been the most gratifying and fascinating year I can recall.
Corporations have taken over most of our food production. They are not inherently evil, but are at best amoral. It is the small farmers who are raising fruits and vegetables and sustainable livestock that are our hope for the future. The grains and soybean producers are the ones providing little nourishment, a lot of hype and a brutal environmental impact. What I hope to do on this site is to create a trustworthy and knowledgeable resource for people who want to take control of their health.
There are two ways to deal with our health- we can hope for the best, not try to sort through the tons of contradictory information to see what works for our own individual best health, and when something goes wrong, find a doctor to give us a pill that will address the symptom, but not force us to change our lives very much. Alternatively, we can make our lives a quest, exploring everything we can to achieve optimum health. One way is a slow decline with a big finish. The other can be delightful challenge to continually get better.
*This will be a recurrent theme here: either the corporations could lose some money or the population could be conned into supporting their investment. As Michael Pollan says: ‘Don’t eat anything you have seen advertised.’ I love a good conspiracy theory!
** Interestingly, the first cake mixes, like the military field rations, were very self contained, requiring only water. Home cooks weren’t interested, so Duncan Hines began a line of mixes that required eggs and oil. This was enough to convince consumers that the product was nourishing.
*** High fructose corn syrup IS more refined than plain table sugar, but in the blood stream, either one is equally damaging, triggering insulin, and metabolizing so quickly that there is no place to put it but on our bellies
Austin Nutritional Therapy by Elaine DiRico