Earth Day: This Post Will Not Tell You What To Eat

15 Apr

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If you look at The New York Times Advice & How-To list, you’ll see a good percentage of that list populated by food books.  This week, five of the ten are cookbooks or diet books.  We love getting advice about how to eat – what to eat, what not to eat, how much of it, and so on.  Dr. Phil tells us that there are 20 key foods we should focus on while Trisha Yearwood says don’t sweat it, you only need to eat well 80% of the time.  The advice is confusing and contradicting.  It’s hard to ever feel like you’re eating properly…. and that’s just when we consider how food affects our bodies.

As you may have heard, our diet has a huge impact on the environment.  According to Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet, our food system probably contributes to about one third of the world’s emissions.  “…[L]ivestock production alone is responsible for as much as 18 percent of the global warming effect.” (11)  Once you start reading facts like that, it’s kind of hard to ignore our food’s connection with our climate.  Lappe’s book is a good introduction to the ecology of the food system.  She isn’t really advocating for a single diet, just setting out the facts and talks about food politics on a much more systematic level, along with some guidelines at the end.

I also don’t advocate for any single diet change.  I don’t eat most meat because that’s something I feel like I can do to help the planet.  Robin doesn’t eat fish because of the impact it has on our oceans (and she can’t eat shellfish anyway so doesn’t know how delicious it is).  I like to think that between the two of us, we make a great vegetarian.  There are books out there that will tell you that unless you eat a certain way and feel guilty about every bite that is not local, water-conscious, or doesn’t have a mother (don’t all living things genetically have mothers?) you are an eco-failure.  I don’t believe that’s helpful to anyone.  That’s why I really like reading books about the food system a lot more than I like reading books telling me what to eat.  These authors pay more attention to how we eat and why than giving us a list of unbreakable rules.

The rock-star critic of the food system is, of course, Michael Pollan.  I finally got around to reading In Defense of Food when it was assigned to the freshman class of the university I was working for.  This is the book from which the best diet advice for both human and global health originated.  “Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much.”  Talk about simple and non-judgemental.  Pretty much any diet, except maybe hardcore paleo, works with those parameters.  It’s always what I come back to when I get overwhelmed by people telling me to only eat acai on Tuesdays or binge eat for three days and then fast for two.  Side note, Michael Pollan is one of the most interesting people to follow on Facebook if you’re interested in all things edible.

Another food juggernaut is Mark Bittman.  I love him for his How to Cook Everything books which I’ll elaborate on in another post.  For this topic, though, I direct you to VB6, which stands for Vegan Before 6.  He eats a vegan diet for breakfast, lunch and snacks and then allows himself to eat whatever he wants at dinner.  Instead of choosing a very earth-friendly vegan diet or remembering to not eat meat on certain days, this way he significantly limits his meat intake while still enjoying all sorts of food.  I did try this technique myself, but found out I like dairy with pretty much every meal way more than I crave chicken. Bittman’s newest book, A Bone to Pick will compile his insightful articles on food politics.

Toward the end of Diet for a Hot Planet Lappe relates the story of a professor she was working with that followed all the green rules that we like to promote – use less water, don’t buy plastic bottles, recycle, bike to work…  That woman went to New York City, stood in Times Square, and looked at all the energy being used around her.  “In one minute of standing there,” she says, “more energy was used up than I had personally saved in my entire lifetime.”  We have all felt like this.  I recently read a statistic from Steven Johnson, author of How We Got To Now, on how even if everyone south of LA moved up to Oregon, it wouldn’t improve the drought as much as a 10% reduction in water use for crops in the Central Valley.  (source)  That makes cutting a few minutes off the shower feel much less virtuous.

So why should we read these books and take a stand by changing our diets? Recycling or using greener products are usually just a change in routine, but what you eat is attached to your health, identity and social life.  It’s a big deal to change your food habits, especially when you may wonder if it’s worth it.  The truth is, your single choice probably won’t do much.  It takes major institutional change to bring about the future we need.  However, that type of change doesn’t happen without individuals.  When you take a stance to purchase more locally grown, whole foods and less resource-intensive products, companies start to take notice.  They try their hardest to get you to do what they want with advertising, but if their customers want something new, they need to change or die.  They know it.  And if no one makes that change because they think it won’t matter, then nothing happens.  Being informed about our food system enables you to be a good consumer and make small changes that, when compounded, can have big results.

~ April

 

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2 Responses to “Earth Day: This Post Will Not Tell You What To Eat”

  1. Mara April 16, 2015 at 6:26 am #

    In response to your last section, where you say “It takes major institutional change to bring about the future we need. However, that type of change doesn’t happen without individuals.” I would like to point to 2 incidents that substantiate that statement. In the past 4 decades there was the worldwide tuna boycott (http://www.eurocbc.org/page322.html) which I remember friends participating in, school children writing letters to the big companies, etc. and Los Angeles residents reducing water usage to save Mono Lake (granted, court-ordered: http://www1.american.edu/ted/mono.htm) by installing low-flow flush toilets, education programs, etc. Thanks for a great post, April.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] I started writing my post on food policy books I realized I had two books left to talk about, but I’d already gone on far longer than even I […]

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