I just read this HuffPo article by David Katz emphasizing the fact that foods are far greater than the sum of their caloric totals. It’s a concept that’s solid — I mean, really solid: irrefutably true — but one that many Americans have trouble accepting as the basis for their dietary choices. Just yesterday, I was talking to a friend whose mother follows a modified version of the Atkins diet.
“Sure, she’s a little overweight,” the friend said, “but she’s also 60 years old. When she was in town visiting me, we were at an Italian restaurant and she ordered the Chicken Parm without pasta. At that point, I went off on her.” I would have had the same reaction.
My diet is generally healthy. Day to day, I eat as many whole foods as possible. Weekday breakfasts are either fiberlicious cereal topped with berries or instant oatmeal; lunch is usually a salad with a protein, some bread, and some cheese. Dinner is a total wild card; weekends are also a wild card. In the grand scheme of things, I probably eat less sodium and fewer chemicals than the average American consumer. My vegetable intake is greater than the recommended minimum level. And while I could reduce the amount of gummy candies I eat and Stellas I drink, I don’t have a strong or pressing desire to do so.
For a while, I too bought into the predominantly American habit of eating “diet” foods. During my last year of grad school, working three jobs and stressed to the max about the State of My Thesis, I leaned a little too heavily on Lean Cuisines, Fiber One bars, and Light and Fit yogurts. Did these foods fall within my daily caloric allotment? Well, sure. Did I get sick from eating them? Not that I know of. But they weren’t satisfying. I never craved an 80-calorie, aspartame-sweetened yogurtlike substance: I endured it. As I came to realize, in a classic “d’oh” moment, one’s crazy-crazy grad school existence is no excuse for eating foodlike products.
Since then, I’ve made major steps to eliminate fake food from my diet. One persistent offender is energy bars (they don’t spoil, so they’re good to keep at the office), but they’re really the last frontier of pseudofoods that I need to conquer. (Note: Candy and some artificial sweeteners are the other last frontiers.) It just makes sense that real food is more satisfying, nutritionally and tastewise, than highly engineered food products. Put another way, would you rather eat three 100-calorie packs of cookiethings, or one serving of very real, full-fat ice cream?
Many of us will never wholly cleanse our diets of fake and semi-fake foods, and that’s OK. Given the choice between a Lean Cuisine and a Big Mac Value Meal, or between a Lean Cuisine and no lunch, I’d choose the former. I still have a sweet spot for Cheetos, Peanut M&Ms, and Nestle’s powdered hot cocoa mix, though Vitamin Water and light dairy products have vanished from my fridge. Anything is OK in moderation — even Corn Flakes, high sugar content and all! — but a diet centered on low(ish) calorie pseudofoods is akin to living in an airport: it would be tolerable for a while, even (at times) mimicking real life, but it would be a miserable and unsustainable long-term existence.
So go ahead: check out Katz’ article, and bask in the warmth of having your belief in whole foods substantiated.