Monday, August 6, 2012

What's cooking?

I've been participating in a conversation at Rod Dreher's blog about food and virtue. The conversation is based on an article he wrote for The American Conservative which is here:

The interesting thing about this conversation, though, was the intense class resentment my sister had around food. This is surprisingly common. Since I began writing about food some years back, I have had countless conversations with conservative friends, fellow food geeks who have had serious disputes within their families about food. These arguments aren’t really about food itself, but food serves as a proxy for the politics of class and culture.

By opening up a culture-war front on the kitchen counter, we invest discussions about what, how, and why we eat with a degree of emotion that renders rational deliberation all but impossible. It is ironic that conservatives are particularly susceptible to this thinking. Not only does it fly in the face of the “personal responsibility” mantra so common on the right, but the staggering cost of America’s obesity epidemic is increasingly borne by taxpayers, businesses, and insurance ratepayers.

The food snob is a comedy staple (ever seen the BBC’s hilarious “Posh Nosh” send-up of culinary elitists?) and, for many conservatives, an object of political derision. It’s easy to make fun of liberals who glide up to San Francisco farmer’s markets in their (metaphorical) limousines, agonizing over the purity of the squash’s provenance with the anxious attention of a medieval Scholastic to the immaculate qualities of his syllogisms. You get the idea that you could chase some of these people all the way to Canada with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos tied to the end of a pole.

But far fewer people pay attention to reverse food snobbery—to folks who are proud of eating junk, and lots of it, in part out of the conviction that doing so offends Whole Foods shoppers, who, on this view, “think they’re better than us.” When Michelle Obama announced her program to encourage American children—one in three of whom is overweight or obese—to eat healthier meals, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin attacked the First Lady as a busybody and a fatso.

Read the rest here.

As I've been saying over at Rod's blog, I think some of the perceived class resentment stuff comes out of the appearance that the foodie stuff can have some arbitrary rules, and that no matter how hard you try, there's always somebody willing to tell you you're poisoning your children (just like there's always someone willing to tell you you've warped them emotionally by not carrying them in a sling until they were old enough to drive). Parenting is time-consuming, cooking is time-consuming, and the occasional shortcut (TV for toddlers, Pop-Tarts (tm) for a breakfast treat) just doesn't seem like it's worth all the hand-wringing.

But then, I have to admit that I spend most of my time among people who are trying to be good parents and to feed their families as best they can. Their choices may not mirror mine, but I'm willing to cut them huge amounts of slack in the hopes that they are cutting me the same amounts (sliced thin, for sandwiches...oh, wait; that was at the deli counter). But it's true that there are some people out there who are truly bad parents who think of the TV as their personal nanny, and there are truly clueless cooks who think that they can make a healthy pasta dinner by heating up canned spaghetti and adding enough cheese to cover the world's largest pizza--or by bringing home food from the drive-thru but serving it with fruit juice instead of soda.

Still, I think where Rod and I part company is in thinking that food issues such as health and obesity come primarily from the clueless cook problem. There are wonderful cooks who prepare healthy, homemade meals for their families--yet they (and their families) still struggle with weight issues, because they eat too much in terms of portion size. It's just too easy to see an overweight person and assume a background of cheeseburgers and Twinkies (tm)--and it's just not always true.

What do you think?


vera said...

Exactly right. Except for a few cases, the antidote to obesity is: eat less, move more.

Fresh food is healthier though on other grounds. And cooking out of a can is an abomination (I don't mean not using a can of tomatoes occasionally; I mean people for whom cooking dinner is opening a can or heating up a TV dinner). It used to be used "in a pinch" -- now I understand that most people don't even know how to cook from scratch. Absurd. And unhealthy.

Rebecca in ID said...

Well, I am by now convinced that obesity is not a matter of eating too much and moving too little but has to do primarily with what people eat. It is a fact that rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes rise in proportion to sugar consumed in a given society. In the 1920s we consumed around 20 lbs per year per capita of sugar and heart disease, obesity, and diabetes were rare. There was no such thing as a doctor specializing in heart disease, because he would have been out of work. Now we consume 70 to 90 lbs per year, and look at us. So--refined carbs and sugar, it's that simple. People just need to get back to eating real food, the food people have lived well on for millenia. The difficulty is that refined carbs are the cheapest foods (and the subsidized ones) so the poor tend to eat them, and because of this, tend towards obesity. And the carbs, while packing fat, leave a person malnourished and therefore always hungry, so we have the stereotype of overweight people eating whole big bags of chips, etc. I applaud Gary Taubes and other writers and scientists who are questioning the accepted "wisdom" and are poking great holes in the idea that skinny people are virtuous and overweight people are not.

Rebecca in ID said...

Oh, and I meant to say something about your last statement, which I agree with despite my statements about food content: So often there can be a problem with metabolism, such as is caused by thyroid disease, but sometimes more subtle. I never assume I know either how much or what an overweight person eats because of these very common issues. I do think that diet can help, but not in the way we've been taught. My mom was slender up until her late twenties, when a trauma-induced thyroid disorder set in, which she didn't discover until twenty-five years later. Now she knows that what would be a perfectly healthy diet for a "normal" person is dangerous for her. She can't handle more than about 60 grams of carbs a day, even good complex carbs, so she has to be more careful. There are a lot of people in similar situations.

Char said...

I read that and all the comments. I have mixed feelings.

1. I agree with Dreher that eating healthy IS cheaper when you cut out all the crap and processed foods. When we went low carb last year, that's what we discovered. True 100%. Stop buying cereal, white bread, chips, cookies and frozen pizza and you magically have more money to spend on meat and vegetables. People don't know this because they aren't willing to try for whatever legit/illegit reasons.

2. That being said, I think food snobbery abounds, especially within the foodie/Whole Foods crowd. Dreher's view from your table smacks of this. I resent the food nanny state and will decry it wherever I see it, be it NY mayor or conservative blogger.

3. Swinging back in the other direction: When we went low carb, we discovered there were foods we needed/wanted and Whole Foods was one of few outlets to find them. And when I literally went from store to store writing down prices to compare, guess what? Whole Foods was often the exact same price or less. Shocker for me, trust me. But again, that's for certain foods that were a decision to be a NEW kind of staple in our diet. When people go in there thinking that they should compare their usual processed food shopping trip at Kroger to the same exact items at Whole Foods (and Whole Foods IS full of processed foods, albeit organic ones), of course one can't afford Whole Foods. But if you eat primarily fresh foods, there is much that a person can get there. Well, except meat. Good luck affording meat at Whole Paycheck. And yes, the people in there are super annoying.

4. Back in Dreher's direction: I think he's really getting at something much more profound and spiritual and people aren't getting it. His crunchy granola exterior is hard to see through and those conservatives who don't yet understand his brand/vision of conservativism can't understand it. Dreher is right about his comments about sloth and gluttony and the spiritual dimensions to food. But his comments were too sweeping and final. Then again, I'm OK with that if it gets people to think.


GeekLady said...

Burn more calories than you consume is, one one level, accurate. Skinny people, journalists, and biochemists all like this explanation (for various reasons). But equally, they all ignore the specifics of how this is to be carried out.

Sometimes calories are stored in places not designed for such storage, and those calories can really muck up cellular function and cause disease (e.g. fat stored inside the heart muscle). Those calories aren't always easy for the body to get at... so instead of burning the calories that are causing the trouble, the body can actually respond as if it really is starving, catabolizing muscle, mobilizing extreme energy conservation routines, etc.

And it needs to be said: skinny people can also experience this kind of improper calorie storage, and it is very dangerous for them. There are fat people who are metabolically healthy, and skinny people who are metabolically obese. There is, in my opinion, an overemphasis on BMI and basic physical appearance, instead of metabolic function, which leads to all sorts of stupid assertations against evidence of actual health.

Consider also the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort. The cohort is composed of individuals who were in utero during the famine in 1944-45, and different health problems correlate with maternal famine experienced during specific periods of fetal development. I believe the latest bit I read related that effects are being seen down through the grandchildren of those who experienced famine in the womb. Think of the implications of this! The nutrietive environment we experience in the womb can produce changes for generations. There's no reason to assume this only happens with starvation. We've had several generations of eating heavily processed foods, and increasing metabolic diseases now. This damage did not appear overnight, and it will likely take generations to recover from it.

Char said...

Now, about Dreher's constant comments about beans. (I have to go here, because I was totally annoyed.)

First of all, if you're buying "bulk" beans at Whole Foods and claiming that because you do, anyone can afford to shop at Whole Foods, well, you're an idiot. If you're buying dried beans at Whole Foods you're a fool who's paying way too much money. Period.

Second, while I believe a small amount of beans in a diet is a good thing, I agree with Rebecca in terms of the Taubes viewpoint: Carbs are evil and the real source of obesity in this country. It's not about calories AT ALL. It's not about too many calories in and not enough energy expended out. That's all a bunch of junk science not proven.

I'm reading another book right now called "Wheat Belly" and its premise about wheat will blow your mind - primarily that the wheat/flour we eat today is no closer to actual, real wheat as it was known historically than a chimpanzee is related to a human being. I'm not into conspiracy theories in general, but more and more I'm believing that the food pyramid and the "whole grain" worship is a scam/joke intended to benefit no one but govt subsidized food industries (i.e. corn and wheat) that put money in the pockets of huge corporations like Kraft that make their money off of processed carbs.

Which brings me around to the next point which one or two people also brought up in Rod's commbox: If you subscribe to the inherent unhealthiness of carbs (including "good" carbs), then eating healthy IS an expensive lifestyle choice. Eating meat, healthy fats, and fruits/vegetables is not cheap, whether at your local Kroger or via your local farmer/farmer's market. Again, it CAN be cheaper when you eliminate carbs and processed foods (like I said above), but overall, the cards are stacked (intentionally?) against those who want to eat healthy.

Erin, I know you claim you can't go carb free. But I still believe that if you researched low/no carb theories and diets with the same fervor that you would as if you found out you had cancer or diabetes, for example, you would be convinced. People who claim they got ill on a low-carb diet rarely recognize that when they feel ill, it's really their body having a violent reaction to the absence of daily doses of "poison" being removed from their body. Once a person lives through the "withdrawl," it's amazing.

Said by someone who fell off the wagon last year at Halloween and has gained almost all of the weight back.

vera said...

I have to say that I've cut out corn syrup out completely. During the period when I drank stuff with corn syrup, I did baloon out.

Still though... sedentariness kills as much as bad food does...

Rebecca in ID said...

Char (geek lady?), those are some fascinating points.

I want to echo that low-carb can seem difficult at first but everyone can find what works for them. I can't do 20 grams a day, I don't have enough energy on it, but 40 grams is doable and I lose baby fat quickly on that level. Also, the level at which you're losing weight is not necessarily your maintenance level. When I am back to my normal weight, I can eat 80 grams a day or so without any problem. Some people do better front-loading their carbs, some like me do better if we have a big carb-free brunch and save our carbs until later in the day. Also a huge mistake people make is to try to go low-carb at the same time as limiting fats. Not only does limiting fats not help with losing weight, but it makes you hungry all the time.

Scott W. said...

Actually I kicked a severe caffeine habit (I got migraines if I didn't drink lots of it) and I sleep better and eat like a bird now.

Barbara C. said...

I am usually an example of one of those people that is usually super skinny but probably not really healthy.

I think is partly genetic. I take after my dad's build, tall and skinny. When he was in his 20's he was so thin that the priest told him not to fast during Lent out of concerns for his health.

I also don't consume enough calories per what I expend due to the stress and busyness of my daily life. I get so busy that I "forget to eat" or I get so stressed that I lose my appetite.

I've read all of the books about the benefits of whole foods and organic and limiting sugar and carbs. My basic resistance boils down to one thing: I never learned to cook.

When I married I knew how to heat frozen foods in an oven or add two ingredients to a box meal, but I had never prepared an egg of any kind in my life.

Cooking stresses me out. I do not enjoy it at all...I think it is partly trying to time multiple dishes to come out right at the same time. It's hard for me to muster up the effort it takes to go through the process of cooking super health foods, especially when so often they taste terrible to me (as if I don't already have issues with not eating enough food). I wish I could eat beans because they are so healthy and economical, but I have always HATED the taste and texture even though I have tried them repeatedly.

I just try to do my best to teach my kids other healthy eating habits such as regular meal times at the kitchen table; limiting soft drinks, MSG, and high fructose corn syrup; and drinking lots of water. And then I make the Kraft Mac&Cheese.

Barbara C. said...

I understand, though, that some people really enjoy cooking; it's their hobby rather than a chore. I can appreciate that; although sometimes there is a certain amount of pretension to it. It seems like a lot of foodies want to brag about how experimental and exotic their recipes are with how many rare and expensive ingredients. It makes it seem like a hobby for the rich and snooty, like golf.

My neighbors both really love to cook, but it seems really different hearing them talk about cooking than Rod Dreher. I think it's because for my neighbors it is about reconnecting and merging their Mexican heritage. They usually only cook Mexican cuisine from their childhoods for big family gatherings. It's not about showing off or being cool, just about memories and family.

Red Cardigan said...

Barbara C., I understand how you feel. My mom did cook at home, and I learned some basics, but didn't really get going with cooking until I got married (which is quite normal for lots of us, I suspect). What I didn't inherit from her is a love of entertaining; that stresses me out. Simple home-cooking is okay, and I think there's a lot of room between healthy pots of beans/steel cut oats/today's new superfood and just learning to cut down on super-processed stuff, salt, sugar, artificial ingredients, etc.

Char, I actually did the low-carb diet for a considerable time--nearly a year--at one point. Two things happened: I lost only twelve pounds and then stopped losing weight completely (and I still had quite a ways to go at that time), and my blood pressure, always bad, skyrocketed (yes, even though I was losing weight--my BP problems don't appear to be weight-related). As soon as I stopped eating low-carb, because of the BP thing, I gained the 12 pounds back and then some.

Here are some of the low-carb foods I either can't or don't eat:

--processed meats (bacon, ham, lunch meats other than "low-sodium" varieties): Some I can't eat at all, like sausage or hot dogs, and others I can only eat in tiny amounts--for instance, if we have bacon, I can eat about half a slice. This is both because they're awful for blood pressure and they are migraine triggers.

--shellfish, including shrimp: I love fish and ate quite a bit of shrimp on my first low-carb attempt. Then I developed a shellfish allergy, swollen lip and all. I can't eat any shellfish anymore--and who knew that a shellfish allergy isn't something you necessarily have as a kid, but can develop as an adult even if you never had a problem with it before? I sure didn't.

--beef; it's not good for blood pressure (red meat generally) and I'm ethically opposed to the way factory-farmed beef is raised. And my husband had a relative who may have died of mad cow (the results were never shared with us, but the symptoms were certainly on target) which sort of puts a damper on eating beef. Then, too, I don't really like the taste of it.

--nuts; I can eat some, but my girls have a mild peanut allergy which makes me not bring a lot of those products into our house, and some nuts seem to be a migraine trigger, mainly because they're processed in oils that can be in the trigger families.

--white beans--this is a weird one, but I have a food sensitivity to beans such as navy, etc., certain lentils (but not all), and tofu. Tofu is also a *bad* migraine trigger for me, as is soy generally.

--cheese; like all migraine sufferers, I find that certain aged cheeses can be a problem, as can processed (high sodium) cheeses such as American.

So I'm pretty much left with meats like chicken and white meat pork, eggs (so long as it's not that certain week of the month), some cheeses, and the non-starchy vegetables. Of the fruits that are allowed on a low-carb plan, my girls break out from strawberries so I don't buy them (and they used to love them, but they just can't eat them) and I can't eat cantaloupe because I can't stand the taste, the texture, or the headache/nausea afterward (and I have no explanation for that, honestly).

I'm losing weight now, and I'm not doing low carb. I'm just eating less. It seems to be working.