Sunday, January 3, 2010

Eating to Save Your Family and the Planet

As we flip to 2010 our thoughts might turn to healthier lifestyles for ourselves and our families. Traditionally this could mean joining a gym, signing up with Weight Watchers, taking dance lessons, buying organic more often, or making other simple changes to improve our eating habits. Just in time comes Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules, released recently in paperback, to serve us up some easy guidelines.

Pollan is the nation’s guru, educator, advocate, and activist about our country’s food and our relationship to it. He appears in the hit film Food, Inc. about the American food supply, is a journalism professor at UC Berkley, and writes prolifically.

Below are comments on five of my favorite rules that Pollan exhorts us to keep in mind when shopping for groceries:

RULE NUMBER ONE: Don’t buy anything that lists sugar in its first three ingredients. This might seem obvious until we actually look at labels, when it can be shocking to see how much sugar is in food. Remember to teach young kids (and teens) that ingredients are listed in order of concentration by weight on a product’s package.

RULE NUMBER TWO: Avoid products with ingredients that cannot be found in an ordinary pantry. This is a tricky rule since many kids and adults from typical American homes may not actually know what an “ordinary pantry” consists of. Suffice it to say that if the name on the list has hyphens, bi/tri/hexa-anything, the suffix “-ate”, or an alphabet soup of capital letters (eg MSG) we should try to do without.

RULE NUMBER THREE: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay away from the middle. I checked out this rule by scanning the products at my favorite local store, Trader Joe’s, to see if the outside circuit made me a better shopper. Indeed, even at a place committed to healthy and environmentally friendlier practices, TJ’s has the junk food in the middle aisles. It also has the essential frozen pizza, the chocolate (dark and full of anti-oxidants to be sure), and the dog food in this location.

RULE NUMBER FOUR: Avoid food that is pretending to be something it is not. This includes bacon bits, soy made to look like meat, and cheese food. Choose instead real bacon (every now and then), tofu or real meat, and natural, unprocessed cheese. Pretend foods usually contain ersatz flavors made in an organic chemistry lab and then massaged (literally) to make them the right shape, texture, or consistency to masquerade as something else.

RULE NUMBER FIVE: Foods making health claims on the package are not foods you want to buy. For starters, health claims change with time and whim. Think about all the wonderful foods-whole grain bread, fresh lemons, fish on ice, bunches of kale—that literally cannot speak for themselves. To have a claim on them requires handling, packaging, shipping, and often artificial additives, coloring and preservatives.

With a few simple guidelines, we can easily be healthier and save money at the same time. Cheers to the New Year!

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