Thursday, October 27, 2011

Healthy Eats

You are what you eat. I’m guessing you’ve heard this cliche before. But have you thought about what it means and whether it’s true? Surely, “You are what you eat,” doesn’t mean that later today I’ll morph into a frosted doughnut with Halloween sprinkles. What it does mean is that my body is built, mostly, on nutrients I consume. There are, of course, exceptions – women are born with all of the (non-surrogate) eggs they will have for their lives and medical devices do not use diet to sustain themselves. Tooth enamel and cerebral cortex neurons stay constant but, other than that, our bodies undergo constant turnover. And, as we all know, the substrate for that turnover is what we eat (so, if you had a turnover for breakfast, that turnover is used for turnover). And even those things in our bodies that are not directly the result of diet are affected by it. Your teeth, for example, are highly sensitive to the food you eat and its sugar content. So, food matters – and food quality affects health. But, eating well is expensive, right?

Consider a recently published University of Washington study that examined the cost of eating a diet compliant with the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 – which recommends increased dietary quantities of vitamin D, calcium, dietary fiber and potassium and less sugar and saturated fat. Using a survey to assess eating habits and then tallying retail prices at Seattle-area food suppliers, the study team tabulated the estimated dollars needed to get enough of some key nutrients, such as potassium. Based in part on the fact that such nutrients are plentiful in fresh produce and hard to find elsewhere, the researchers reported that meeting the guidelines would add to food costs. In fact, for one nutrient (potassium), an additional $380 was needed per person per year to meet recommended guidelines. On the other hand, for every 1% increase in dietary calories obtained from sugar and saturated fat, study subjects saved approximately $26 (sugar) to $102 (saturated fat) per person per year. Based on these findings, the authors concluded that, “Improving the American diet will require additional guidance for consumers, especially those with little budget flexibility, and new policies to increase the availability and reduce the cost of healthful foods.”

This study certainly has limitations in terms of its scope and methods (including the fact that the calories and costs were estimated rather than directly observed), but it nonetheless supports the conventional wisdom that you have to be rich to eat a healthy diet. I argue, however, (and I’m not alone in this) that conventional wisdom is simply not true on this point. It is, of course, a lot easier to be a healthy eater if you have a fat wallet, but it’s certainly possible without one. And while I agree with the basic tenet of AB 581(declaring access to healthy food items a basic human right), I don’t think this issue should be left to legislation alone. For example, here is a quick recipe of tips for economic and nutritious eating.

Recipe for Eating Well on a Tight Budget.

·      Mix the following into your routine
o   Two parts buying local, fresh and in-season when possible.
o   Three cups planning nutritious meals that can be re-served another night.
o   One part frequent thick and hearty soups (these will cut back the urge to splurge).
o   Three carts of buying generic and in bulk and freezing perishables.
o   Six tablespoons of reading food labels. You’ll be shocked at all the added sodium.
·      Cook this mixture slowly in a reduction sauce dedicated to cutting back on unrefined sugar, saturated fat and expensive and unnecessary vitamin supplements.
·      Finish with three thimbles of nutrition education.

It is in the finishing that the most enduring benefit will be found – for you and your family. In particular, we could be doing a much better job of teaching our children about food and nutrients and creating a life-long appreciation for their importance. As a father who delivers sprinkled doughnuts home on a bi-weekly basis, I am likely more delinquent on this point than many in Marin. So, for parents like me a great place to start the schooling sauté is at the North Bay Discovery Day. On November 5th, in an event sponsored by The Buck Institute, over 50 exhibitors will gather at Infineon Raceway, all tasked with helping to make science fun and accessible for kids.

Among the exhibitors is accomplished chef Ted Smith, founder of Kids Cooking for Life (KCL) which is a community program that focuses on educating children on food, cooking and (big bonus!) table manners.

The KCL exhibit (in partnership with Kaiser Permanente) on Discovery Day is called a “Whole Grain Adventure” and will feature fun and games (including a Fiber Race) and deliver the message “that whole grains (and the fiber they contain) are an essential ingredient of a healthful diet.”

Ted Smith writes, “I strongly believe that you don't have to be wealthy to eat healthy. What I’ve learned as an owner-operator of restaurants in Chicago for over 23 years (and having served over 18 million customers) is this: fruits and vegetables are a lot cheaper than meat, seafood and poultry! And fruit and vegetables is where you find healthy eating.”

And don’t worry, a diet rich in produce will not turn you into a turnip.

For more info about Discover Day check out