Eat Food, With Others

(The second in a series about the convergence of psychological and environmental health)

photo from AP

One strategy that any person or family can adopt to promote psychological and environmental health is to pay a good deal of attention to what is happening at the kitchen table. Almost five years ago Michael Pollan advised “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While Pollan emphasized that rule as good for our bodies, and our planet, he didn’t explicitly link it to psychological health. Yet, eating food, not too much, mostly plants is good for our planet, our bodies and our psychological health especially if we recognize the role of relationships in the maintenance and organization of food resources.

In taking a broader view of food that is “at once more cultural and ecological” he suggests thinking “about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship.” Pollan clearly states that, “our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.”

While he emphasizes health in the bodily sense of the word, it is important to remember that health also means our psychological well being. In addition to the fact that physical well-being enhances mental health, food  can importantly impact mood states.  And it isn’t only the chemical breakdown of foods that can affect our personalities.  The way in which food is distributed also shapes and forms personality. Home cooked soup may contain chemical compounds, forge connections to important people (the forager for ingredients, the cook, and those who share the meal), and symbolically enact care and attachment.

Pollan notes, “Of course when it comes to food, culture is really just a fancy word for Mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways of the group — food ways that, although they were never “designed” to optimize health (we have many reasons to eat the way we do), would not have endured if they did not keep eaters alive and well.”

His point is that there needs to be a producer of food who understands both the individual needs of eaters, the range of available foods, and the relational complexity in which food is situated.  Yes, it has often been mom, but it can also be dad, or anyone else in a family or a group of eaters. That person is not only taking into account the person’s body. That person also uses food to alter the so-called “chemical” mood of the family or group by providing foods that heal, celebrate, get someone through a hard bout of work, or nurture someone through a loss.

What follows is my psychological elaboration of Pollan’s nine food rules.

1. “Eat food.” Choosing real food as opposed to food products protects a family from chemicals and other ingredients that have been scientifically created or altered. Keeping family members away from unproven foods can eliminate triggers of mood instability. Also, feeding real food communicates important truths about living in the world. Not everything out there is good for you. Learn how to choose what is beneficial by relying on cultural and environmental knowledge. Think of the ecosystem as both cultural and natural sources of information.

2. “Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.” By transforming eating into only nutritional delivery mechanisms it separates eating from its nurturing role.   Eschewing health claims in favor of  proven foods also teaches the lesson that fads don’t fix  psychological difficulties.  You can’t fix your body or your mind with scientifically constructed solutions, although they can work temporarily.  In the long-term, however, rely on what is real, durable, and trustworthy.  Eat real food and have genuine conversations with people that you know and trust. This creates smaller scale eating rituals that are also easier on the planet (less waste, more efficient consumption of resources).

3. “Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.”  All of these additives and processed ingredients may alter mental health by impacting neurological, hormonal and metabolic processes.  Keep eating simple: tasty, good food made by people at home.  Cooking at home creates all kinds of opportunities for family members and friends to work and talk together.   Less reliance on mass produced foods will also cut down on energy consumption.

4. “Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.”  Supermarkets these days function like ADD training camp. Too many overstimulating and false choices do not help small minds cohere nor do they facilitate the dominance of knowledge and experience over false idols (biblical reference intentional).  When you must shop in supermarkets try consulting goodguide for the nutritional and ethical background of most food and non-food products sold in supermarkets.  Also supporting local merchants and farmers is good for the local economy as well as its ecosystem.

5. “Pay more, eat less.” This is hard to implement in these troubled economic times. Cutting down on exposure to pesticides by eating organic food is crucial to regulating the developing little selves of kids. We don’t know what the impact is of all those chemicals on any one’s physiological systems. Also, eating fewer higher quality calories is a life lesson about limits and boundaries. In our society we are used to eating whatever we want whenever we want it. Therefore, we teach our kids that they should have whatever they want whenever they want it. This is not how we as a society or culture should relate to anything – not each other, not our resources and not our environment.  The limited consumption of high quality resources teaches not only good character but also sustainable habits.It is also more affordable in the long term.

6. “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.” Plants have to be cooked and prepared, and they are renewable resources.  Preparing food embeds it into the relational and aesthetic weave of family life.  Food becomes not only nutrition but also symbolic, part of individual and group consciousness.  When food is meaningful, it is treated respectfully.  Respectful eating also helps build solid character structure.  It becomes a culinary template for values.  And,  it is a loving way to treat the ecosystem.

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5 Responses to “Eat Food, With Others”

  1. Carey Caccavo Wheaton Says:

    I know Michael Pollan is all the rage, and has a lot of wisdom, but to complete the nutritional picture,I invite you to investigate the work of Weston A Price, a dentist and nutritional researcher of the early 1900s, who noticed a huge increase in tooth crowding and decay, suspected nutrition. He traveled the world, year after year, to research native diets in places that had not yet been touched by trade and the “displacing foods of commerce,” those foods that were refined with extra long shelf life/profit in mind. His research is astounding– native peoples eating traditional diets were healthy, had sunny dispositions, wide jaws and perfect teeth, and were virtually free of diseases. He photographed the faces and teeth of everyone in these villages. And he found that nutritional wisdom had evolved across the world over thousands of years, with some shared principles, even in such faraway places as Alaska, south sea islands, Ireland, and one remote village in Switzerland.

    These ancestral traditions did not only involve plant foods. Saturated fats like butter and lard were treasured! Certain healing, nutritional power- foods like shrimp were given to couples trying to conceive. Grains were always soaked, sprouted or sour leavened to remove the phytic acid (which is demineralizing). Nowadays we eat quick-rise or simply cooked whole grains and are doing ourselves a disservice, because the bran pulls minerals out of us. Virtually all of these cultures made fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim chee, pickles, chutney from vegetables,made bone broth, which served important nutritional functions, from animals. None were vegans! Only one (India) was vegetarian, but the people ate insects in the grain, so the diet was not 100% so. So all were getting some amount of animal protein. And some raw food was essential as well, but not an entire rawfoods diet.

    He also had a chance to observe the tragic effects of processed foods. When trade brought in refined flours and sugars, and women ate them while pregnant, the next generation was born de-mineralized: with narrower cranial structures, faces (looking like they were from a different tribe!) and skeletal structures. Suddenly there was adolescent depression, terrible toothaches and tooth decay, crowding of teeth (as we have nowadays, hence orthodonture exists because of prenatal and childhood nutition!) and more trouble giving birth.

    When you think of it, we all have a blueprint of a wider cranial structure– enough room for our brains, pituitary glands, etc. With a narrower result from modern diets, our brains/endocrine systems are essentially operating in a squeezed space. The ramifications are huge, for physical and psychological health.

    WestonAPrice.org has information, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, along with other books, have been based on Price’s meticulous research and also science that has followed.

    Michael Pollan, to my knowledge, leaves out some very important information in his recommendations. It’s not just about eating plants– the pickling of vegetables and sour leavening, sprouting, fermenting of grains is essential. And some amount of (grass fed) animal fat, protein and bone broth has been an essential, healthful part of the traditions that have nourished humankind.

    In the past few hundred years, we have forgotten much. But Price’s research gives us a window into that ancestral wisdom. His dying words were: “You teach, you teach, you teach!”

  2. Susan Bodnar Says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Weston A. Price’s work. He certainly seems to deepen Pollan’s work and I am delighted with your comment. Yes! The impact of the work on eating and nutrition has huge implications for psychological health at the cultural level as well as in the biochemistry. I’m looking forward to a continued dialogue with you as I continue to work on and develop the ecological model for mental health, and especially tapping into lost ancestral wisdom.

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