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What Does Eating Well Really Mean?

For some people, eating well means opting for local ingredients over anything flown in from thousands of miles away; for others, it means eating only unprocessed foods, including lard and raw milk. Here, new ideas from the visionaries helping to frame the increasingly urgent debate.

Food Detective: Michael Pollan

In his new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, journalist Michael Pollan brilliantly examines the complexities of figuring out what to eat—the cornucopia of choices that render eating intelligently and healthfully a perplexing daily task. Some of his thoughts:

You call yourself a food detective. What does that mean? It's a new job description. A hundred years ago you wouldn't need a detective—or a journalist—to tell you what you were eating. But now it takes a lot of investigative journalism to find out what's in that Twinkie.

In all your poking around the american food system, what shocked you the most? Being on a feed lot full of cattle. Looking at how we feed animals things that make them sick, and then give them drugs to keep them from getting too sick. Feeding chicken manure to cows and then dead cows back to chickens. The way we treat animals is shocking, and the biggest change in my diet is that I don't eat industrial meat now.

What's your perfect meal? One from the farmers' market, which means the food will be locally grown and not drenched in fossil fuels. If you shop at Whole Foods, the meat comes from New Zealand and the asparagus from Argentina.Food that travels 5,000 miles may be organic, but what does that mean?

Still, changing the way we eat and shop can seem overwhelming. Yes, but you can vote with your fork three times a day. You may not cast every vote in the best possible way; I don't. But if you do one right—if you get organic instead of conventional, or local instead of organic—you are taking a big step.

Laurent Manrique, corporate executive chef of San Francisco's Aqua Development Corporation

As a practicing Buddhist who eats meat, I have been criticized. People say, "How can you pretend to practice the Buddhist philosophy and not be a vegetarian?" My response is to point out that the Dalai Lama sometimes eats meat. Does that mean he's doing something wrong? I believe the key is to think about whatever you put into your mouth—fish, meat, vegetables, junk food. That's following the Buddhist philosophy of being mindful of every step of everything you do, from eating to walking to sleeping.

Joshua Wesson, chairman and executive wine director of Best Cellars

For the past 25 years, I've had a glass of wine with my evening meal, six nights a week. On the seventh night, I drink Fresca and admire the fine way I've been preserved by Shiraz.

Food Activists: Anna Lappé & Bryant Terry

In 2002, Anna Lappé co-authored the best-selling Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, with her mother, renowned food activist Frances Moore Lappé. Anna's new book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, co-authored with chef Bryant Terry, argues that industrialization and corporate control of our food supply has resulted in a national diet filled with pesticides, genetically modified foods, factory-farmed meat, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup—the last of which the average American consumes 45 pounds of yearly. Grub offers advice on how to fight back, along with 137 pages of Terry's delicious recipes.

How do you define grub? Lappé: It's food grown locally without dangerous chemicals, food that's fresh and seasonal, and processed by workers who aren't exploited—who are paid fair wages, treated with respect and protected from workplace hazards, including pesticide exposure.

Why do you think our diets have gotten so out of whack? why isn't everyone eating the kind of food you recommend? Lappé: The problem is that big manufacturers treat food like any other product in the marketplace—a TV, a toaster or a tennis shoe. Terry: Anna and I aren't saying that large corporations shouldn't be part of the discussion about how Americans eat, just that community food activists, chefs, dieticians, young people, educators and eaters should too.

How do you suggest changing the status quo? Lappé: We all have the power to create a food system more aligned with a shared value of wellness and health. For instance, shop at farmers' markets or support locally owned grocery stores. Terry: But the Grub attitude isn't about being hard on yourself. We don't want to make people feel guilty because they have a cocktail once in a while. There's organic vodka out there.

Michael McDonough, architect & eco-designer

When making choices about what to eat, I think about the architecture of food. Most ancient cultures talk about food having some sort of base, a fundamental building block. The Chinese, for instance, consider rice the foundation of a meal. And then they add things that are more nutritious than the rice. All the great food cultures—the Italians, the Indians, any of them—have very specific structures.

So my family and I buy and prepare food with the idea that we're going to pay attention to how our meal is structured: where it comes from, how it's going to come together, what its benefits are. That's the way I think about architecture. I want to know where the materials come from, how they're going to be put together. Is there anything bad about them? If so, can they be fixed or are there alternatives? It's pretty much the way I design buildings, too. If I can get something locally, then I do, if it does the job—if it's going to be healthy for the people who will live in the house or if it's going to help extend their lives. It's really a whole way of living.

Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Lack of sleep and poor eating habits are among the primary causes of rising rates of depression. My first advice to depressed people is that they regularize sleep and diet, reducing or eliminating alcohol and caffeine immediately, eating at regular times (whether they feel hungry or not), and not at weird times (whether they feel hungry or not). Most of all, I suggest that they avoid peaks and valleys of blood sugar. The goal is to keep the body constant, to prevent it from veering off into madness. That being said, one doesn't want a diet that is depressing; I eat foods that I like because they're comforting and raise my morale, and I think people should cheer themselves up in this fashion if they possibly can. The silver lining: reducing fats, though good for your heart, may be bad for your psyche; higher cholesterol may modulate anxiety.

I wish I could say that there were some great secret—that people who eat artichokes for breakfast are more emotionally resilient than people who eat corn flakes. But there's nothing that simple. Depression is an imbalance of the humors, as the ancients observed, and what you want more than anything else when you are depressed is balance.

Harold McGee, food scientist

I go to the farmers' market every week and I get most of my produce there. But I'm in a privileged position—as are many people in this country—and what works for us doesn't necessarily work for the world as a whole. Look at genetic engineering. The top four food crops of the world—corn, rice, soybeans and wheat—feed billions of people, and they take up millions and millions of acres. If you can tweak their genetic makeup so they're a few percent more efficient or require a few percent fewer acres, that translates to huge plots of land. In a lot of ways the industrialization of human life has not been good for the planet. But given where we are, if genetic engineering is properly and thoughtfully applied, it might actually help limit the further encroachment of human activities on the environment by making food production more efficient.

Neo-Luddite: Nina Planck

Founder of the farmers' markets in London, Nina Planck ran NYC's famous Greenmarket program and recently launched two new Real Food outdoor markets in Manhattan. Her controversial new book, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, argues that traditional foods are more nutritious for us than industrially processed ones, regardless of fat content or even, in some cases, traditional food-safety concerns.

What's your definition of real food? It's the food we've been producing and preparing in the same way for centuries; the food our bodies need: grass-fed beef, cold-pressed olive oil, raw milk and cheese—even lard.

Lard is good for you? Lard is an amazing food. Pork fat is loaded with monounsaturated fats, the same kind as those in olive oil. Basically, there's only one kind of lard that's bad, and that's the hydrogenated kind.

You sound very antitechnology. Are you? Look, I love my ice cream maker. I love electricity. What I don't like is technology that reduces a food's flavor or nutrition. Chicken stock is great. The bouillon cube is an abomination.

What's the best way for people to adopt the diet you recommend? There's no single food that will give you the quick fix. What you eat should depend on the season and your own taste. But if you avoid industrial foods—white sugar, white flour, canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, hydrogenated vegetable oils, anything with corn syrup—your health will be a lot better.

Anthony Bourdain, chef and author

While I support and admire those chefs who have made personal decisions to feature organic, sustainable or exclusively local foods—and am very enthusiastic about heritage breeds and artisanal products—my only real concern is "Is it good?" As a profession, a chef owes his customers nothing more than pleasure and a good time. Personally, I don't care if my tomato was raised in a lab or some hippie's backyard. I don't even care if it causes the occasional tumor in lab rats. I only care that it's the best tasting damn tomato available.

Lisa Kron, playwright and actor

I was in L.A. after my play Well closed in NYC and someone said to me, "I have to stop eating for emotional reasons." I said, "Are you going to stop having sex for emotional reasons, too?" Eating has become like anonymous sex—we don't want to have an emotional relationship with it.

Published July 2006
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