It’s October. This means my life is filled with all things autumn-y and pumpkin-y.
Pumpkin. There’s something about it. The seasonality is definitely a big draw.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
That is how I feel about pumpkin. It’s not quite the same for tomatoes, corn, watermelon, all those signature summer foods. There’s just something about pumpkin. It goes well in soup, breads, muffins, chocolate, dairy… Savory, sweet, spicy. In America, pumpkin is probably the MOST well-known, widely celebrated seasonal fruit of them all. I have no evidence to back this, just my own experience and intense love for pumpkin (ok, maybe apples are there, too… for all you apple-picking fiends). But you can’t say you haven’t seen it. The minute October rolls around, gangs of pumpkin hang outside of every grocery store, canned (and now boxed) pumpkin forms blockades at the front of all the isles, pumpkin butter pops up in Trader Joe’s (and your own local grocery store if you’re lucky), and Little Debbie’s Pumpkin Delights appear fully stocked on the shelves. I used to LOVE those little processed pastries. My mom would buy truckloads for me every fall until I became obsessed with hydrogenated oils/trans fats in high school and wouldn’t eat them anymore… sadface. And that’s what I want to talk about now. Processed foods.
Did you know that October is Unprocessed Foods month? It’s not a national thing, but It was started by Andrew over at Eating Rules, and it’s picked up some minor press in the last few years. Here’s his definition of unprocessed, and you can read more about it by clicking on the link.
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with whole-food ingredients.
And he’s pledging to eschew all processed food for the entire month of October. This is the 4th annual Unprocessed October, so he’s been doing it for quite a few years now.
What’s So Bad About Processed Food?
Unnatural. Trans fats. Added sugars. High in sodium. Long shelf-life. Low nutritional value. Addictive. Empty calories. Potentially harmful ingredients. There’s certainly a whole lot of things processed food has against it. Hey, I’m not a big fan. And if you want someone else’s esteemed opinion, Michael Pollan isn’t a big fan either. His book Food Rules seems to attack processed foods in almost every line. I’m not one to disagree with the great Michael Pollan (except for that great-grandmother line: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” C’mon. Crisco was invented in 1911. The Jungle was written in 1906. Our food system was messed up way before my great-grandmother was born, and healthy, unprocessed foods were certainly not the only things our recent ancestors ate.)
In terms of nutrition, processed foods are not great for you because of the presence of trans fats, high amounts of added sugars and sodium, low amounts of nutrients, and some potentially harmful or irritating chemical compounds. I try to choose as many whole, unprocessed foods in my diet as possible. I shop along the periphery of the grocery store, buying fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains (usually in bulk), fish, eggs, almond milk, and rice cakes. That’s about it. Maybe I’ll take a trip down the spice isle or pick up some toothpaste in the middle of the store, but for the most part I stay out of the center isles. But I’m not perfect. I eat processed foods. And I won’t stop. No matter how many #paleo #cleaneating #wholefoods #unprocessed tags I post on Instagram, there’s going to be another meal that I eat in which some portion was made in a factory. I try to inspire with whole, unprocessed foods because they tend to be better for you. But I’m not going to hide the fact that I eat processed foods. Some of them, like hummus and almond milk, pack some great nutrients (it’s really a pain to find hummus and almond milk that would meet Andrew’s definition of unprocessed, and it’s even more of an inconvenience to make those things). Others like chocolate and pastries, aren’t the best, nutritionally. Even those pesky protein bars are super addictive (with debatable health benefits). Bottom line? I’m #notperfect and processed foods are hard to avoid.
Let me tell you a story about a trip I took to India in Thailand in 2008. Like all good study abroad trips, it was an amazing, life changing experience. We toured agricultural facilities in India and Thailand: palm oil processing factories, silk factories, orchid propagation centers, fields of Bt (genetically engineered) cotton and corn, agricultural research stations, fruit markets, home gardens, guava orchards… and a chicken processing facility. That one definitely made an impression on me. We saw the entire process. Live chicken to chicken nuggets. They timed it just right so we didn’t actually see the gruesome, bloody details of the birds’ deaths. However, we did see the featherless bodies hanging from metal clamps and watched as the carcases were sliced up into parts, tenderized, diced, seasoned, breaded, and neatly packaged into sealed, bright red packages, frozen, and ready to be delivered to grocery stores across Thailand.
Where do you think they took us after this informative, eye-opening tour? Lunch, of course. They served us the chicken bits that we had just seen on the assembly line (ok, not the same ones but close), along with some rice, melons, and packaged crackers as a snack. Gross. Most of my fellow students and professors ate the meal without a second thought. A few of us held back, picking at the fruit, nibbling on the rice. I sat there thinking to myself, “How can I ever eat anything from a factory again, let alone that chicken I just saw?” At this point, I was a pretty strict vegetarian (ok, I was pescetarian, but closer to vegetarian than I am now). I barely ate lunch, but a few hours later, I was starving. I grappled with my hunger, not wanting to put anything from a factory in my mouth ever again (drastic, I know). But soon enough, my growling stomach got the best of me, and I accepted a package of crackers from another student. And my life went on.
Andrew over at Eating Rules has just that: rules for eating. First of all, I have a problem with that. I really do. If you know me, or at least can read the name of my blog, I’m all about balance. I don’t like deprivation. I believe that deprivation leads to unbalance: stress, anxiety, pressure, obsessive eating patterns, disordered eating, binging, and in the extreme, eating disorders. Andrew even says himself, “If you try to be perfect, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” Yet, he has these hard and fast rules, ONLY eat 100% whole grains, DON’T eat high fructose corn syrup, DON’T eat hydrogenated oils, trans fats, or fried foods. I’m getting my Master’s in nutrition and I’ve known for almost my entire life (since I discovered nutritionism in high school) that whole grains are better, high fructose corn syrup is bad, and hydrogenated oils are even worse. He says “Decide Once” to do these things, and then simply follow through. WTF. No, WTF!? Seriously. Read his blog post. If nutrition is that easy, I’m hanging up my student ID and Train shirt right now.
Honestly, for some people it is that easy, and I applaud you. With some people, nutritional knowledge is power. They are able to apply the exact principles they learn about what foods are the best for their body, and they turn their noses up at the other foods that don’t provide them with sustenance. I was once one of those people. But I’m not anymore. I don’t regret giving it up, and I’ve learned a lot from it. I really identify with this quote:
‘Being tough isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. Looking back on it, though, I can see I was too used to being strong, and never tried to understand those who were weak. I was too used to being fortunate, and didn’t try to understand those less fortunate. Too used to being healthy, and didn’t try to understand the pain of those who weren’t. Whenever I saw a person in trouble, somebody paralyzed by events, I decided it was entirely his fault–he just wasn’t trying hard enough. People who complained were just plain lazy. My outlook on life was unshakable, and practical, but lacked any human warmth. And not a single person around me pointed this out.’
–Mui, Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami
How could I ever have become a personal trainer if I couldn’t sympathize with my clients about their issues with food and exercise? How can I teach people to eat healthily if I think it’s as easy as “deciding once?” I am where I am today because of the unbalanced issues I had with food (and exercise). I have a passion for these things because of my own life experiences and the experiences of people close to me.
Embrace the World of Food
I tried to do Unprocessed October in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, I was an Americorps member on food stamps, adjusting to NYC and my 9-5 job by eating Crumbs cupcakes for dinner twice a month, or more (shhh don’t tell, I joined a gym too, so it’s ok, right?). I failed. After a week of a few slip-ups, I just couldn’t do it. In October of 2011, I was a newly minted personal trainer, still struggling to get a good client base and figure out my own training style and philosophy. There was no time to sleep, let alone cook all of my own food. I failed again, after a few days. I even considered going unprocessed in October of 2012. That’s when I decided a commitment to unprocessed isn’t for me. And I probably eat 70-80% of my foods unprocessed already! Why won’t I go 100%?
This is our food world. This is our society. Processed is convenient, efficient, and it’s delicious. And I believe eating is a social, cultural, agricultural, creative, and nutritional act. Entirely avoiding unprocessed foods can put restrictions on your diet, causing social and cultural clashes, agricultural inefficiencies (processing can reduce food waste), expands and contracts your creativity at the same time (forcing you to learn to make things for yourself but limiting ingredients and equipment), and can even reduce your nutrient intake (no fortified or enriched foods).
While I probably won’t celebrate October and embrace all-things-pumpkin by going out and buying those Little Debbie Pumpkin Delights (I’m still not thrilled about their trans fat content), I won’t be restricting my food choices either. Balance Chaos.