Wednesday, January 13, 2010

bunnicula: a vegan treatise (today vegetables...tomorrow the world!)

i’m in the process of developing a whole new personal eating philosophy.

a little history: i went vegan when i was 16, living in an omnivorous household, in a strongly omnivorous environment. i didn’t know *how* to eat a balanced vegan diet, i only knew that i didn’t want to eat animal products anymore, for ethical reasons. so i made my own meals, relying too heavily on grains, not getting enough fresh produce, with little nutritional knowledge to guide me.

i feel like i spent seven years stuck in this convenience mindset. food should be fast and easy. preparing food is not fun and i don’t have time for it. but i was so wrong!

before i go any further i should address the aspects of privilege at play here. not only am i unemployed and graced with ample time to read about nutrition, experiment with recipes and cook nutritious meals, i’m also very lucky to be able to afford nutritious food, to live in a place where unlimited supplies of nutritious foods are available, to be healthy and free of severe food allergies or other dietary restrictions, able-bodied and capable of fixing and eating my own meals, et cetera. i am absolutely not judging anyone for not eating the way i do, for making different food choices; nor am i saying that this is the best way to eat for anyone other than myself.

my new way of eating is based on mostly organic, mostly whole, non-commercially-processed foods that are vegan, and i’m attempting to eat approximately half raw (by volume). i want to eat foods that nourish my body. i want to get pleasure from trying new types of food and new recipes. i want to learn as much as i can about the foods i eat, what they contain, and what they do for my health.

in advancement of these goals i’ve been reading a whole lot of books: about nutrition, veganism, the western diet, food culture and more. i’m trying to gain a well-rounded education on food, although i’m probably not going to pick up any books on the atkins diet or any of that sort of garbage. some of what i’ve read lately:

in defense of food: an eater’s manifesto (michael pollan)
foods that harm, foods that heal (reader’s digest)
fast food nation (eric schlosser)
skinny bitch (rory freedman and kim barnouin)
vegan: the new ethics of eating (erik marcus)
macrobiotic diet (michio and avaline kushi)
the juiceman’s power of juicing (jay kordich)
the juicing book (stephen blauer)
juice alive: the ultimate guide to juicing (steven bailey and larry trivieri)

everything has an angle, and different sources contradict each other (and/or themselves) constantly. and of course there’s bias in what i choose to pick up in the first place (notice all the juicing books--i got a juicer for christmas--more on that later).

the only books on that list that i didn’t read thoroughly were "vegan" (because it’s just not terribly compelling to someone who made the choice to go vegan long ago), and "macrobiotic diet." i picked up the macrobiotic book because that diet is a mystery to me, but within the first few pages i could tell that the authors were somewhat unhinged, making all these bizarre doomsday predictions, using creepy fear-mongering language that didn’t sit well with me. so i still don’t know too much about macrobiotics, other than the fact that there are levels, and the ultimate level is basically subsisting on brown rice; there’s also a philosophical/spiritual component, and it reminds me of scientology. i think that’s all i need to know.

i’m passionately ambivalent about the book “skinny bitch.” it’s written in the most annoying voice possible--the book is basically an asshole. however, it has a lot of good, concise information, well organized; it’s the best book about the basics of veganism i’ve ever come across. for those reasons i grudgingly, apologetically, and optimistically begged reed to read it.

he did, and he hated it even more than i did, but then he went vegan! not only that, but his sister read it as a “joke,” and now she’s gone vegan too! it’s magic! it is a horrible, wonderful, magical book!

i am so proud of reed for going vegan. he’s doing an amazing job of it, eating much, much healthier than i did when i started out, and he says he finds it easy to eat this way, which is not usually the sort of thing you hear from previously-omnivorous vegans.

another standout book is michael pollan’s “in defense of food.” i like a lot of his advice. pollan recommends eating things that have essentially been tested in the real world by real humans under real conditions--foods that have existed for centuries, that haven’t been broken apart, stripped down, and generally fucked with. he says to bring (the idea of) your great-grandmother along on grocery shopping trips, and not to buy anything that she doesn’t recognize as food. he categorizes most of what you’d normally call “packaged, processed food” as “edible foodlike substances”--not even worthy of being classified as food.

his basic philosophy is "eat food. not too much. mostly plants." by "food" of course he means non-processed food. he’s definitely a high-minded purist, and a lot of his advice is impractical for most people. he writes from a place of extreme privilege without acknowledging it.

also, i think his basic assumption about how americans choose what they eat is wrong. he seems to think that we're all obsessed with what he derisively terms ideological "nutritionism": we’ll only eat food that we believe is healthy (i.e. "let thy food be thy medicine," a quote he invokes with disdain), however we get so much conflicting information and misinformation about what food to eat (based on each food’s content of "mysterious," "invisible" nutrients) that it ends up screwing us over. he constructs a mythical majority that is obsessed with nutrition, that hangs on every word of science and medicine journals and studies. maybe our culture is obsessed with nutrition, but i seriously don’t think you can extrapolate that obsession to the average individual and assume dietary trends are the result of that obsession. it’s flawed logic, and sociologically ignorant, i think.

pollan makes frequent reference to "the western diet," which i tend to think of as ultimately one of convenience: we eat too much and we eat unhealthy food because it’s available, it’s cheap, and it tastes good. sure, a good portion of the population is on a weight-loss diet at any given time, but are these dieters really dwelling so heavily on complicated nutritional advice that it leads to their undoing? or are they mostly experimenting with fad diets, following the advice of some popular author or infomercial personality, having only a very basic understanding of what their new food choices are doing to their bodies? because i think it’s mostly the latter, but judging from his book, pollan thinks it’s the former. he goes so far as to say that "we americans have always had a problem taking pleasure in eating" (54). us gluttons? come on now.

(i shouldn’t take that quote out of context--i think he was referring to the difference between enjoying food and appreciating the eating experience, much like the distinction between enjoying/appreciating literature...still, i think it was a silly thing to write, further evidence of his superior attitude).

without pollan's assumption that people strictly control what they eat according to scientific nutritional advice (an assumption the author actually contradicts a bit himself, when convenient), some of his theories and recommendations fall flat. he wants people to just eat healthy, dammit, and forget about micronutrients, disregard nutritional absolutism (“some foods are always bad, some are always good”), and pay no attention to any of that crap that even scientists don’t fully understand yet, EXCEPT, oh my god, get your omega 3 fatty acids, because omega 3 is god-juice.

pollan is an omnivore. as an herbivore, i can’t really forget about nutrients. i have to take b12 supplements because the only reliable food sources of b12 are from animal products. i have to make sure i get enough iron, and vitamin c to help absorb it, because apparently non-heme iron from plant sources is not absorbed as well as heme iron, which is only found in animal sources. i have to eat a variety of foods to get complete proteins with all the essential amino acids. and so on and so forth.

all that said, "in defense of food" is an elegantly-written, fascinating, well-researched, informative and very worthwhile book to read, and i can’t recommend it enough, honestly.

pollan makes an important point when he writes about scientists and nutritionists not knowing all there is to know about the complexity of nutrients and food. the result, unfortunately, is that there is so much junk science surrounding food and nutrition that there are entire books, articles, websites and blogs devoted to debunking junk nutritional science using junk nutritional science to do so (case in point, --a noble cause, judging from the mission statement, but many of the posts are complete crap, the author apparently having no sense of irony).

i think the best conclusion to draw from all the contradictory information is that there are a lot of well-meaning people out there who think they have the answers, but most of it is theory and conjecture, based on incomplete evidence, and flawed. there’s plenty of good advice, plenty more bad; and the only thing you can really trust is first-hand, empirical evidence. every person is an outlier in one way or another. we aren’t mice, or individual cells, or anything confined to a laboratory. we aren’t even other people, we’re just ourselves. our individual bodies and the things we classify as food are both incredibly complicated.

my parents gave me a juicer for christmas. it’s been so fun creating various concoctions from fruits and vegetables. i don’t do it to excess, i know i need to eat nutritious foods as well, and i’m not a total convert to the religion surrounding juicing. there are so very many crazies in every nutritional movement, especially raw foods, good lord...

speaking of crazies, jay kordich’s “juiceman” book is great. it has a bunch of juice recipes, and detailed information on what nutrients can be found in a whole list of fruits and vegetables, how to tell when each type of produce is ripe, how best to store it, how to juice it, and so on. he’s an extremist, though, and some of his claims are pretty wild.

i have a good time making and drinking juices, and it supplements my diet with all kinds of nutrients in a far healthier way than taking vitamin pills.

in grade school, the librarian used to read to us in a tiered "reading well," pausing at every page to hold up the book and scan the pages across our little faces so we could view the colorful illustrations. one of the books she read to us that made an impression on me was "bunnicula." it’s the story of a vampire bunny that sucks all the juice out of vegetables, leaving whole gardens full of pale white husks. when i juice, i like to think i’m like bunnicula, sucking the life force out of healthy foods.


i don’t find anything wrong with hippocrates’ "let thy food by thy medicine." i love thinking of food as nourishment rather than a simple source of pleasure; nutritional considerations enhance my appreciation rather than detracting from it. eating the way i do now makes me feel good in every way, and that is so damn important.

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