Ever since my first terrifying encounter with GERD, food went from “things I eat that taste good and keep me full” to “things I eat to sustain me and my health”. Quite literally overnight. And ever since the gastroenterologist looked at the lab results of my poop sample and thought I would be happy with an Imodium prescription and a meaningless diagnosis of IBS, I’ve taken diet very seriously.
Nobody wants to start their journey to better eating habits like I did, but it was the kick in the ass I needed. Unfortunately, most of the landscape of dietary information out there consists of fad diets promoted by sketchy internet “doctors” and Amazon referral-powered blogs hoping to god that you buy that $60 tub of protein they claim to use every day. So I did what any reasonably neurotic person would do and started experimenting on myself.
The first thing I did was go vegetarian – almost vegan, actually, aside from the occasional piece of cheese a few times a month. It did a fine job of making me question the legitimacy of the Standard American Diet (SAD), and therefore the scores of doctors and nutritionists who upheld it as the gold standard of balanced eating. If my stomach couldn’t handle it, then clearly the problem was my stomach, and all I needed to do was take a magic pill to make it all go away. Nobody ever suggested that, hey, maybe the problem lay with my eating garbage. My GERD cleared up, though, now that I was no longer able to eat stuff like chili dogs, or buffalo wings, or Jack in the Box tacos. It wasn’t the meat that made the improvement, though. The culprit I’d eliminated was the sauces that are typically served with SAD-style meats, and the fatty ways they’re typically cooked.
No-no #1: Rich, greasy preparations.
I did more exploring and decided to eat a low-fiber diet for a while to see what that did for my gut. By the end, I was mighty sick of eating nothing but tofu, eggs, rice, and mushy vegetables, but the results were pretty conclusive: my bowel movements were regular, I experienced no gas, and little bloating. Score.
No-no #2: Excess fiber.
Curing my GERD and mostly alleviating my IBS was good enough for a few years. I was happy, I didn’t feel like crap after eating, and I no longer dreaded going to the bathroom. But then I started having blood sugar problems: hypoglycemia, mainly, which is a symptom of metabolic inflexibility. My research told me that such symptoms were the beginning of the long road to insulin resistance, which scared the pants off me. The remedy for metabolic inflexibility? Metabolic exercise! I limited my intake of carbohydrates to a fraction of what they had been, “quitting” them cold-turkey. My blood sugar protested, but after just a few days of the low-carb flu, my hypoglycemia never reared its ugly head again.
No-no #3: Too many carbs… including sugar.
Unfortunately, a side effect of going low-carb made me lose weight, which was never one of my goals. I dropped 10 pounds in a week, and started fielding questions from a number of folks about whether I was sick or not. I realized that, contrary to popular dietary wisdom, I needed to drastically increase the amount of fat in my diet, which returned me to my normal weight in short order. By this point my average daily carb intake was less than 60 grams, while my fat intake was nearing 100 grams. However, I still had to keep in mind no-no #1: no rich, greasy food. More research taught me the real differences between healthy and unhealthy fats, and the merits of saturated animal fats. The trick? No hydrogenated oils, no highly refined oils, and keep preparations simple – that is, no complicating the digestibility of lipids with things like acids (fruit, coffee), simple carbohydrates (white potatoes, beer), and too much spiciness. These are all things that IBS sufferers need to be keenly aware of anyways, though.
No-no #4: Too little healthy fats.
Those 4 rules have been my takeaway over the years I’ve been playing with diet, give or take a few quirks of my particular microbiome and genetic makeup: maize products, for instance, don’t bloat me nearly as much as bread does, and due to my long history of low blood pressure, I need a little more salt than the average bear. Unfortunately, some things that used to be OK to ingest are becoming increasingly intolerable to my gut as I shift away from old habits. Beer, for instance, is becoming more and more unpleasant to drink as time goes by. The heavy, malty stouts and porters I used to love so much are practically poison to me now: I can’t drink a glass of Rasputin or Victory At Sea without getting nauseous, and a pint and a half of the stuff will put me on the verge of throwing up. I can’t exactly say I’m not disappointed.
That all’s just the physical, biological relationships I have with various foods, though.
What about the ethical? The cultural? The economical?
As someone who still, for some reason, gives a damn about trying to live lightly, the rest is a veritable minefield. I could shop fair trade because I don’t want my food coming from slaves or sharecroppers or the otherwise economically destitute; I could shop local because I would prefer to keep my money circulating among producers in my bioregion, and because my food doesn’t have to travel very far to get to my plate; I could shop zero waste because I would prefer my food to not come in ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging; I could shop pastured or organic or biodynamic or whatever else, because I would prefer the producers of my food to not be actively destroying their local environment and reducing its biodiversity. Or I could shop cheaply and feed myself to my personal standards without breaking the bank.
And I have to choose wisely, because it’s a rare product that checks off more than one or two of these boxes. So what the fuck do I eat?
Price, obviously comes first. I’m no good to anyone if I’m starving and malnourished, if only to be able to say that I followed some lofty ethical ideal at the cost of my own health and personal finances. That’s a given.
The rest, as I’m sure many of you would agree with, are trade-offs. Personal negotiations. Triage. Where can I afford to do the least damage without compromising my health or sanity? This is something I’m still working out, but I feel myself getting close. Some unofficial “rules” that I’ve developed in figuring out which product should come from what source:
- Chocolate is fair trade.
- Meat is almost always local, as are vegetables when they’re in season.
- Staples like cauliflower I get for cheap – most stores in my Vancouver neighborhood have bargain shelves of food that’s going south where you can pick up entire bags of produce for a buck, and there’s usually a glut of cauliflower someplace. I keep most of my “impulse” produce shopping limited to these shelves as well. In a sense, saving this sort of food from the garbage is sort of like buying zero waste. And if you’re lucky, sometimes it’s even organic.
- Staples like vinegar, oil, and salt, I just pick one strategy based on my circumstances that day. Coconut oil must at least be organic; and as for animal fats, let’s just say we’ve got plenty of bacon grease in the fridge as well as a jar of homemade rendered fat from local product.
- If tea isn’t fair trade, it’s either local or zero waste and package free.
You get the picture.
Health and food is such a moving target that it’s easy to either get overzealous with your favorite conscious consumer strategy, or just give up altogether. What I’m here to urge you to do is don’t give up. And don’t get overzealous either, nobody likes those. What all of these different food strategies have in common, including just plain focusing on your dietary integrity, is that they undermine the Standard American Diet. They question the reasoning (or lack thereof) that goes into eating a pound of steak and a baked potato slathered in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! purchased from Walmart, and washing it down with a liter of Coke every day. Even if you still did that, but bought organic steak and an organic potato instead, you’ve got a small leg up. You done a good thing.
I’m getting real sick of food aesthetics to the point where I’m this close to taking pictures of my crummy little galley kitchen with its white appliances and black, “granite”-veneered countertops that I can’t ever seem to get perfectly clean and posting them. I’d open up my kitchen cabinets so you can see my hodge-podge collection of mason jars and bags of shredded coconut, the mismatched boxes of salt and emergency cans of Campbell’s soup sitting beside a 3-year old box of half-eaten pasta. Like… fuck you, man, this is real.
We buy what we need to buy and eat what we need to eat. Sometimes it’s fucking delicious. Sometimes it’s mediocre. Sometimes it’s just plain necessary and we stick it in a glass jar to make us feel a little bit better about having bought it in the first place. Sometimes we get lucky and that bottle of fair-trade, wind-powered, biodynamic, bulk olive oil didn’t cost half our life savings and that’s something to be happy about. We enjoy it and move on.
I’m getting ready to go to the store right now, actually. We need more meat for the cat, and unless I want to make a smoothie, there’s no protein to go with dinner. I would prefer to go to the co-op since all their meat is local and they pay their employees a living wage with benefits, but it’s a 20 minute walk uphill walk to get there and the only places that carry offal around here are the local Chinese markets anyways. I also have a customer loyalty card for a coffee shop nearby that’s full and I want to redeem it if I’m going that way, too.
So, choice made. I can do one good-ish thing today, and another good-ish thing some other time. C’est la vie.