(Only) Two rules for a good diet

By Mark Bittman

SAN FRANCISCO — To a large extent, you can fix the food system in your world today. Three entities are involved in creating our food choices: business (everything from farmers to PepsiCo), government (elected and appointed officials and their respective organizations) and the one with the greatest leverage, the one that you control: you.

We shouldn’t discount small farms and businesses, nor should we ignore relatively minor officials like the mayor of El Monte, Calif., who tried (and failed) to establish a soda tax to benefit public health. We do not always know where real change will come from, and certainly smaller operations may be more innovative and show us the way.

But for the most part we know where real change doesn’t come from: Big Food, the corporations that supply most of the food and stuff masquerading as food that’s sold in supermarkets, as fast food and in casual dining chains; and government, especially the federal government, which is beholden to and entranced by big business. Nothing new here.

There often seem to be more happy exceptions in industry than in government. If you look at the relatively new companies that have blazed a path for the food industry, you see, among others, Whole Foods and Chipotle. One demonstrated that supermarkets could sell better ingredients; the other opened the door to non-junkie fast food.

Neither is above criticism, and it’s possible both will be surpassed within a few years by newcomers with fresher and better ways of doing things. Still, it’s comforting to know that at least somewhere in the corners of this food system, market competition is giving opportunities to clever and even well-intentioned people to figure out how to make real money by actually providing the public with better food.

I’m especially impressed with the way Whole Foods is innovating in the arena of labeling, gradually extending its own internal labeling system from fish to meats and now to fruits and vegetables. (As I said, though, they’re hardly above criticism.) Marketing is of course part of it, but shoppers who want to talk back to the supply chain by knowing where their food comes from don’t otherwise have a way to do that. If Whole Foods gives them what they want, then despite the “Whole Paycheck” nickname (and there’s some evidence that Whole Foods is starting to compete on price as well), those who can get there and afford it will favor it. This is progress, doing well by doing at least some good, and that can’t be said about most corporations involved in food. See, for example, the too-little-too-late attempt at transparency by McDonald’s.

We can’t rely on even well-intentioned souls in industry, but given the ball-dropping entity that is supposed to be vigilant regarding our health and welfare — the federal government — we have little choice. The legislative branch isn’t worth discussing, and leadership from the executive branch has been disappointing. Two issues could have been improved definitively in the last six years — the marketing of junk to kids and the existence of antibiotics in our food supply — and President Obama has accomplished little in either case. However stymied he may have been, we are looking at a landscape that hasn’t changed much, the exception being the improved but still hotly contested school food programs supported by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Even worse are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the last of which refuses to ban the routine use of antibiotics in animal production despite knowing that a ban is possible and desirable. It’s also dawdling on mandating an improved nutrition label on packaged food, probably because of industry taking “interest.”

We shouldn’t need to rely on Whole Foods for good labeling. Yet every day I’m asked, “How do I know that what I’m buying is O.K.?” It seems the better educated and more concerned people are about this, the more confused they are. Drill deep enough and the list to worry about becomes overwhelming: organics, genetically modified organisms, carbon footprint, packaging, fair trade, waste, labor, animal welfare and for all I know the quality of the water that’s being used to wash your organic greens.

I get this. I’m a worrier, too, though I tend to expend my neurotic energy on different topics. The overall environment means that you’re pretty much on your own if you try to eat healthfully in spite of the system, and you must take up that battle through a dozen or more decisions each day. But there are two big decisions that can put you on the right path and help you largely steer clear of antibiotics, excess sugar, unwanted chemicals, animal cruelty, and more.

Here then, is your two-step guide for an unassailably powerful personal food policy.

  1. Stop eating junk and hyperprocessed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as “food.”
  2. Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.

If you add “Cook your own food” to this list, it’s even more powerful, but these two steps alone allow you to reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re consuming; pretty much eliminate GMOs from your diet, lighten your carbon footprint; reduce your chances of becoming ill as a result of your diet; save money; cut way back on sugar, other junk and unnecessary and potentially harmful nonfood additives; and so on.

All without relying on corporate benevolence or the government getting things right. The power lies with you.

Source: The New York Times

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