Michelle Obama to the rescue. It may be premature to grant her superhero status just yet, but this first lady has done more for food in her “first 100 days” than other administrations have done in the last 100 years. By planting a green garden on the white house lawn and opening her kitchen
to food activist chefs and a public eager to see how the first family eats, Michelle Obama has stepped into a leadership role in stewarding our nation toward real nutrition.
I’ve heard her speak about the food she serves her family, and I think she would agree with my motto that eating in moderation means more than limiting indulgence; you can splurge on a breakfast of waffles, bacon and grits on occasion, just be certain the waffles are made from locally ground flour, the bacon comes from hormone free, heritage breed pigs, and the grits are made from scratch (trust me, they’re easy). That breakfast will not only prove a healthier alternative to either a protein shake or an Egg McMuffin, it will also be delicious. But since no one has time to cook like that every morning, and few people exercise enough to work off those calories every afternoon, the real question of moderation is how to balance indulgent eating with intelligent eating. A smarter breakfast would be whole milk yogurt and eggs (my recipe for Meyer Lemon Raspberry Crêpes offers a sophisticated take on this classic combination). Fast food shouldn’t even factor into the equation – except when it must.
I like to think I’m a smart eater, but I fall into moments of fast food stupor from time to time. I absolutely allow myself slow food indulgences heavy in fats, sweets and carbs with some regularity (never does a day pass without cheese), but I justify these delights by severely limiting my intake of fast food. Cutting the shit out of your diet actually means you can afford to eat more fat! You can enjoy more ice cream sundaes, fried chicken and cups of fair trade, artisanally brewed coffee if you seek out slow food sources. If moderation is ideal, then finding the right balance between occasional fast food consumption and a daily slow food diet is critical.
There is room for the occasional jar of chili “cheese” dip or an Oreo cookie. I grew into an addiction for these foods when I was quite young, and though I don’t endorse eating them, I can’t always help myself from eating them. But I do not buy them! I don’t hand over my hard earned cash to support companies who are profiting off the ignorance, poverty and illness of their customers. For that same reason, I never eat at popular fast food chains like Mickey D’s and KFC, that are surely the worst perpetrators of the lot. But when I find myself at a rooftop BBQ or back home in Buff for a family reunion, I don’t pass up a single “hint of processed lime” tortilla chip and I scoop as much cheese product onto that chip as possible. I eat Oreo cookies, and if all my Mamma’s got in the fridge is vitamin fortified skim milk, then I dunk with the best of ‘em and enjoy my fast food moment, confident that I’ll make up for it with plenty of slow food meals once I’m back in my own kitchen, or behind the wheel of my own shopping cart, or out to dinner at a restaurant of my own choosing.
Once upon a time, I felt unhealthily overweight. It took my friends pointing out the culprits for me to restore balance to my diet, and it wasn’t the triple crème cheese that commands top shelf in my fridge that tipped me over to the dark side. It was processed peanut butter, jam, and juice, microwave lunches, mid morning cupcakes masquerading as muffins, and quick-fix burgers, pizza and salads slathered in dressings made from packets of chemically seasoned powder, mixed with the kind of mayo that can sit on shelves for years before going bad. I was getting all the calories and none of the nutrition. I told myself I was too busy to cook and traded my health for convenience. At the time, I justified this by spending good money on boatloads of vitamins to negligible effect.
Real nutrition comes down this: where science is uncertain, history should be our guide. Since fast food has no scientific clout, we ought to follow our forefathers’ and mothers’ lead and eat whole foods, not whole food vitamins, if we’re after the benefits those foods imbue. I’m not suggesting you should abandon your vitamin buying ways; I don’t think supplements hurt, but I am definitively saying that the only known source for receiving the benefits found inside whole foods is eating the whole foods themselves. Don’t fool yourself into believing vitamin fortified flashy health claims on foods wrapped in packaging that’s more expensive than the contents of the package; your money would be better spent on produce, proteins, starches, chocolate, even wine. Buying food weeks, or even months, in advance of eating it signals that it’s processed…fresh food doesn’t last that long. Yes, a slow food diet means shopping more often and spending more money, but it also means you’re investing in your body’s health and your palette’s joy.
There’s no band-aiding the issue, the only way around fast food is to slow it down; embrace slow food. A return to slower, more ritualized dining practices would go a long way toward preventing sickness and, in this economy, cooking at home has the added bonus of helping save money. Home chefs should shop locally for whole foods (organic, when possible) and steer clear of dubious health claims on boxed food products. Taking the time to cook, eat, converse and enjoy meals will improve your health, our country’s health, and the health of our planet. Of course, we can’t all slave over three slow meals a day. I’m a chef and I’m certain that’s not even possible in my little life with no one but myself to claim responsibility for, but we can make a committed effort to limit fast foods from our daily lives, because…
Fast food is killing us. It may be inconvenient, but it’s the truth.