Though few of my friends are willing to confess to having made New Year’s resolutions, many of them are trying to make changes to their diets this year.
Collectively, they have given up gluten, dairy, soda, factory-farmed meat, ice cream, roasted nuts, starch, sugar, and salt. It’s enough to leave one feeling hungry.
A few are abstaining for reasons of social justice, but most are hoping to lose weight or achieve better health — no more stomach problems or allergies, less depression, clearer skin. The list goes on.
I jumped on the bandwagon, too, and gave up my own little vice: black tea with milk and sugar. Tea may seem tame to those of you with garbage cans overflowing with empty latte cups. But my tea habit was getting to the point that my first thought in the morning — the first image that moved through my consciousness — was that of my steaming tea pot, rather than the faces of my darling husband and sweet toddler. Could this be a caffeine addiction, I asked myself. Could this be related to my constant exhaustion?
Not to bore you with the details of my medical history, but over the past few years, I’ve been especially tired — unable to get up in the morning, lethargic after meals and in the evening. I’ve been tested for everything from hypothyroidism to hormone imbalance. An over-the-counter supplement seemed to help, but it had an ironic side-effect: insomnia. So giving up tea was the next step. Of course, the problem may turn out to be the more serious and irreversible condition my doctor first suggested: motherhood. But I’m not giving up on a cure.
The idea that so many of us look to food as either a cause of illness or a remedy is peculiar to Americans, as sociologist Barry Glassner points out in his book “The Gospel of Food.” Partly, this is an effect of unregulated marketing. Food labels in America can say “supports healthy liver function” or “maintains healthy cholesterol levels” even when no evidence exists to back the claim. Legally, a company could put “Part of a complete breakfast” on a bag of sugar if they wanted to. Unless a label includes a blatant lie or claims the product inside can successfully treat a specific disease, the FDA doesn’t want to get involved.
People in other countries don’t see food as medicine. For many, food is primarily a source of pleasure. If you saw the movie “Julie and Julia,” you may remember the way Julia Child embraced French culture and learned to relish the very act of eating while living in Paris. You can’t imagine Julia saying, “I don’t deserve this bon-bon,” or “I’m so bad for adding so much cream.” Good food meant good fortune.
This, I suppose, is how my friends and I should feel — fortunate. Not because we’ve stuck to our new diets or because we’ve been proactive about our health. That’s laudable, sure. But we should count ourselves lucky because we have the luxury — and the means — to give up something at all. Because in 2010, the biggest dietary problem facing our nation isn’t gluten or GMO’s or overcaffeination. It’s hunger.
The economy may be slowly recovering, but for many, plates remain empty. Right now, more than 35 million Americans are threatened by hunger. Over half of those people are children. Here in Del Norte, the RHS food bank is feeding increasing numbers, and CAN is delivering food to over 20 percent of the county’s households.
Paradoxically, a lot of undernourished kids are fat. That’s because the cheapest, most filling foods also tend to be the least nutritious (think hot dogs, fries, chips). Vegetables and fruits, on the other hand, are comparatively expensive. Unfortunately, this kind of hunger often goes unrecognized. We expect hungry kids to look like children in a ChildFund commercial, not contestants on “Biggest Loser.” Considering the terrible prejudice and discrimination already suffered by overweight people, this new paradigm may be difficult for many to accept. But it’s the first step.
Depressing? Yes. Perhaps a nice cup of tea might lift my spirits.