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By Any Greens Necessary
A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healty, Lose Weight, and Look Phat
By Tracye Lynn McQuirter
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2010 Trcye Lynn McQuirter
All rights reserved.
Why You Eat What You Eat
When you stand in front of the fridge trying to decide what to eat, your eyes wander from shelf to shelf until you finally find something that looks halfway interesting. It's a lot like channel surfing. We sit in front of the flat screen and flip the remote until we find something that catches our eye.
Why do we so often choose our food as mindlessly as we watch TV? We assume we're making personal choices about what to eat, when in fact we're on automatic pilot. Think about it. How many of you have ever asked yourselves why you eat what you eat?
Well, why do you eat what you eat? Some of you might say because you're hungry. Good answer. But that just tells me why you eat, not why you choose a certain type of food to eat when you're hungry. How about because the food tastes good, or because it's available, or because it's affordable? These are all common reasons why we eat what we eat, and they're all influenced by other factors, starting with our families, our culture, and our communities.
Chances are, when you were growing up, your parents or guardians decided what you ate. As children, most of us didn't have to worry about planning a meal, making a grocery shopping list, going to the store to buy food, paying for it, then coming home and cooking it. We may have nagged our parents to death about buying our favorite foods, but ultimately we ate what our parents fed us. Many of us are still eating the same foods as adults that we ate when we were children. In fact, some of you are still drinking Kool-Aid today and proud of it.
Go to any large gathering of African Americans, in any part of the country, and you will find some version of soul food on our plates. We're a soul food nation. Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, collard greens, string beans with ham hocks or turkey, cornbread, BBQ ribs, glazed ham, pork chops, grits and gravy, sweet potato pie, and pound cake are all part of the feast. Some of you are smacking your lips right now.
But while this calorie-laden, artery-clogging food has come to represent what black folks eat in the popular imagination, most of us don't eat this heavily on an average day. This is special occasion food. The reality is that we have a deeply southern tradition of eating healthier, organic cuisine. As Memphis-born chef and Vegan Soul Kitchen author Bryant Terry told me in an interview, "The foods that we ate on an everyday basis were as local as the backyard garden, as seasonal as whatever we were growing in that season, and as fresh as what we harvested right before the meal. This is a part of our legacy ... our food is interesting and diverse and complex."
Indeed, when the idea of a national cuisine called soul food came about in the 1960s, it became a popular signifier of blackness, like hairstyles, fashion, and music, elevated by blacks and romanticized by whites. But even then not everyone embraced the notion of soul food. In an article my sister and I wrote for our blackvegetarians.org Web site titled "Red, Black, and Greens: The Politics of Soul Food in the 1960s," we described the tension around this new cultural diet:
Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and author of How to Eat to Live, spoke out against the prevailing eating practices of blacks. He looked to the Koran to instruct blacks on what to eat. Following the Koran's tenet "thou shall not eat carrion, swine, and blood," Muhammad elevated eating pork to an act against Allah. For those interested in becoming Muslims, the rejection of pork became an important rite of passage. Malcolm X, who became a Muslim in prison, recalled in his autobiography the precise moment that he gave up pork. Sitting at a table with other inmates as a plate of pork was passed around, he wrote, "I hesitated, with the platter in mid-air; then I passed it along to the inmate waiting next to me. He began serving himself; abruptly he stopped. I remember him turning, looking surprised at me. I said to him, 'I don't eat pork.'"
Part of the Nation of Islam's mass appeal was the clean living it espoused for its members, especially when it came to food.
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory (whom I mentioned in the introduction) also weighed in against what black folks ate during the 1960s. In Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat, he states, "The quickest way to wipe out a group of people is to put them on a soul food diet." Addressing nationalists directly, he said, "They will lay down a heavy rap on genocide in America with regard to black folks, then walk into a soul food restaurant and help the genocide along."
Interestingly, Dick Gregory's opinions about soul food were influenced by a remarkable woman named Alvenia Fulton, a naturopathic doctor who opened the South Side of Chicago's first health food establishment in the 1950s. The Pioneer Natural Health Food Store and Restaurant provided an alternative to soul food, where customers could purchase organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, vitamins, and minerals.
So, while soul food is an integral part of our cultural heritage, we should not forget to reclaim the healthier foods that traditionally fed our souls, as well.
Where we live influences our food choices. Walk through any black and low-income neighborhood in the United States, and what will you find on every corner? Liquor stores! And next to those you'll find greasy carryouts. They're fast, cheap, convenient, and deadly. In contrast, when was the last time you saw a café with an organic salad bar in a black neighborhood that wasn't being gentrified? What about a health food store or farmers market? They are seldom there.
However, there's one thing that influences our food choices more than our families, culture, and communities combined.
The number one influence by far on what we eat is food advertising. We don't like to think that we can be so easily manipulated that we'd base what we eat and, therefore, our health on food commercials. We're too smart and too sophisticated for that. Well, that's what food advertisers count on. They want their influence to be so under the radar that you actually don't question their actions, their tactics, or their motives.
The food industry is the largest industry in this country. It spends more on advertising than any other industry, upward of thirty-five billion dollars a year. Why do they spend so much? It's simple. The more ads you see for a particular food product, the more likely you are to buy it. In fact, over 70 percent of that advertising is for fast food, processed foods, snacks, and sweets. Only 2 percent is for healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Now which of these foods do you eat the most?
That thirty-five billion a year spent on food advertising is up to fifty times more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spends on nutrition education programs each year.
Very little of the food industry's advertising tries to convince us to eat food because it's nutritious. Usually the industry ads sell us on food being cheap, fast, convenient, and tasty. While these may sound like great selling points, they come with hidden side effects.
One of the main reasons that processed foods are so cheap is that the USDA provides federal subsidies to the food industry to make the cost of production cheaper. It's called corporate welfare. And why do they get these federal subsidies? Because the food industry gives large campaign contributions to members of Congress running for reelection. The food industry also has powerful lobbyists that pressure Congress to maintain subsidies and other federal regulations that favor the industry. By contrast, fruit and vegetable farmers don't get large federal subsidies because they can't afford lobbyists or large campaign contributions.
What this means for you and me is that foods like hamburger mix, Wonder Bread, instant macaroni and cheese, canned string beans, and other processed convenience foods are pretty cheap compared with fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Fat, Salt, and Sugar
Processed foods taste good to us because they're loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. These three ingredients are the food industry's unholy trinity. In The End of Overeating, David Kessler, MD, says that this addictive combination in food stimulates the release of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical that can lead to chronic overeating.
In time, the brain gets wired so that dopamine pathways light up at the mere suggestion of the food, such as driving past a fast-food restaurant, and the urge to eat the food grows insistent. Once the food is eaten, the brain releases opiads, which bring emotional relief. Together, dopamine and opiads create a pathway that can activate every time a person is reminded about the particular food. This happens regardless of whether the person is hungry.
Hmmm. No wonder the country is hooked on McDonald's French fries. White potatoes act just like table sugar in your bloodstream. Just deep-fry this potato sugar in fat, pour on salt, and you're in la-la land.
Another reason that the federal government subsidizes the largest food industries is that the purpose of the USDA is to encourage food production — to the point where there is actually too much food produced in this country. In Food Politics, Marion Nestle says that there is enough food produced in the United States to feed every citizen nearly twice as much as he or she needs. Nestle writes that this "'eat more' food environment — one that promotes food that is highly varied, ubiquitous, convenient, close at hand, inexpensive, presented in large portions, and eaten frequently — encourages mindless consumption of more calories than are needed or noticed."
This overconsumption — the supersizing of the American diet — is tacitly encouraged by the federal government. After all, the job of the USDA is to ensure that there is a strong and growing market for U.S. food products in this country and abroad. Federal subsidies are one way of doing this.
U.S. Dietary Mis-Guidelines
The Food Guide Pyramid is another. Here's where the USDA's conflict of interest comes in. The other purpose of the USDA is to set nutrition guidelines for all Americans — to tell us what we should and shouldn't eat. The problem is that the government's nutrition guidance is based on increasing profit for the food industry, not on creating healthy citizens. The USDA's Food Guide Pyramid will not tell us to eat less of any food that is produced in the United States, even when that food is a primary risk factor for the obesity and chronic diseases that are killing us.
The Harvard Nurses' Health Study, which has studied the diet and health of more than one hundred thousand registered nurses from 1976 to the present, shows that those who closely followed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines were just as likely to develop a major chronic disease as those who didn't.
Here are key recommendations from the federal nutrition guidelines and why they fall short:
"Consume 3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day, with the rest of the recommended grains coming from enriched or whole-grain products. In general, at least half the grains should come from whole grains."
First of all, you have to read it twice just to understand what it says, which is that half the grains you eat should come from whole grains, and the other half can be refined grains. The problem is that with refined grains — white rice, white bread, and white pasta — most of the vital nutrients and fiber are removed to give it a longer shelf life, while harmful saturated or trans fats and sugars are added in. As a result, eating refined carbohydrates is a primary risk factor for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. (We'll talk more about that in chapter 7.)
So the government is basically telling you it's OK to consume refined grains that can lead to preventable deaths.
"Consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products."
This recommendation is problematic on many levels. The first is that most African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans cannot digest milk after infancy (which is perfectly normal, as you will see in chapter 6). We're talking about fifty million people in the United States who can get seriously ill trying to consume milk products. So why is the government telling everyone to drink milk?
Also, milk products, especially cheese, are a primary source of artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol in the American diet, which can lead to obesity, heart disease, breast and prostate cancers, stroke, and diabetes. So why is the government telling anyone to drink milk?
"When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, dry beans, and milk or milk products, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free."
This category is like comparing apples to ice cream. Dry beans are naturally lean and low-fat, so it's absurd to include them in the same category as meat, poultry, and milk, which are naturally high-fat and can never be truly fat-free. (We'll talk more about meat and poultry in chapters 2 and 3.)
Dry beans actually promote health because they come with healthy fiber and no harmful cholesterol or saturated fat. But milk, poultry, and meat (lean or not) have no fiber and contain harmful cholesterol and saturated fat, which, again, can lead to chronic diseases that may kill you.
But why would the government encourage you to consume something that's harmful?
I worked with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in their 1999 lawsuit against the USDA, which exposed the fact that six of the eleven members of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee had ties to the meat and dairy industries. This is the same committee, convened every five years, that decides what the Food Guide Pyramid will say, what millions of schoolchildren in 95 percent of all public schools and many private schools will be fed for lunch every day, what food will be provided to poor mothers and their infants who are on public assistance, and what is served to the military and the imprisoned population.
This same committee also determines what nutrition information gets fed to the media and health care providers and gets placed on the food products you buy in the store. In other words, the federal guidelines influence how billions of dollars are spent on food and, therefore, how many billions of dollars in profit go to the food industry.
Human being is the only creature on earth that kill to create clothes.
— MUTABARUKA, POET AND MUSICIAN
Let's look at how these influential Dietary Guidelines were created in the first place. The federal government issued its first dietary guidance during World War I, when army physicals revealed that potential soldiers had widespread nutritional deficiencies. National dietary recommendations were created to ensure a healthier population for war abroad and labor at home. According to Marion Nestle, the government's message was for people to eat more foods and a wide variety of foods, in keeping with the USDA's mission to promote U.S. agriculture.
Within a few generations, nutritional deficiencies declined, and diet-related chronic diseases were on the rise. As a result, the government responsibly encouraged people to eat less meat and dairy to reduce consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol.
However, the meat and dairy industries were losing profits, and they pressured Congress to stop advising people to eat less of their products. So Congress came up with a brilliant compromise. They told Americans to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol but stopped telling us where these things come from. The food industry liked that solution because saturated fat and cholesterol are not actually foods — they're things in foods. They know we don't talk about our food that way.
"Honey, what's for dinner?"
"Baked saturated fat, dear."
"Great. How about dessert?"
"There's a pint of chocolate cholesterol in the freezer."
Confusion Is Good
Another tactic the food industry uses to sell its products is public confusion about nutrition, most of it played out through the media. Because the media thrive on headline news, they provide a steady stream of sound-bite coverage based on whatever latest nutrition study contradicts the previous one, studies often funded by a food industry eager to promote or salvage its products.
This creates confusion about what's really good for you and what isn't. It's enough to make you throw up your hands and say, "To hell with it! I'm going to eat what I want. We all have to die sometime." For example, if a headline comes out one day that says eggs contain harmful cholesterol that can lead to heart disease, and another story comes out two months later that says eggs are great sources of protein, guess what? You're going to make an omelet.
Excerpted from By Any Greens Necessary by Tracye Lynn McQuirter. Copyright © 2010 Trcye Lynn McQuirter. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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