Eat This, Not That: Navigating An Era of Admonishments

There is a thriving industry based on telling people how they should eat. I’m thinking of the books that lined the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble growing up, each advocating a different lifestyle, mentality, or set of guidelines. Titles ranged from French Women Don’t Get Fat, to Eat This, Not That!, to Food Rules; the list goes on. A scroll through my Facebook stream will link to ominous blog articles titled “The Carb Mistake You Didn’t Know Was Making You Fat and Sick”, or “8 Innocent Drinks That Take You from Slim to Fat”. Who knew there could be so many menaces and sinful choices?

I’m reminded of how much I used to love Michael Pollan’s famous dictum of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”, a mantra I admired for its seemingly pared-down simplicity. Yet, for immigrants like myself who have been told that our native foods, whether veggies or offal, are foreign or weird or disgusting; for anyone who has not always been in a place of access or power or whiteness: how do we navigate these ‘simple’ aphorisms when our own journeys with food have been anything but simple? For communities who have been told that their culinary traditions are unhealthy and ‘bad’: how exactly should we implement calls for communal eating?

On Shame and School Lunches

In reflecting on how I’ve navigated my own way through these mixed messages, I’m reminded of some key excerpts from Julie Guthman’s Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Food Justice and Capitalism, which we are reading in my Global Eating seminar. Guthman questions the energy balance model and “calories in, calories out” discourse which we’ve been hearing since the beginning of the obesity epidemic. She also raises underlying aspects of the ‘alternative’ food model advocated by big names such as Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Mark Bittman: “The implicit promise of alternative food is that if you have a more natural, sensuous relationship with your food, you will also have one with your body — which will somehow manifest in being not too fat,” she asserts (Guthman, 146). She raises the possibility that the alternative food movement and its guidelines is just a kinder, gentler way to problematize fat, enforce bodily norms, and privilege the power of individual choices dependent on time, money, and mobility.

In addition, I also feel that the messaging within this alternative movement continually centers Eurocentric ideas of health, diet, and nutrition, while rarely acknowledging the vital foodways and traditions that have sustained other civilizations for years over. How many times have we seen the Mediterranean diet hailed as the all-conclusive benchmark for healthy eating?

Reading Guthman’s work brought back some not-so-fond memories about the way shame and erasure have played such a formative role in my own conceptions of food and eating. For much of my life as a student, I’ve been steered toward the very authors she writes about as beginning primers for understanding food politics and nutritional enlightenment. When I speak to others about how I got involved with the UC Global Food Initiative, I almost always pinpoint a second year internship at the food cooperative in my college town as the catalyst for when I “really” began thinking mindfully about my own diet in conjunction with the food system.

I’m troubled by how often I ignore eighteen years of eating food, cooking with my family, and navigating messaging from my peers when I tell my food journey — whether in cover letters, applications, casual exchanges, or classes. I have a tendency to legitimize only one part of my story — the part when I stop eating meat, when I start buying locally sourced produce, when I start reading about food politics — breezing past eighteen years of Ranch 99 grocery hauls, Sunday brunches at Marina Foods, the fear that rang in my heart upon hearing my mother open the garage door and realizing that I forgot to set the rice cooker. Yes, my various college internships have undoubtedly shaped my understanding of food issues — but I’ve loved and struggled with food, wondered about it’s complexities, cultural implications, and resonance my entire life.

Being the daughter of immigrants has been the most salient part of my identity since childhood, and is inextricably tied to how I’ve experienced and continue to view food issues. I’ve been cognizant of this since I began proofreading my parents’ emails starting at age ten, since I would field inquiries about my Thermos of noodles and Napa cabbage during school lunches. My angel mother would humor my insistence on eating quintessential ‘American’ dishes, taking me to places like Hometown Buffet to try things I saw on white family sitcoms, like meatloaf (so incredibly disappointing). She’d also make sure we ate dinner together as a family most nights come hell or high water, a pretty incredible feat considering her work schedule. Dishes were simple: eggs and tomatoes scrambled over rice, bok choy sautéed with garlic, or takeout from the Chinese plaza. When we were really tired, dinner would be frozen dumplings, from that one auntie who sold gallon Ziplocs at church functions. Nutrition was straightforward in my mother’s house: a balanced meal was composed of a bowl of rice, a vegetable side, and a meat dish.

When I started college, I was surprised at how some of my childhood foods reappeared in different contexts. I applied, on a whim really, to an internship at my college town’s food cooperative my second year, and from there I entered the world of $10 miso paste, trendily packaged kimchi, items of my previous diet wedged between unknown words like kombucha, kefir, and maca. I continued working there as a third year, and as I went through my work checklist, I restocked spices I’ve never heard of. I learned about cooperative business models, the Santa Barbara foodshed, and seasonal eating. I also began thinking about my consumption of meat and animal products in a new way, influenced by a few of my co-workers and the abundance of vegan options at the coop.

When I first started exploring vegetarianism and veganism, a lot of the messaging against meat eating was along the lines of disgust: “You’re eating a carcass!” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way my classmates and friends growing up would wrinkle their noses at chicken feet and tripe, or deride Chinese consumption of dog meat and shark fin soup (all the while munching on chicken tenders, bacon, and burgers). Never were American or European traditions indicted in the same vein, though the fact that we’ve essentially perfected the confined animal feeding operation, along with industrialized animal production, seemed to me just as frightening as those ‘disgusting’ eating habits. I learned that it was a lot easier to moralize about another culture or country’s eating choices, than it was to look at our own questionable practices. Though my discomfort with this hypocrisy started at a young age, I think a large part of me still wanted to fit in and assimilate into all aspects of Americanism, including food. And so I was quiet on the playground, and I picked people-pleasing places for my birthday celebrations to accommodate picky eater friends: pizza, pasta, always Italian.

As I moved through college, eating mindfully and ethically began to look less and less like my childhood plate, and more and more like the varnished photos infiltrating my Instagram feed. Besides the fact that there is no Ranch 99 or Marina Foods within a fifty mile radius out here in Santa Barbara, there was a personal paradigm shift as somewhere along the way, I decided that ‘eating well’ no longer looked like beef noodle soup or Taiwanese fried chitterlings.

Navigating Food Rules

Looking back at the various ways I’ve been exposed to mainstream and alternative messaging on food, it’s no wonder I found it difficult to navigate all the ways we are told we should eat. Every five years, the USDA comes out with an updated set of dietary guidelines, and every five years, a variety of food writers and journalists weigh in with their thoughts and critiques. There is a slew of issues involved with this changeover, ranging from corporate interests and powerful lobbies influencing what gets officially mandated, to specific ratios and nutrients being debated. Yet, it seems like year in and year out, the same voices and advice get amplified.

The USDA’s colorful graphics and government issued recommendations were probably the first ‘official’ guidelines I was exposed to as a child. In the past decade, we’ve watched our color-coded pyramid of suggested meal choices and serving sizes change into a color-coded plate. In a press release for the most recently updated guidelines, the USDA Press covers overarching recommendations and includes direct quotes from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia M. Burwell. There is an overwhelming focus on the purported science behind the guidelines; key phrases repeated throughout include “science-based recommendations” and “evidence-based nutrition recommendations”. This framing of dietary guidelines establishes the supremacy of science before all other considerations, including culture, taste, and tradition.

There is also a sense of inherent authority: the press release posits the USDA as “the nation’s trusted resource” and details the “prestigious researchers” who informed the guidelines. This piece relies heavily on the USDA’s privileged position and assumed perception as the official voice of American dietary needs and recommendations — a decidedly different take from the “mother knows best” mentality which I adhered to growing up. However, the press release does include a nod toward a more whole-systems view of eating, including a recognition of “the importance of focusing not on individual nutrients or foods in isolation, but on the variety of what people eat and drink — healthy eating patterns as a whole — to bring about lasting improvements in individual and population health.” Perhaps this is indicative that the larger mindset about food and eating for health is moving toward a more holistic view.

My first exposure to alternative food voices outside of government guidelines was when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a junior in high school. Looking at his oft-cited national food policy, Pollan continues in the same vein as The Omnivore’s Dilemma by focusing on the connection (and discrepancies) between federally mandated guidelines and national agricultural policy. He points out the vested interests influencing USDA guidelines, citing bloated subsidies for corn and other grains that seem to counter the suggestion to eat more vegetables. He frames federal agencies as “powerless” and “toothless” against agribusiness greed. For Pollan, dietary guidelines need to be changed in tandem with a critical overhaul of agricultural policy — the two areas are inextricably connected. He summarizes his views on the hypocrisy of dietary guidelines with a scathing sentence: “the government subsidizes soda with one hand, while the other writes checks to pay for insulin pumps.” Pollan’s overall framing of the USDA dietary guidelines is that the government cannot really ask its citizens to implement their recommendations, without reforming the US Farm Bill first.

As mentioned earlier, while I feel that the “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” mantra can come across as borderline pedantic to many people, I do think that Pollan hits the nail on the head in describing the ‘nutritionism’ ideal that dominates so much of our discourse:

“How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of Americanization,” he writes in In Defense of Food. “To make food choices more scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutritionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking, and potentially unifying answer to the question of what it might mean to eat like an American. It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.”

How viscerally I felt this in my own childhood, in my own journey toward “healthful” eating! And how ironic that my transition to ‘eating like an American’ happened in part due to the influence of his writing as well.

Last summer, at a summer retreat for student-run food cooperatives, I was introduced to the work of Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel. Calvo and Esquibel are Chicana professors, partners, and authors of the Decolonize Your Diet cookbook. The authors strive to reclaim Mesoamerican cuisine and foodways as a means of healing and resisting the standard American diet. With a decidedly political stance, Calvo and Esquibel urge readers to decolonize their diet from Eurocentric ideas of health and nutrition, through incorporating indigenous herbs and vegetables. Along with widely agreed-on suggestions to incorporate five servings of vegetables to daily guidelines, the writers also incorporate other ideas in their guidelines for everyday eating:

“Practice gratitude and humility. Give thanks for your food and honor the knowledge, struggle, and recipes passed down to you by your ancestors.

Cook with herbs such as epazote, cilantro, mint, oregano, thyme, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. Herbs and spices contain powerful phytonutrients and add complexity to flavors. If you can, grow herbs native to the Americas, such as Mexican oregano, hoja santa, papaloquelite, and epazote.”

While Pollan makes room for this sense of mindfulness in his nutrition guidelines — as does Marion Nestle in a blog post titled “Rogue Guidelines” — Calvo and Esquibel explicitly cite ancestral knowledge and native ingredients in their recommendations. In contrast, the USDA — with its emphasis on science and prestigious research — would never include a recommendation to thank one’s predecessors, or a call to reclaim one’s heritage. Furthermore, the authors make the case that mindful eating, for communities of color, cannot be separated from decolonization as a whole: “the ongoing process to end oppression and servitude and to restore respect for indigenous knowledge and ways of life…[which] requires both spiritual healing and political resistance.”

In researching more about decolonizing food, I read about Stephen Le’s new book, 100 Million Years Of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today. Le proposes a new model of dietary guidelines based on ancestral roots and heritage, after analyzing the rates of non-communicable diseases in immigrants to North America and the potential links of disease rates to Western diets. In an article for MacLean’s Canada, Sarmishta Subramanian hones in on what I feel is indicative of the mainstream discourse surrounding food and nutrition, calling our time “an era of admonishments” — a subtle allusion, perhaps, to austerely-titled books like Pollan’s Food Rules, or David Zinczenko’s Eat This, Not That series — and framing Le’s directive as a simpler, evolutionary-based set of guidelines. She also raises important historical context, drawing attention to how racist ideologies have painted ancestral diets in a simplified or idealized way, and how these idealizations have led to a resurgence of interest in diets such as the Paleo movement. However, the framing of this article and its support for Le’s proposition centers those who have a monolithic or monoethnic identity, assuming that everyone can claim a singular diet to follow. What about multiracial individuals whose ancestors are from a range of geographic locales?

Knowing the ways in which shame has manifested in my own personal journey, I wanted to compile guidelines that have worked for me and balancing my interests in both addressing sustainability and culture. This is messy and an inconclusive list of lessons I’ve learned along the way that have helped me navigate the back and forth messages:

Honoring Traditions, Making New Traditions.

Finding information outside the frame of USDA recommendations and traditional benchmarks such as the lauded Mediterranean Diet has been incredibly eye opening. The Decolonize Your Diet blog is a great resource for issues ranging from healing ingredients to new recipes, and brings to light Mesoamerican foodways that aren’t mentioned in the mainstream.

The last time I went home, my mom made a few of my favorite childhood foods without meat and it was such a nourishing, loving act. I’m reminded of making tempeh musubi for the vegetarians, along with the traditional Spam musubi, at a social for the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, a student group I am part of at UCSB. These small instances for me marked new traditions, and brought to light the ways I can still enjoy the same dishes I loved growing up.

Honoring the Flux

Some weeks are busier than others. Some weeks are full of rest and sunshine and exercise. Some days I get my maxi skirt caught in the spokes of my bike, forget my Tupperware in the fridge, fail tests, and eat shitty to console myself. And that’s okay. Our lives are always in flux; that’s the only constant. When I’m home with my family, it feels right to go to our favorite dim sum place together. When I grab pints and catch up with a friend I haven’t seen in awhile, it feels good for my heart. Breaking down the good food, bad food binary — especially during times when I feel like I want to honor my relationships and personal well-being — is a way of showing kindness to myself, which has impacted my thoughts on mindful eating more than any book, article, or documentary.

On Commencement

Acknowledging the parts of my food journey that have not been so pleasant — the parts that seem contradictory to this cheery, always smiling supporter of community owned-and-grown food that I feel pressured to be at times — has been cathartic in and of itself. I am working on being more honest and transparent with myself in this realm of my life, because I feel like I’ve lost a lot of joy in the process of trying to figure out how to eat ‘right’.

It’s now roughly three months until graduation, and though I want to continue with food system work, upon reflecting on this personal food journey I have a lot of questions that need answers. In advocating for ‘real’ food, are we reiterating the same marginalizing language used in campaigns for ‘real’ beauty, ‘real’ women? Is any kind of post-graduate program I pursue, whether it be in urban planning, food law and policy, or public health, going to be inherently steeped in moralizing about how and why we should eat?

I asked my Global Eating professor, Billy Hall, to shed some light on how he navigates academia with work that is so rooted in community and lived experiences. He reflected on his time with the Miami Dade Food Policy Council, along with his current research on low-access food areas in Miami. One thing that stuck with me is his intentional framing of study questions; rather than asking clinical questions focused on the specifics of food eaten, he asks participants about the food they like to eat, why they like it, and with who they eat it with.

“It’s more about food as a way of life: how do people negotiate, or reassemble these ways of life that are increasingly being destroyed, in increasingly different ways? How are people’s histories around coming together around food, important to their lives, and how can that be supported? Instead of asking about the actual food they are eating, and making that a secondary set of questions,” says Hall.

Hall’s framing of food as a way of life — rather than a set of guidelines — resonates with me deeply. And while I don’t know exactly what the next step of my civic engagement journey looks like, I hope to take this understanding — and an opportunity for more joy — into whatever space I step into next.