In most of life’s situations, when it comes to choosing between real or unreal, reality wins out. In today’s 24-hour reporting cycle, for example, the most successful news is real time. One of the best things about your late 20s is knowing who your real friends are and taking real (i.e. non-megabus) transportation up the Eastern seaboard. People buy real estate, watch Real Housewives and use the real unemployment rate to discuss the state of the economy. And let’s not forget soccer. There’s a reason everyone loves Real Madrid. (Spanish jokes!)
But for all the time we spend pursuing authenticity in our friendships and love lives and day-to-day existence, there’s one major component of many of our lives where we don’t strive for reality – our food.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to go on some healthy-eating rampage or try to convince you to make your own yogurt. Heck, just today, my boyfriend and I shared a family-sized box of knock-off cheez-its and called it lunch. For years, I thought the word “organic” was little more than a punchline, and even now, some of the violent opposition to genetically-modified agriculture can come off sounding a bit like a Portlandia spoof.
But at the same time, in the years since I’ve cleaned up my diet and started thinking more critically about my nutrition choices, it’s become glaringly obvious that much of our food intake has gotten far more complex and unnatural than it ever needed to be.
Take, for example, a loaf of bread. When made from scratch, bread requires little more than flour, yeast, water and salt. Now go to your kitchen and check out the ingredients list on your store-bought loaf. Even if it’s boasting buzzwords like “whole wheat” or “multigrain,” odds are good the ingredient list is dozens of items long, and some of the additions – from corn syrup to soybean oil – don’t sound like necessary add-ons at all. Despite what every locally-sourced menu in Brooklyn might lead you to believe, the vast majority of the food that passes through our lips is complicated and processed and anything but simple.
And this is especially the case in the lucrative world of so-called healthy items. When I was trying to lose 30 pounds in 2011, I remember I stocked my drawers full of 90-calorie Special K cereal bars because, well, that’s what the commercials told me to do. I’d inhale one every morning and another every afternoon, and while I’d successfully keep my calorie count under the 1,500 goal I was targeting, I was never, ever satiated.
The more I learned about nutrition, the more I began to understand why. Sure, the bars were low-cal and tasty, but they had virtually no protein or fiber, and the ingredient list was longer than a Saturday night wait at the Meatball Shop:
CEREAL (RICE, WHOLE GRAIN WHEAT, SUGAR, WHEAT BRAN, SOLUBLE WHEAT FIBER, SALT, MALT FLAVORING, MALTODEXTRIN, THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2]), CORN SYRUP, SOLUBLE CORN FIBER, FRUCTOSE, STRAWBERRY FLAVORED FRUIT PIECES (SUGAR, CRANBERRIES, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL STRAWBERRY FLAVOR WITH OTHER NATURAL FLAVORS, ELDERBERRY JUICE CONCENTRATE FOR COLOR, SUNFLOWER OIL), SUGAR, VEGETABLE OIL (SOYBEAN AND PALM OIL WITH TBHQ FOR FRESHNESS, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM KERNEL OIL)†, MALTODEXTRIN, CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF DEXTROSE, SORBITOL, GLYCERIN, NONFAT DRY MILK, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL STRAWBERRY FLAVOR, SOY LECITHIN, SALT, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, NIACINAMIDE, COLOR ADDED, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B6), BHT (PRESERVATIVE). †LESS THAN 0.5g TRANS FAT PER SERVING
I soon realized that for nearly the same number of calories, I could have a string cheese (7 grams protein, four ingredients) and a handful of cherry tomatoes (lots of fiber, just one ingredient), simplifying my diet and leaving me feeling full. With that realization, I started swapping out increasingly more processed “health” foods for fresh fruit, roasted nuts and “clean eating” choices, and by that summer, I was out of a size 14 and training for my first half marathon.
Clean eating has been a goal of mine in the three years since, but between my long working hours and the hundreds of delivery options on every New York City block, it’s easy to let home cooking and other good habits go by the wayside. And it certainly doesn’t help that my office stocks its free-food pantries with all the processed deliciousness a hungry employee could ask for.
But January is about recommitting yourself to the things that are important to you — and about changing your stance on snow from amused to infuriated — so I’m vowing here to recommit myself to clean eating, at least when the option is available.
And I’m going to brag here for a second. I got off to a pretty good start last week. On Monday night, I roasted my own chicken.
The following night, I simmered the bones to make a homemade stock.
The night after that, I used the stock to make homemade Brussels sprout risotto.
And then I ate aforementioned box of cheez-its for lunch today and undid a week’s worth of toxic-free eating. But what the heck. Cheez-its are delicious.
The truth is, I know I’m not always going to choose the “real” food option, especially with Cadbury Crème Egg season so fast approaching, and at least a good portion of the time, I’m still going to choose convenience over health. But at least trying to keep these goals in mind in the months ahead might help me choose the fresh fruit over the crab chips during my next trek to the office kitchen. Hell, even if we go best out of three, I’ll still be moving in the right direction. (And, as much as it pains me to admit as a Baltimore native, away from the crab chips is probably the right direction.)
How does clean eating fit into your lifestyle?