Living in Northern California has taught me many valuable lessons, but perhaps the most fundamental has been to appreciate high quality food. This appreciation was further enhanced when I started a garden, and began to savor freshly grown, vine-ripened, fruits and vegetables. Providing a strong counter-example, my travels to areas without great access to either fresh ingredients or strong culinary culture (strip malls, strip malls everywhere), usually results in a change in my own well-being. An upset stomach really hammers home the importance of high-quality food.
On some trips I find myself feeling lethargic, queasy, bloated, or otherwise unpleasant, and on a number of occasions I was able to trace the symptoms back to some sub-par meal or series of meals. I find myself most affected by heavily processed foods, those high in salt, sugars, oils or all three.
To borrow a simple phrase, often used in the software industry:: “garbage in, garbage out.”
Another truism, much more broadly recognizable, would be: “you are what you eat.”
Last November I began an experiment, partly driven by the importance of food to my energy level and mental health, and partly by curiosity: I started to eat vegetarian.
I should make an note here, this was not a moral choice and I honestly don’t give a hoot what you eat or why, so long as you’re eating the best food available to you.
In the first month or two of my experiment, a number of things became apparent to me:
- Thanksgiving involves far more potatoes when you eat vegetarian.
- I felt much more limber. It’s hard to describe it exactly, I didn’t immediately become that much more flexible, but I did feel like my body moved more smoothly. My theory is that the inflammation which is often accompanied by heavy red meat diets went down.
- I had to re-learn much of what I knew about cooking and organizing meals. Prior to the experiment my meals typically revolved around the filet or some other piece of meat, and everything else was secondary. With vegetables as the center piece, I needed to learn how to handle potatoes, broccoli, peppers, and grains in a much more interesting manner than I had previously prepared them.
Some months after I started eating vegetarian, I also stopped drinking caffeine as well. With these two habits combined I started to sleep better than I can remember in my adult life, and have found that I’m able to sustain a strong energy level throughout the day provided I’m keeping myself fed properly.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that “garbage in, garbage out” has an inverse property. Imagining my own body as the vehicle which propels my mind, I have been making changes with the intent of allowing the vehicle to run as smoothly and durably as possible.
Of course, good food is expensive and not everybody has the means, or access, that I have to the ingredients which are readily available in Northern California.
The rationale for my food purchases is still applicable regardless of where you are, and I believe it will still result in a healthier lifestyle, regardless of whether you’re vegetarian or not.
First and foremost I believe that purchasing ingredients rather than finished processed foods, which in the US tend to be very high in salt or sugar. The preservative content of processed foods aside, I simply think that they’re not that flavorful. They seem to be primarily optimized for shelf life and end up using “taste hacks” like over-salting, sugaring, or including significant oil or butter content to dupe our monkey-brains into believing that it’s a “good” meal.
I’m not severely dogmatic on the subject however; I still enjoy milk and oreos with some frequency. My monkey-brain likes some junk too, but generally try to avoid eating processed meals-in-a-box.
Everywhere humans exist, there is some form of local agriculture. Whether it’s animal husbandry or cultivation of crops. The benefits of prioritizing local ingredients first, in my opinion, is that you’re much more likely to get something fresh and of high quality.
If you consider a tomato shipped to the United States from Chile, for example. It is picked before it is ripe, cold packed, and then trucked or flown to the supermarket where it’s ripening process is kick-started once again before you purchase the product. Contrasted to a locally grown tomato, which is picked much closer to the natural ripeness date, allowing the plant to develop a much sweeter flavor.
In the case of meats, freshly butchered meat, especially from a smaller producer, has in my experience resulted in much more flavorful cuts than large-scale industrialized meat packing. Additionally, I have found the cuts tend to be more generous and well-marbled when they come from smaller local producers. This of course could be an artifact of the types of small producers in Northern California, but I would hazard a guess that the proud family ranchers across the country take much more pride in their work than a multi-national MeatCo.
Perhaps surprisingly I prioritize organic foods last. Organic producers, in my experience, seem to worry less about the shelf-life or look of a piece of produce, and instead prioritize taste or ethos above all else. That’s not to say organic produce is ugly, usually quite to the contrary, but it doesn’t seem to be as uniformally “perfect looking” as conventional industrialized produce which has a different value system to their products.
While I tend to prefer to purchase organic foods, mostly because I find them to taste better, I will take a conventionally-but-locally-grown product over an organic product grown overseas.
Barring those who live in food deserts, I believe that most Americans should have access to reasonably priced raw ingredients, whether local, organic, or conventional. What most Americans do not seem to have is the appreciation that food can have such a fundamental impact on our physical and mental health. This, to me, is especially frustrating. Providing oneself with quality food is a simple, yet often overlooked, aspect of self-care.
We are all worthy a good meal.