The Elusive Idea: Common Sense

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A set of basic beliefs commonly held among a group of people; the baseline of knowledge an individual is expected to have within their own community; simple facts drawn from self-evident conclusions; intrinsically subjective, i.e. “You ought to have known that, it’s common sense”; the aggregate of collective knowledge (does that mean the Internet is common sense?); a mushy term that is really hard to define in any satisfactory way.

Common sense might just be inherently vague and the exercise of trying to define it inherently silly. But I hope to show that in the context of overcoming our national crisis with food, a robust and shared notion of common sense has an important place, so bear with me.

Depending on how you define common sense, its opposite could either be rash stupidity or a set of contested facts that require explanation. Lets focus on the latter for the purposes of this post and say that the opposite of common sense is confusing information that is in no way intuitive. If you’ve spent any time today skimming The Atlantic, the health section of The New York Times or the abstracts of re-posted articles on your Facebook newsfeed, you’ll have probably encountered this kind of information.

Examples:

1) The Atlantic’s The Great Salt Debate: So Bad? by Travis M. Andrews in which salt defender Gary Taubes explains that “people believe salt is bad simply because that seems logical, even if it isn’t.”

2) Foodnavigator-USA.com’s New research into exactly where Americans’ calories are coming from throws up surprising results by Elaine Watson, cites a study which found, “contrary to popular belief,” that fast food and junk food accounts for less caloric intake than previously thought.

3) The New York Times’ Don’t Take Your Vitamins by Paul A. Offit, which discusses the “antioxidant paradox,” where taking too many doses of antioxidants in the form of supplemental vitamins can be harmful to your health.

Eye-catching headlines like these introduce articles that are often as full of surprising data as they are void of measured assessment of the cited study’s structure, findings, and funders. These are the viral articles that get shared the most and satisfy our browsing curiosity by leaving us with the feeling that we learned something new, because it was unexpected and unconventional and deviated from common sense. We rush to click the share button as if it would earn us a virtual merit badge for being the first in our social circles whose worldview has been enriched with the nuance of the counterintuitive.

But here’s the thing: despite everything I just said above about these eye-catching articles, I do actually agree with one of them. The Atlantic did a terrible job of making it clear to its readers that while a handful of salt defenders being paid by the Salt Institute want salt consumption to stay the same, the American Heart Association, United States Department of Agriculture, Center for Disease Control, and even the Institute of Medicine think that for 99% of Americans (yes that means you!) consumption needs to go down. And although Foodnavigator-USA did point out at the end of their article that the National Restaurant Association funded the study cited in the headline, i.e., the organization that stands to gain the most positive PR from the findings, who is going to read that far?

The New York Times article, however, was right on. I agree completely that the vitamin and supplement industry is a total racket. Excepting specific recommendations from your doctor, eating a balanced diet (mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some dairy, and fish for those EPA and DHA omega-3s) is almost always a better way of getting what you need than taking isolated vitamins and minerals in pill form. (Note, this isn’t to say the New York Times always gets it right. Earlier this year Pam Belluck’s article Study Suggests Lower Mortality Risk for People Deemed to Be Overweight forgot to mention that the study didn’t adjust for the test subjects who had lost weight because they were already sick or dying at the beginning of the study. Meaning the data didn’t prove that overweight people live longer than people whose B.M.Is were in the recommended ranges, it just confirmed the no-brainer that serious illness often comes with serious weight loss.)

What does it mean that out of these similarly formatted articles, all of which come from fairly reputable sources, only one offers useful advice? It’s a problem I am sure you’ve also encountered at some point, browsing online, flipping through the schizophrenic pages of a fashion magazine, or watching Dr. Oz at the gym: how are we supposed to navigate all the nutrition information being thrown at us and separate the good information from the bad?

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There is another setting in which this question is sure to arise. An environment full of overwhelming and contradictory information describes a Facebook newsfeed as well it describes the uncharted aisles in the middle of the supermarket. Thanks to all those messy and misleading labels, shopping for food pretty is much the worst. You basically need a calculator to do the serving size math and work out how much fiber, sugar, fat and other ingredients are in your shopping cart. You also need to know how many of those things you are actually supposed to have a day to begin with. A PhD in longass words helps too, because how else is anyone supposed to know that Triplodextrins are refined sugars, Suchrolimaseors are useless artificial fibers, and why is there fire retardant in this energy drink? Also, you are balancing the limited resources of patience, will power, time, and money and doing it in a building without windows (this is on purpose, so you lose track of time) and large displays of junk food at the end of every aisle (this is on purpose, to grind away at your will power). And finally, you are doing all of this to keep you and whomever else you are responsible for feeding alive, preferably for the average healthy lifespan of a North American adult (ideally from your grandparents’ generation, since health stats during the last 30 years haven’t been so great). I spend a lot of time learning and reading about this stuff, and still I occasionally find myself in the aisle with the sugar-free workout energy water enhancers and olestra flavored low-fat Pringle’s.

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We try to keep our heads above water with the handful of nutrition facts we happen to remember, things like: antioxidants and flavanols are good for you, eating lots of fruits and vegetables is important, and Vitamin C helps fight colds. But these facts can sometimes run away from us, leading to conclusions like “I should eat dark chocolate because it has antioxidants and flavanols, drink V8 Fusion because the label says each serving of juice has a cup of fruits and vegetables in it, and buy Emergen-C December through February to boost my immune system.” But eating chocolate because of its purported health benefits is crazy, because chocolate isn’t healthy. Its delicious, its fun to eat, and in small amounts its fine. But that is different from healthy. Water and spinach are healthy. You would have to consume a lot of either of them before their benefits to your health were in any way compromised. You only need a little too much dark chocolate before the antioxidants in them are totally trumped by the calories and sugar and the precedent you set up in which things you want with a little qualification become things you need. As for those fruits and veggies, at 24g of sugar per serving (Coke has 27g), V8 Fusion’s pulverized, powdered, and reconstituted vegetable matter is as good as the plastic it comes in. And Vitamin C? Unless you are training for a marathon you probably don’t need more Vitamin C than you can get from an orange. Just eat an orange. Or a bell pepper or broccoli or kale or strawberries or cauliflower or kiwi or Brussels sprouts, which all have tons of naturally occurring Vitamin C.

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To summarize: we live in a chaotic food environment. Most of the time it feels like even with complete access to an endless amount of food information, we are ill-equipped to meet one of the most basic requirements for survival: feeding ourselves. No other animal manages to make itself as sick as we do by eating. Probably because no other animal is as good at creativity, productivity, and deceit.

What seems to be missing in our relationship with food is a guiding principle, some larger philosophy to organize our food knowledge around and to help us sidestep the questionable information coming out of People magazine.

And the first step to establishing that guiding principle? Recognizing that every diet decision depends on your individual context. Your weight, your health, your medical history, the time of day, your level of physical activity, the part of the world you find yourself in, the season, your income, how many other people you have to feed and a laundry list of qualifiers that only you know about yourself.

I’m guessing this is not the answer you were hoping for. It probably seems like taking all these factors—lets call it your health context—into account is going to make feeding yourself harder, not easier. But here’s the thing: your health context is not nearly as fragmented as the nutrition facts spilling out of Oprah’s empire or Special K advertisements. We are constantly being bombarded by nutritional information produced by people who have no interest in our well-being. No, none. Not even the people at Kashi. They have shareholders that they are accountable to, they need to grow every quarter, and they will do it at your expense. Food manufactures and the people they pay to advertise their products hype counterintuitive studies, label their products with patent nonsense, and trick you into wandering supermarket aisles for hours because are have a vested interest in keeping you confused and overwhelmed. That way, next time they début a useless food product with high profit margins, packed with fat, sugar, and salt, and plastered with promises (Protein! Fiber! Acai! Coconut Water!) and tell you that it will make up for all your previous food errors, you will be more likely to break down and buy their argument and their product. The longer we stay lost in the muck and details of these contradictory food facts, the longer those industries trying to sell us shit win.

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But you, you are invested in your own health. This is the underlying and unifying fact of your health context. Remember this each time you choose what food to buy or vitamins to take. Rather than complicate your purchasing decisions, it should simplify them.

Obviously, just caring about your health isn’t going to be enough. If it were, we wouldn’t be seeing the current rates of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, childhood obesity and so on.

So what else goes into a guiding principle of food?

This is where I see common sense coming back into the picture. What do I mean by common sense? It’s a story from your grandma’s farm, it’s something you learned about another country, it’s what makes up the bedrock of a culture’s cuisine, it’s what feels right all the time, it’s what worked for you after years of doing it wrong, it’s what you wouldn’t be embarrassed to explain to someone on the other side of the world, it’s what’s different for everyone but also the same, it isn’t going to change with the next fad diet, it’s going to keep you and your kids healthy and alive, it’s sustainable and affordable and simple, it’s elusive but it isn’t a unicorn, it’s yours.

I can’t tell you exactly what your common sense is, but I believe that by talking about a common sense vision of food and sharing individual food knowledge we make our communal consumer identity stronger and more resilient against the exhausting and endless misinformation that comes out of the processed-food-industrial-complex. I think more and more people are looking for and returning to this kind of food knowledge and when I hear people talk about a new ‘food movement,’ I feel optimistic for this reason.

OK, that’s nice and fuzzy, I hear you thinking, but what about some examples?

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Well the poster above, put out by the US Food Administration during World War I, is a good start. These rules are flexible enough to mesh with the idiosyncrasies of each family’s dinner table. When I first saw this poster, I was struck by how straightforward and useful the advice seemed. Just good common sense.

Another is Michael Pollan’s oft quoted “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly fruits and veggies.”

Why are these suggestions different from what is on the back of a box of breakfast cereal? Maybe because Michael Pollan doesn’t make money every time you hear those three sentences and the Federal government, while it did have an agenda to limit food waste during a war, also had a duty to maintain the health and wellness of its citizens. That seems to be another common quality in common sense—it tends to come from people who aren’t trying to sell you something.

I believe in common sense. I think that the most compelling food movement advocates—Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, Michelle Obama—also believe in common sense. Yes, they sometimes say controversial things and everyone won’t always agree on the details. But we have forever to quibble over facts, like which fats are good and which are bad, what is a responsible serving size, how much red meat should you eat, is corn syrup a natural ingredient and seriously, what is the deal with women taking calcium supplements. But these details shouldn’t get in the way of overall balance, moderation, and a less manic relationship with our food.

We kept ourselves alive with way fewer resources for thousands of years and while you would be right to point out that quality of life and length of life were shorter then, common sense would dictate that somewhere between starving with no access to modern medical care and eating whatever you want whenever you want, no matter the fat, sugar and salt content or season and being totally dependent on modern medical care because of it—somewhere between those two poles is a healthy human who lives a good life and finds joy in food without really having to think about it.

I recognize that the constraints of income and access to fresh produce pretty much make the common sense point moot for some families. I wrote this post with the intention of empowering consumers and encouraging healthier choices where and when possible, knowing that it wouldn’t even begin to cover all of the obstacles consumers face getting healthy food on the table.

I also hope that, in the context of my other posts, this will not be construed as blaming consumers for lacking common sense as they continue to struggle with food purchases, meal preparation and their health. I take it as a given that the food landscape we currently inhabit is in no way set up in favor of consumers. Ultimately, while the responsibility shouldn’t be on us to outwit the multimillion dollar ad campaigns of large food companies and make up for the relaxed regulation of the agencies mandated with keeping our food supply safe, if we wait on industry and government action, we will miss out on the chance to take back our shopping carts and our health and live with the blissful privilege of not having to think so much about food anymore.

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Michelle. You know I love you. And the bangs look great. But you know who really needs a makeover right now? MyPlate.gov. Seriously. Someone go get Tim Gunn.

Mrs. Obama aka Mrs. Worldwide aka Mrs. 202 aka The Closer aka Love-You-In-Salamander in Chief. You know so much more about America than I do. You have shaken so many hands, held so many children, danced in so many school cafeterias, eaten in so many local food establishments, have probably been to South Dakota, and could most definitely pull off one of these. Whereas I drove through South Carolina that one time.

Tomato and avocado were booked, so USDA invited pineapple and papaya to the pita puke party instead!

But I am pretty sure that if you are trying to get Americans to eat healthier, you don’t want to open with this monstrosity. Canned fruit, spinach, cilantro, peanut butter, fat-free cream cheese, soy sauce and ‘reserved canned fruit juice’ all in a whole wheat pita pocket? It sounds like we are a packet of jello away from the culinary dark ages.

This would make a great Lady Gaga hat.

Lady Gaga, call me. I have an idea for your next hat.

Oh, I’m sure the Fruity Thai Pita Pocket is healthy and on budget. There are probably other things you had to take into account while designing these recipes that I am overlooking. But show me the person that is going to put that pita pocket disaster in their mouth, especially if they aren’t used to eating fruit and veggie based meals? With enough beer I could maybe eat 3/4 of one, but I’m willing to bet that the kids who order fries and chicken nuggets at lunch every day are not going to dive head first into a spinachcilantro-cannedfruit-soysauce-peanutbutter fiesta. Did someone at USDA just throw darts at a wall of ingredients to come up with this one?

There are a few good recipes on Myplate.gov’s recipe page, but the Fruity Thai Pita Pocket is not the only recommendation that sounds like the side dish that one aunt brought to Thanksgiving from 1953 to 1967. Sweet and Juicy Raisin Tapenade, Shrimp Confetti Salad Sandwich with Grapes, Celery with Apricot Blue Cheese Spread, Curried Chicken with Raisins and Mushrooms, and Ham and Swiss Breakfast Casserole are all raising red flags. Also, the Fruity Thai Pita Pocket is the first one you list. And about that list.

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Who designed this webpage? I know its the Federal government and there has been a pay freeze forever and the squester has been a major buzzkill, but no one pays interns anyway. Could you really not find anyone to look up photos of food on Pinterest for 15 minutes and spruce this baby up?

In all seriousness, there is so much potential here. What if Myplate.gov was a free resource with easy to use recipes that all met nutritional guidelines and were on budget with a reliable search engine organized by meal, ingredient, season and cost? Myplate.gov could feature celebrity chef recipes and video demos, partner with cooking schools and farmers, and there could be a place for people to upload photos when they try a recipe (#MamaObamaWouldBeProud).

Imagine a go-to site for families trying to figure out what to do for dinner. Because we need one of those. While its easy to find a recipe online, most sites don’t indicate a price tag or nutrition info for their recipes and searches as simple as “fruit salad” come up with results as godawful as this one.

Basically what I am saying, Mrs. Obama, is hire me. I will make this website look like the a .com instead of a .gov and then we can go have brunch and you can tell me about South Dakota.

Food Fight

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Today I came across a bunch of interesting articles on food and food related issues, full of new findings and measured analysis, but let’s kick things off with this train wreck of an article from the Wall St. Journal instead. “Our Inalienable Right to Snarf Junk Food” by Joe Queenan is a response to a study that was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine and has since gotten a fair amount of media attention.  Basically, the study concluded that a Mediterranean diet of nuts, fish, legumes, fruits, vegetables and wine will reduce the likelihood of heart disease and stroke.

Here are a few choice quotes from Queenan’s piece:

“The Mediterranean Diet might just as well be called the Monastic Diet or the Joy of Joylessness Diet. For those of us who loathe fish and celery and lima beans and walnuts, the Mediterranean Diet is a nutritional death sentence. Sure, we might live longer, sure we might end up being less of a burden on society, but at what price? No more bacon double cheeseburgers. No more banana splits. No more dining at Hooters… Welcome to Polyunsaturated Alcatraz.”

“The settlers at Jamestown did not come here dreaming of a steady diet of walnuts and olive oil… America was built by men and women who never ate arugula. If the Mediterranean Diet is so effective, then how come none of the countries that line the Mediterranean has a functioning economy? Spain? Italy? France? Don’t make me laugh.”

I know, I know, it’s satire. The comment section, however, is painfully earnest. One poster writes:

“As a nation, [we] have come a long way in starting to wake people up to understanding the importance of choosing what they put into their mouths. We have a VERY long way to go. You, Mr. Queenan, stop the education process dead in its tracks when you write an article like this. Of course people enjoy junk foods. I know I do! But by expressing your all or nothing approach to food choices, you are not only perpetuating ignorance, but disrespecting the millions in this country and around the world that can’t even get their hands on the foods that you so despise.”

Another poster brings us on a detour through Crazy Town, describing our First Lady as:

“A shrewish MicHELLe to nag, nag, nag – nothing like having a two-bit false eyelash nitwit fashion award winner JLO wanna be as first whatever…what a disgrace for the USA – a sociopath for prez and an Evita who despises our flag and our country and spending every tax-payer dollar she can on herself and her vacations for his wife – well done, ILLITERATE BOZO VOTERS!”

Yikes.

I posted this article and these polarizing comments because I have been thinking a lot recently about what is the right tone to take when it comes to talking about food and health, and I thought that these quotes presented the problem nicely.

When talking about this stuff, it’s so easy to be preachy, stubborn, and overly serious.  Labels like health nut, arugula eater and nanny get thrown around quickly. It doesn’t take much to get someone worked up and defensive about food, whether it’s a conversation about eating meat, buying locally, eating healthy, juicing, fasting or the soda ban…Eating habits are intimate and personal and they are closely tied to individual and cultural identity.

On the other hand, the Joe Queenan’s of the world aren’t going to move us forward in the conversation about our national obesity epidemic, over-consumption of resources, and reliance on problematic industrial food systems.  Inciting conflict in that small and weird subset of Americans who comment on Wall St. Journal articles doesn’t seem like its going to get much done. (Seriously, who are these people who talk trash on WSJ.com? NPR commenters are also strange, but way more fun:

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Ok, so it’s easy to be a smartass and it’s really easy to make people angry, but what about being sincere without getting tuned out? How can we talk about these issues honestly and productively?

This question makes me think about the TV show The Biggest Loser, which, for better or for worse, should probably be included in any conversation about the American discourse around healthy eating. Full disclosure, I think about The Biggest Loser a lot. Fuller disclosure: I have an embarrassing and inexplicable fondness for this show, and I won’t tell you how many seasons of it I have under my belt or how extensively I have mapped out what I would say to Bob Harper if I ever ran into him at a farmers market buying wheat-grass, or whatever.

There are a million things wrong with The Biggest Loser (one of which was covered in today’s Weighty Matter’s post). But putting aside all problems with the show, one thing it does have is serious reach. Whatever tone they are using, people aren’t tuning out, they are tuning in, to the tune of 1.5 million viewers a week.  While those numbers aren’t surprising by network standards, the show’s longevity is impressive. You might be able to buy that kind of audience starting out, but you have to be doing something right to keep it for 14 years.

The Biggest Loser’s tone sensationalizes weight loss, exaggerates emotional growth, and pedals that loser to winner make-over narrative that reality TV watchers love so much. While I don’t believe the show is effective in getting Americans to think critically about food and health, I do think The Biggest Loser accomplishes something beyond being fun to watch. By engaging its viewers emotionally, the show has somehow opened up a space for an intimate, albeit simple, conversation about eating habits and health while sidestepping the problem of eliciting defensive responses from its contestants and viewers about their own relationships with food. Through the paradox of reality TV, The Biggest Loser can talk to Americans about this deeply personal connection to food by totally exploiting that very intimacy through carefully chronicled breakdowns, glimpses into hometowns and back-stories, and inspirational workout montages.

Once you spend enough time following the show and getting to know the contestants (again, I’m not telling you how many hours I have watched, but trust me on this), you may find yourself embracing The Biggest Loser’s optimistic message and actually believing in the idea that a fitter, more food-savvy America is possible. You forget about the drama in the house, the trainer-driven conflict, or that the contestants are the kind of people who think being on a reality TV show is a good idea, and you just see a country of people fed up with being sick and unhappy and ready to do something about it. I think it is significant that Michelle Obama has teamed up with the show. That woman has her finger on the pulse of popular culture, even if she is just a “JLO wanna be,” and at the very least, her endorsement signals that when it comes to improving health in this country, The Biggest Loser’s sphere of influence is too big to ignore.

But at the end of the day, the reality of The Biggest Loser is that it is a reality TV show and it has little to do with reality. TV, the invention that made inactivity our national pastime, and its sponsors, the food companies that helped make obesity a national epidemic, are not going to save us.  That optimistic glow we fall into when watching any makeover show remains contrived, even when it has Michelle Obama’s blessing.

So where does that leave us? Looking for a space between sensationalist story telling, rabid comment sections, and Joe Queenan, where a steady, engaging and sincere dialogue about diet and health in this country can take place. I have no clue what that might look like, but I do have some thoughts about the role of common sense in all of this, which I hope to get into in my next blog post. I hope you’ll tune in, and we can keep this conversation going!