Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The More You Know

Disclaimer: This is not a recipe. It's a reflection on my last 6 years as a sustainable foodie/pescatarian/semi-vegetarian and on my first 5 months as a sustainable food and nutrition science editor. 

I gave up meat on a bit of a whim after reading one of those popular paperbacks arguing for the nutritional and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet void of anything factory farmed. I'm glad I did it. With other lifestyle changes, it helped me shed a ton of weight and get closer to my food and my community. At the time, I thought I'd give it a try and see how it went and never committed to go entirely vegetarian or vegan, though I've dabbled in both over the past six years and I've learned a lot about myself and about my body along the way. Eliminating things from your diet can be a fun challenge that can open your mind to entirely new ideas of what constitutes a "meal."

When I stopped eating meat, I stopped eating fast food and I cut out a lot of "processed" foods, too. The stuff that filled my grocery cart, pantry, and fridge took on entirely new meanings and appearances. My family looked at me like I was nuts for the first few years and my grandma forgot to mention the occasional turkey neck that went into her delicious "vegetable" soups. Dining out and grabbing food on the go also became more interesting and challenging for all the obvious reasons.

Snacking trends
In the last few months, I've been fortunate to travel to Chicago and San Diego, two of my favorite cities, for food and nutrition related conferences. In Chicago, I attended IFT Wellness, an industry-focused conference with tracks on protein enhancement, sugar reduction, and salt reduction. The several hundred attendees came largely from big food companies and had food science or nutrition degrees and sessions were convened on everything from novel protein sources (including insects) to natural sugar alternatives (including monk fruit extract and changing the shape of your food product).

what food companies contemplate as they develop new products
While I was in Chicago, I made a trip to Eatily. It was amazing.
The conference opened with provocative keynotes that ridiculed Michael Pollan and gave me a glimpse into what I considered "the dark side."  A consumer panel shared their daily snack choices with us and walked us through their rationale for starting the day with peanut butter cups, serving frozen pizza and chicken nuggets for dinner, and polishing off sleeves of chips ahoy at a time. I sat in on sessions presented by nutrition scientists, legal experts on ingredient labeling, product development consultants, and food technologists. I couldn't help but be skeptical of a lot of what I heard, saw, and tasted, but I loved every minute of it.

At the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting at Experimental Biology in San Diego, I sat in on really scientific sessions on protein requirements, biofortified staple food crops, sustainable diets, and malnutrition and inflammation.
A catch-all definition with many contradictions

I spoke with some of the world's leading scientists on hidden hunger, human breast milk, lipidomics, and functional foods and was invited to speak with ASN's Public Policy Committee. Words can't do my experience justice. I was in awe of it all and so much of the science was incomprehensible; it's been a long time since I've studied molecular biology, cell biology, microbiology, or biochemistry. [The full program for that conference is here.]

But here's the rub.

While a lot of the hard science went right over my head, I was able to understand some of the big picture conclusions coming out of scientific research that the media just isn't picking up on. I learned how important it is to space your protein out throughout the day and how hard it is to get all the amino acids you need for healthy cellular function without animal protein.

How exactly do scientists measure sustainability?
I learned that to eat more sustainably (in terms of carbon footprint, not necessarily land usage or any of the other things you might associate with sustainable food), the best thing you can do is to consume less calories and even more importantly, to drink less calories. I learned that taking a baby aspirin with your fish oil or omega 3 supplement can greatly enhance the anti-inflammatory effects of said supplement. And I learned that if we all followed the well known recommendation to eat two servings of seafood a week, our oceans would be devoid of fish very, very soon.

The slides to the right are just a few of the ones presented during the sustainability session, which got really detailed into cost per nutrient density and carbon footprint

There are no hard and fast truths when it comes to the way we eat. 

Carbon footprint isn't the only way to measure sustainability
Everything is interdependent and what works for your body or for your community or for your country might not work for another. It's all so complicated and the entire field of nutrition science is still so young. I don't feel more or less confused than I did before, but I'm approaching things with a much more nuanced view than I think I ever have. I'm starting to seek out locally pastured meat, because my new functional dermatologist told me to cut out dairy and without its protein (dare I assert that cheese is no better for you or the environment than pastured chicken), I'd have to drink 3 vega protein shakes a day to get enough amino acids to repair my muscles after long crew practices and butt-kicking spin classes. I love that those smoothies have perfected vegan delivery of complete protein in a convenient (albeit expensive) form, but what's the impact of all that processing of whole ingredients into powders and packaging them and shipping them?

Lots of variables!

I can't help but think sometimes that it must be a little luxurious not to care so much about the health of our bodies or our planet, but I'm incapable of caring any less, at least for the time being. And, I'm excited to keep learning and to be spreading knowledge within the scientific community and beyond. :-)

I met Ellie Krieger of the Food Network's Healthy Appetitie in San Diego. :-)
I'd be eager to engage in conversation and comments about all this. If you've made it this far, you surely have an opinion or two to share, so please do! While I feel safe asserting that I know more than the average Joe about sustainable food and nutrition, the more I learn, the less I realize any of us really "know" much of anything!

PS: Curious about the "books" my team publishes? Here's a link to some of our titles.