“Checkout Wars” – A survivor’s tale

Yesterday was what has become a typical Sunday for us – early trip to the farmers’ market to buy fresh produce, stop in on the way home at a supermarket to top up with key ingredients not available from the market. After getting most of my groceries at the market, I still needed chiles, cilantro, basil and greek yoghurt.  Whenever I brave a supermarket these days I make sure I go in with a plan and come out only with the items on my shopping list and nothing else.  I have come to understand that “impulse buys” are not a quirk of character on my part, they are very carefully orchestrated by the store’s strategy to prompt me to buy items I neither want nor need.  I now know that if I didn’t want it when I arrived, I am not going to miss it after I leave, no matter how much I may feel I want it in the moment.

The supermarket we use is a major chain in South Africa, with some similarities to Whole Foods in the USA.  One of these being that they sell what Michael Pollan calls “Storied food.”   Storied food is delightful – you can pick it up and read a little adventure yarn about where the food was grown, by who and how it came to be in your hands.  For example, the logo on the milk was a heart with a cow inside.  I was charmed to read that the milk had been produced by “happy cows.”  Not a word on whether those cows were grass or grain fed, and given the omission it is safe to assume that it is the latter.  However, at least the cows were happy about it!  Presumably the farmer took a survey and got a high satisfaction rating from the herd.

But the story telling is not confined to the labels on the products. The store had a massive advertisement at the entrance and again at the exit about their “Organic range” claiming that you could buy organic in everything “from t-shirts to tea bags.”  Given the size of the billboards, I wondered if I would suddenly find a vast array of new organic products on the shelves.  Looking into the history of this store’s relationship with organics, I found this fascinating press release from 2004 that explained their insight that organic was going mainstream and how they had updated their marketing to address this rapidly growing customer base.  How exciting!  Not so fast though, for a store that has understood the appeal of organics for such a long time, I was disappointed at how few items I could locate with the organic label in the fresh produce section.  I found some broccoli and that was pretty much it.  Perhaps the massive signs at the entrance and exit are meant to draw an organic “halo” around everything in the store, even if only a handful of products are actually certified organic?  Surely the marketing team would not be that cynical or have such a low opinion of consumer intelligence?

What is interesting is that there are at least 4 active, well supported farmers’ markets within a few kilometers of this particular store.  The one near my home a little further away does not advertise organics nearly as prominently.  Perhaps because they don’t face the same level of competition from the local food movement?  Least you think I am over-stating my case, the competition is real.  The markets were absolutely packed but there were only a handful of people in the supermarket.  Of course trade will pick up when the markets close, but for a few hours a week at least, this store is losing significant patronage to the nearby markets.

I was standing in the checkout line, looking at the massive “organics” advert overhead and reviewing my purchases to ensure that I everything on my shopping list and nothing else, when another reality thrust itself upon my consciousness.  The store has set up their checkout line so that everyone stands in the same queue and is routed to the next available cashier when they reach the front.  A very equitable and efficient system of queuing, which I greatly appreciate.  What I do not appreciate is the blatant attempt to manipulate my buying behavior in the form of the mouth-watering array of sweets and chocolates that flank the line of shoppers on either side.  What is more, once you enter the queue there is no escape.  There are people in front of you and behind you and your only option is to stand there and look at the goodies screaming “buy me!” for as long as it takes to get to the front of the queue.  Or you can shut your eyes and go to your happy place if you prefer. Those eye-catching candies used to be a source of significant temptation to me.  I would almost invariably succumb, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering husband, who seems immune to advertising of any kind for reasons I do not quite understand. These days I am able to run the gauntlet of the checkout line and emerge unscathed, which is a great relief to me. I now entertain myself by watching the other shoppers to see how many browse the items on display and end up adding a sweet or chocolate to their basket.  I would say it is at least one in 3, although if a young child is involved that likelihood increases dramatically.

It is because of tactics such as this, that I take massive offense at anyone who wants to reduce the diet of children to parental responsibility.  I have witnessed children simply lose it in that situation and have an all-out screaming tantrum.  Glass shatters and eardrums burst and other patrons look on in irritation and disapproval.  I have seen parents just grab a bag of sweets, rip it open and hand it to their hysterical offspring right there in the checkout line! Presumably they plan to pay for it later – in more ways than one!  When this occurs all the onlookers are simultaneously thinking two things: “You are a bad parent for giving in to your child like that – you aren’t teaching them anything!” and “Thank God you just did that and made the yelling stop!” I suspect that the parent is doing their level best and is a pretty good parent in most situations, but they are only human and just want the yelling and the social disapproval to stop.  The kid is freaking out, their head is about to explode, the enemy has them surrounded and all escape routes have been blocked off. Can you blame them?

At least when the harassed parent gets to the checkout they will be asked if they have a “My School” card and if they do a percentage of their purchases will go to support a school of their choice.  Next time you give in and buy that chocolate you had intended to resist, just remember that you are “doing it for the children!”

Would a store that really cares about their customers, the environment, the community and the education of children, deliberately put parents in this untenable situation every time they buy at the store with a child in tow?  If it is all about “consumer choice” and “making healthy choices that are part of a balanced diet” then why is it not good enough to give the sweeties their own aisle just like all the other products? Why do they need to flank the checkout line? Why not place the vegetables there instead?  If someone buys a bunch of carrots on impulse, no harm done, right? I do know that whenever I bought sweets, I would end up not only buying more and more sweets, but more food overall.  Is it possible that the store knows this as well?  As a grown adult I have to make a conscious effort to counteract the store’s strategy and come out with my health and budget in tact. Just watch this marshmallow experiment and you will get an idea of how tough this is on a kid, and the parent responsible for them.

If this video doesn’t tug at your heart-strings you are just dead inside!  Seriously, who would do this to a little kid?  Your local supermarket, that’s who!  Of course the point of the experiment is that ability to resist the marshmallow correlates to greater academic achievement later in life, so perhaps the supermarket exposes kids to an overwhelming selection of sweets in the checkout line to build character and contribute to their education 😛

If you have been paying attention you would know that I was in the supermarket in the first place because I couldn’t get everything I needed at the farmers’ market.  Doesn’t this prove that we still need supermarkets and shouldn’t we be grateful for the array of choices they offer us?  Sort of. I, for one, still need them, but my relationship with them is changing rapidly.  I am hardly ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of health and nutrition.  If I were, I wouldn’t be an obese, diabetic 38 year old!  I used to find people who only ate organic, or shopped at farmers’ markets annoying and thought of them as “alarmist” or “faddish.”  I am now one of those people.  The 2004 press release of my favorite supermarket was prophetic.  In 2013 I finally caught on to a trend they identified almost 10 years ago!  Although I still need the supermarket, I am needing them less and less, because they sell very little of what makes up my daily diet.  At the same time more and more farmers’ markets and co-ops are popping up, they are highly responsive to customer feedback, and every time I visit they seem to supply more of the ingredients I stock up on to ensure that I can continue to offer the menu of my new “home restaurant.”  For the time being I am glad that the supermarket is there although my friendship with them is somewhat strained.  For years I was a willing victim cheerfully guzzling down sodas and salt and vinegar crisps.  Now I only get what I came for, I see through all the marketing and “story telling” and I know not to look directly at the sweets in the checkout line for too long, least they blind me!

I have plans to plant a herb and vegetable garden in the Spring (we are now heading into Autumn) and increase my food independence even more. How long before I am able to end my troubled relationship with the supermarket altogether?  How many more people like me are out there?  Is our food economy changing or is this just a passing trend that will fade  when we return to shopping in the manner to which we have become accustomed?  Time will tell.  However, if the size of the food movement has any correlation to the size of the “Organics” signs in my supermarket then this thing is HUGE, people!

Let’s say Grace . . .

The tradition of saying grace before eating is in danger of dying out along with the shared family meal.  If your household is like mine, where we grab food out of the fridge and eat standing in the kitchen, eat on the run or eat in front of the computer or TV, then it has probably been awhile since you have sat down with a beautiful plate of food in front of you and took a moment to express gratitude for the gift you are about to enjoy.

How about for a change we begin our meals, as well as our discussions on health and nutrition by “saying grace “? Doing so, in the way that I envisage, might mean a great deal more than a simple prayer mumbled mindlessly before tucking in to the bounty before us.

After months of reading everything I could find on the subject of nutrition, in an effort to cure myself of chronic hunger and the resulting problem with my weight, it suddenly struck me that I needed to pause for a moment and remember to “say grace”  like my mother taught me as a young child. The spiritual discipline of expressing thanks for food before thoughtlessly devouring it has more merit than we might imagine.  “Mindful Eating” is being taught to the generation who has forgotten how to feed themselves in an effort to curb overeating.  Saying grace is one way to eat “mindfully” and might have more to do with health and weight management than you may have realized! Because by saying grace we give thanks for one miracle and request another.

The first miracle is that we have food to enjoy and to nourish ourselves.  The miracle that Mother Earth, as much as we have abused her and taken her for granted, still graciously produces food for us to eat.   That the farmer still plants his seed, the rains still come, the crops still grow, and we still have the health and strength to work to earn a living and obtain food for ourselves and our family.  When our food arrives already highly processed and pre-packaged we become disconnected from the process by which it comes to our table and lose all sense of appreciation and awe for the fact that we have it at all.  A return to local, traditional, whole food goes a long way to bringing back this sense of wonder.

The second miracle is one that we ask for in faith:  That the food we are about to eat will nourish us and bless us with health and strength for the day ahead.  We ask that the food we eat will be good for us. The prayer we used to pray as children was: “Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies, and bless the hands that prepared it.” This ritual is a simple acknowledgement that we eat in order to care for our bodies, that it requires a moment of grace for this to be possible at all and that it is fitting to honor those whose labor, love and creativity went into preparing the food. However, as much as we may do everything within our power to prepare a healthy meal, given the current state of our planet and our food supply, it is more appropriate than ever to appreciate that whatever benefit we may gain from our food is a blessing not to be taken for granted.  In many cases this requires nothing short of a miracle!

Most cultures and religions have festivals and traditions around the harvest, food preparation and the sharing and enjoyment of the meal.  Although these have been largely lost in our fast-paced, deadline driven western life style, recovering them can be enormously beneficial.  Yoga therapist Brandt Passalacqua, teaches eating as a practice of self-care.  He recommends beginning meals with a meditation.  See “Make Peace with Your Plate.”  I particularly like this part:

Say to yourself, “Today I will nourish myself in the best way I know how. In this moment I am nourished. I have all that I need.”

How about saying grace, not just at the dinner table, but wherever food is an issue?  Discussions on the subject of diet can be remarkably ungracious.  They can become zones of conflict and fierce disagreement, or like-minded individuals can subtly use their particular diet as a way to create a sense of superiority and self-satisfaction at the expense of those that don’t happen to buy into their approach to food.  This is particularly true of  judgmental, condescending attitude made socially acceptable by “the cult of beauty” so revered in western culture.  One of my favorite Joey scenes from Friends illustrates the ungraciousness of it all really well:

My mother was a gracious lady who not only taught me to say grace before eating, but to behave graciously when sharing food with others.  Once incident from my childhood is especially vivid in my memory.  Having been raised a vegetarian, I had a hard time understanding and accepting that meat is food.  We were at a meal with friends and family where meat was served, and I must have said something childish and inappropriate, expressing distaste at the meat dishes on the table.  I was sharply pulled aside by my mother and informed that I had just behaved very rudely and that one never criticizes the food on someone else’s plate because by doing so you are criticizing and rejecting them and hurting their feelings.  I learned a valuable lesson that day, not only in social graces, but about the sacredness of food.  Just because it isn’t something you happen to eat because of personal or dietary preference, it is still food and still worthy of the proper respect*

In addition to often being quite unkind, diets are usually reductionist.  Food is deconstructed down to almost atomic level and the concern is almost exclusively with macro and micronutrients and calories.  What if eating “whole food” means more than not overly processing it physically, but also not over-processing it intellectually?  A big part of eating whole food is appreciating the “whole food.”  Not just what is in the food, but the food in it’s completeness and fullness: It’s taste, texture, color and smell.  The intricate natural process by which it was grown.  The physical labor and skill of the farmer. The effort, planning and creativity of the chef.  The family ties and social bonds that it reinforces.  The celebration that it invites us to join.  The beauty of enjoying it, not only as fuel but as food in which we delight and take great pleasure.

Michael Pollan discusses the problem of “nutritionism” and the resulting reductionism in “In Defense of Food”  in which we regard food as a “delivery vehicle for nutrients.” Since nutrients are invisible you need experts to tell you how to eat.  Experts that can help us look past the food itself to the nutrients it contains and use this a basis to dictate what to eat and what to avoid.  As Pollan puts it:

“As soon as you accept the nutrient view of science, you accept the expert driven food culture. It’s sort of like a religion . . . We need a priesthood to navigate the relationship for us.”

He goes on to say that food gets divided up into “evil” nutrients that we try to drive from the food supply, and “blessed” nutrients, that if we can just get enough of will cure all our ills and possibly allow us to live forever!  With nutritionism the whole point of eating is about health and what we eat ranges on a spectrum from destroying your health on one end to redeeming it on the other.  However, Pollan tries to remind us that throughout history people have eaten for a great number of other, equally legitimate reasons: Pleasure, Community and Identity.  He warns that we are in danger of reducing our understanding of food to a very narrow set of “nutritionist” beliefs, which wouldn’t be so bad if it worked.  However, he points out that reducing food to a question of health hasn’t actually made us any healthier!  Ain’t that the truth!

The nutritionist approach to food doesn’t work for my fledgling attempts to learn how to feed myself again, nor is it helpful in the Bold Experiment.  I can’t afford to leave what I eat up to “the experts” because so far they haven’t been able to help me.  Nor can I reduce food purely to a question of health via the demonization and deification of a list of macro and micronutrients.  Among other things I would like what I eat to nourish me and improve my health, but in so doing I don’t want to give up eating for pleasure, put strain on my relationship with others or lose my identity.  For me “nutritionism” is a recipe for disaster because it creates disordered eating – in my case yo-yo dieting and mindless binge eating when it all gets too overwhelming.  I am trying to avoid replacing my junk food addiction with “orthorexia” – an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating! (Pollan)

I am learning to feed myself again.  Learning to say grace again.  It’s helping me and maybe it can help you too.  Before you open your mouth to put food in it, or say something about what the person next to you is eating, don’t forget to say grace!

* I believe that the respect for food should be extended to all whole foods.  The same is not necessarily true for processed food and junk food specifically when it functions as a drug.  This “food” should be named for what it is and put where it belongs.  However, the person consuming it should always be treated with the utmost grace and kindness.  If junk food calories are really the only ones available, one should still say grace over them, and hope they will do some good, but this is never ideal and the aim should always be to restore whole food to your own food supply and that of others.

“Open Wide” – Who’s feeding you?

I was reading some articles on nutrition and obesity yesterday and I had one of my “depressed and confused” moments that I get from time to time.  Ever since I have started seriously trying to figure out a good diet for myself, I have times where I get overwhelmed by how much contradictory information is out there.  When it comes to nutrition you can find an “expert” who will take a contrary view on just about anything.  Some will tell you that saturated fats are the devil, and others will say eggs and butter are perfectly healthy and should be back on the menu.  Some advise you to restrict fruit and eliminate all grains. If you read enough for long enough you won’t feel safe eating anything! If someone starts trying to prove that drinking fresh water and breathing clean air is bad for you I won’t be surprised. So what is an ordinary, struggling person to make of all this? I am not a dietician, doctor or personal trainer, but I have been to many of them, and have tried their advice with limited success.  I have no wish to become an “expert” on any of this, but I do feel compelled to learn enough to navigate my own way through the maze of nutritional advice in an effort to recover my health and well-being. After all, if my weight is my “personal responsibility” then I need enough reliable information to behave responsibly, don’t I? Yet when I see how even the experts can’t agree at the most basic level, I think I must be naive in the extreme to think that I can work this all out for myself.

The only way I can stop myself from going stark raving bonkers is to think about what has been going on in my own body in the last few months. I can’t help but conclude that something is working.  My diet is a success by every possible metric of success that means anything to me:

  1. My diabetes is controlled without medication.
  2. I am no longer hypertensive.
  3. I have lost 26 kgs and 5 dress sizes in 4 months.
  4. I sleep like a baby, have plenty of energy and get restless if I sit still for too long whereas I was barely able to move off the couch before.
  5. I have no cravings, never get ravenously hungry and love my food enough to eat this way forever.
  6. My skin and hair look noticeably better and healthier.
  7. People are starting to comment.
  8. I am no longer plagued by headaches, diarrhea, constipation, excessive thirst or getting up multiple times a night to use the loo.
  9. I get on the scale every morning and every morning I weigh a little less.  The weight loss will stop for a few weeks from time to time, and then resume on it’s own. This stop/start progress seems unrelated to my food intake or activity level in that I am eating and exercising fairly consistently whether I am losing or not.  But there is a definite, steady downward trend and as long as that continues I can just keep doing what I am doing for as long as it takes.

I should be over the moon, so why do I still have crushing moments of self-doubt? I’ll tell you:

  1. My diet is not low-fat enough for the low-fat people. Even though I have a pair of old pants so big that they simply drop off me (they fit a year ago!), I worry that I may be clogging my arteries with coconut oil or raising my bad cholesterol by eating too many eggs.
  2. My diet is not low-carb enough for the low-carb people.  Sure, I have cut out all refined grains, haven’t touched a white potato in months and have greatly reduced my sugar intake.  But I still eat any fruit I damn well please, pretty much whenever I feel like it and I flatly refuse to cut out whole grains and legumes.
  3. My diet is not low-calorie enough for the low-calorie diet police.  Without really trying I am eating far more human-sized portions and not having seconds, but I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and that means more calories than a committed calorie counter would think prudent and certainly far too many to explain my rate of weight loss under the “calories in/calories out” model.
  4. I cook too much of my food for the raw foodists and refuse to juice my veggies and throw away the precious fiber.
  5. The amount of eggs and dairy I eat would make a vegan cry.  (Raw milk btw, which is illegal in some countries!  Not mine apparently.)
  6. I eat no meat or fish at all and any self-respecting cave man would laugh me to scorn. (In my defense I supplement with fish oil, but that’s as far as it goes!)

By just about any diet theory out there I should be getting fatter, not thinner.  Sicker, not healthier. Robert Lustig argues that the common features of all successful, healthy diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber and that is about the only thing that makes a modicum of sense to me.  I think his argument at least partly explains it, because I get fiber every which way I can think of and watch sugar like a hawk (although I probably eat more than he would like me to and I do use alternative sweeteners like xylitol and stevia, which I understand is risky until there is more research on these).  However, I would suggest that there is a third feature of a successful diet that is just as important:  you have to love it enough to marry it and live happily ever after!  You can’t be fantasizing about when it will all be over and you can eat chips again!

My recent diet blues have given me a shocking insight.  I think the problem with the Western diet is that people no longer know how to feed themselves!  Food is a veritable battle ground and the struggle for control begins from the moment someone “plays aeroplane” with a spoonful of pureed carrots and tells you to “open wide.”  A critical part of early development is to move a child from breast milk to solid food, teach them the child to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and ultimately to procure and prepare food for themselves. But something has gone horribly wrong and grown adults have reverted to an infant state where we let a variety of “experts” play aeroplane with us while we “open wide” and swallow the whole thing!  Most of us have given up on feeding ourselves and alternate between letting the food industry or the diet industry feed us.  Or both at once, because the food industry has a product line for every recommendation the diet industry ever came up with!

Until very recently I believed that my weight problem was 100% my personal responsibility, just like the food industry told me it was.  Nothing anyone else could say or think of me for being fat was anything close to the hateful things I said to myself when I looked in the mirror. When I was diagnosed with diabetes my only emotion was shame.  The voice in my head said “You did this to yourself, you know!”  The problem was I thought taking “personal responsibility” meant “making healthy choices” in a supermarket, based on the information they saw fit to provide.  Once I realized that this “information” is concocted by their marketing department and the only motive is profit, I started to realize how heavily the deck was stacked against me all along.  The aisles in the supermarket are as gaudy and colorful as the Vegas Strip, and just as much of a gamble.  No matter how much you are tempted to roll the dice, just remember that the house always wins!

I just finished watching “The Men Who Made Us Fat.”  The inescapable conclusion is that taking “personal responsibility” doesn’t mean “making healthy choices” and going for a brisk walk after lunch.  It means telling the whole food industry to go to hell and take their “food products” and “labels” with them!  They never have and never will have our best interests at heart, so let’s be done with them as much as we possibly can!  I realize this may be well near impossible, but at least we can try to send a bit of a message. They can’t be trusted to put 2 ingredients together without jeopardizing our health so if you do buy anything from them it better not need a label or if it does, it should have as few ingredients as possible and you should be able to pronounce all of them.

I had a very different shopping experience the other day buying some fruit and veg from a local farmer.  She was remarkably unassuming, just standing behind a table filled with her fresh produce and a scale.  Not a price or a label in sight. There was nothing eye-catching, no “specials” no advertising, no “health claims” of any kind and I don’t think anyone was standing around to study my buying behavior!  She had grown it all, she hadn’t messed with it and now she was selling it.  Since she was there in person she could answer any questions I wanted to put to her:

“Hi, lovely tomatoes you have today.  Where do you grow them?”

She pointed, indicating just up the road – “Over there ma’am.”

“When did you pick them?

“This morning ma’am.”

“Are they organic?”

Sounding vaguely offended: “Of course ma’am, we only sell organic here.”  (I should have known better than to ask, she wouldn’t have been allowed to sell at this market if it wasn’t, no labeling required!)

Sure the small farmer also has a profit motive. She needs to make a living just like the rest of us.  But it’s a profit motive I can work with.  She just has a little to sell and, judging by the queues of people who, like me, have come looking for a bit of real food, she is going to sell out before the day is over.  And then she packs up and goes home.  She has no incentive to employ any special tactics to get anyone to buy more than they need.  She has some seasonal fruit and veg. If it’s not in season, you’re out of luck, if you want it you can buy it, when it’s sold out, that’s the end.  I leave this shopping trip, well pleased with the day’s purchases and start thinking about what I will make for dinner.

So why is my diet working?  I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with who is feeding me these days.  It’s not about personal responsibility but shared responsibility.  My part was finding a few reasonably honest people committed to producing real food, taking it home and making something decent with it.  Their part was not trying to push more and more food down my throat until I explode! 🙂

I am far from smug about this.  I realize that it is an unbelievable privilege to live within easy travelling distance of so much fertile farm land, and that some of that land is still in the hands of small farmers.  I am incredibly lucky that I have money to buy food and that the food I want and need is cheap enough to fit my budget.  I am one of a tiny percentage of people left in the world who can do this.  I shudder to think about people in inner cities with too little money and too many cheap calories and not a vegetable in sight.  Or people who have been alienated from their land, struggling with poverty, drought and famine who haven’t got enough to eat at all. Maybe it’s time to stop sitting in a corner feeling ashamed of our personal failings and time to start asking some hard questions about who is feeding us.  Time to learn to eat our veggies without parental or government supervision, prepare our own food and stop “opening wide” for the guy with a large fork and an even larger profit motive!  Maybe it’s time to share and make sure that everyone has enough and no one has too much.  Time for more real food, no more drive-throughs and definitely no more diets!  How’s that for a radical idea?