Healthy, frugal eating
Every so often, I get hit in the face with two facts. First, Americans (even poor Americans) are unbelievably rich. Second, Americans (as a group) utterly lack a cultural tradition that teaches us how to eat a healthy, frugal diet.
The first time this really struck me was about twenty years ago. I was listening to a radio story about people who'd risen from humble beginnings to become successful entrepreneurs. One guy, taking about a time his family had gone through a rough patch where money was tight, said, "I can tell you, there were a lot of days we at bologna for lunch, and then bologna again for dinner."
My first thought was, "Only in America do the truly poor eat meat twice a day." My second was, "Why doesn't anyone teach people how to create a healthy, frugal diet?" My third was, "Oh, yeah--they do. It's called 'the four food groups'--of course they thought they had to serve meat at every meal."
Since then, we've moved beyond the four food groups. Today we teach the food pyramid and have the USDA National Nutrient Database and the Heath and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food and Nutrition Information Center. I wrote a while back about healthy recipes with cost data, free for everyone thanks to the US government.
Thinking about all that information very nearly splits me in two.
On the one hand, look what we can do! One guy (with a bit too much time on his hands and access to the internet, even if only at the library) can not just design a healthy diet--he can design dozens. He can tweak them to allow for pretty much any personal preferences or restrictions. Even constrained by cost, he has almost infinite choice.
On the other hand, look at what using that information would actually require someone to do! There are mathematical techniques for doing the sort of optimization involved. Take a database of nutritional information, a universe of (constantly changing) costs, and a set of personal preferences--and turn that into a diet that provides all the necessary nutrients without providing excess calories, fat, and sodium, at the lowest possible cost. But we're no longer talking about one guy using an internet connection at the library. Now we're talking about PhD-level math and some serious number crunching on fast computers.
So, I'm not too surprised that I continue to run into stories like the one about the entrepreneur whose family ate lots of bologna. The most recent was in a story about US educational benefits for veterans. A former soldier was working on a degree, trying to make ends meet on the meager funds provided. After paying rent and buying gasoline for his truck, things had been tight. Explaining that he ate a lot at fast-food restaurants, he said, "I sure appreciated the dollar menu."
Only in America do poor students not only have their own apartment and truck--they eat out every day!
Happily, there's an easier solution than solving a non-linear programming optimization of multiple variables under multiple constraints. Michael Pollan talks about it in his book In Defense of Food that I reviewed a while back.
Forget about the database of nutritional information. If you know something about how your great-grandparents ate, you can start there. If not, you can start with the food pyramid. It has flaws, but if you don't have any cultural tradition to draw from at all, it's better than nothing.
Start with vegetables. Get what's cheap. If what's cheap is locally grown and in season, so much the better. Eat more than one thing. Eat a lot.
Get some grains. Prefer whole grains, but generally buy whatever's cheap. Get a few different things--rice, flour, cornmeal, oats. Here, too, get a lot, but as much as you can, get raw stuff and cook it yourself. Still, some amount of things prepared for you (like bread, pasta, and cereal) is okay.
Add some fruit. Fruit can expensive, but you don't need a lot for a healthy diet--one glass of orange juice and a small apple is enough for one day. If you can afford more--berries, raisins, melons, exotic tropical fruits--that's even better.
Add some legumes. Beans, lentils, split peas--whatever you like is fine. You don't need a lot, but these are reasonably cheap, so if you like them, get a lot.
That's really all you need. If you're rich, you can get some meat, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, nuts, oil, sugar, etc.--but you don't need any of those things. A diet with a variety of vegetables and grains plus a modest amount of fruit and legumes will give you everything you need. (Billions of people only wish they ate so well.)
As long as you eat a variety of things, it's going to be hard to screw up too badly on a diet like that. If your only vegetable is potatoes and your only grain is white rice--well, you won't be getting all the nutrition you should. Expand your vegetables to include a leafy one and another non-white one. Make sure at least half your grains are whole grains.
It's not hard. It's not expensive. It's just that we don't teach people how to do it. We don't have the cultural traditions--and without a culture to fall back on, people are left vulnerable to the influence of advertising and to the concoctions of "food scientists" who cleverly use fat, sugar, and salt to make "food products" that taste better than food. On top of all that, the people in the most dire straits--the poor, the uneducated, the homeless--have additional obstacles: inferior grocery stores, no kitchens, cash-flow issues that make it hard to buy even a week's groceries at a time.
Food prices are spiking up to record highs all over the world, making it really tough on people in poor countries. In rich countries, though, things aren't nearly so bad--we just need to recreate a tradition of healthy, frugal eating.