Monday, June 9, 2008

Feeding frenzy

I don't diet, but I do think quite a bit about what I eat. This is motivated mostly by a desire to be "healthy" but I would hope not in an unhealthy way. Growing up in an Asian household with a mother who loves and excels at cooking traditional Asian dishes, this meant that I ate a lot of different kinds of vegetables, seafood, and stir-fried fare as a kid. Sure, I ate my own fair share of junk food, too - I'd demolish half a party-size bag of Doritos in one sitting and often had dinner-sized snacks (consisting of last night's dinner) right before dinner, but I escaped becoming another obesity statistic through my devotion to Ultimate Frisbee. (I wouldn't say genetics has that much to do with it, since it appears my immediate family is quite capable of packing on the pounds when limited to a sedentary lifestyle.)

At any rate, my culinary tastes have changed quite a bit since then, but virtually all in good ways. I did not enjoy cheese, yogurt, or seafood a great deal in those days, but now love all three. And I still love fruits and vegetables and will try almost any dish put in front of me, courtesy of being exposed to exotic Chinese foods like tripe and pig ears at an early age. My typical route through a grocery store consists of a beeline to the meat and produce sections, with the occasional visits to dairy, juice, pasta, and baking aisles but rarely any others. Without really making a conscious choice, it turns out that I rarely eat anything that's been processed and can count the number of times I willingly eat/drink junk food in a year on two hands (and maybe a foot). Then again, I probably eat as many or more calories now that I've discovered the joys of heavy cream, baking bread, and cooking with butter. Ah well.

So I'm a (mostly) healthy eater, right? Well, let's just say that after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma it's apparently not that simple. That book can strike fear into the gut of even a relatively balanced eater like myself. Cows are corn. Chicken are corn. Fish are corn. Juice is corn. Toothpaste is corn. Basically, corn is the Borg and resistance is futile. Think we're 90% water? Wrong - we're like 99% corn. Even most so-called "organic" products and "free-range" animals aren't the rosy sun-over-pasture image depicted on their containers. Not to mention the carbon footprint made by transporting asparagus from Argentina. Here in California, we can kind of get away with it because much of the produce in our stores are actually grown in California, and there are farmer's markets every weekend the entire year. (Growing season? What's that?)

But whenever you rationalize one thing about food, another bogeyman pops up. Take caloric restriction and aging, for instance. Just the act of eating - nevermind what you're eating, though this has an impact, too - is thought to damage the body. Digestion produces destructive molecules called free radicals that can go around and beat up your cells. Some foods, like those high in antioxidants (like berries and pomegranate) help to reduce the damage free radicals inflict. But just the act of consuming calories damages your cells, which contributes to aging. When mice and worms are starved (something like 1/3 of their normal caloric intake), they live significantly longer. Although the effect hasn't yet been reproduced in humans, the fountain of youth beckons many, and caloric restriction has become a trend as people strive to live longer by eating around 1000 calories a day. I heard there's this one professor studying aging who claims that just looking at food causes you to age (albeit imperceptibly).

In the midst of this national personality crisis about food, I'm reading books about the joys of cooking and eating, participating in cooking and eating, and having a good time cooking and eating. Food, whether it be making it or consuming it, is one of the few things that consistently makes me happy, so I think I'm willing to forgo a potential bonus in lifespan to have what I know is good right now. After all, I'm pretty risk-averse, and while to some that would mean going caloric restricted to the max, to me it means going for the sure thing - food bliss.

By the way, here's a delicious recipe for cold sesame noodles!