(The second in a series about the convergence of psychological and environmental health)
One strategy that any person or family can adopt to promote psychological and environmental health is to pay a good deal of attention to what is happening at the kitchen table. Almost five years ago Michael Pollan advised “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While Pollan emphasized that rule as good for our bodies, and our planet, he didn’t explicitly link it to psychological health. Yet, eating food, not too much, mostly plants is good for our planet, our bodies and our psychological health especially if we recognize the role of relationships in the maintenance and organization of food resources.
In taking a broader view of food that is “at once more cultural and ecological” he suggests thinking “about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship.” Pollan clearly states that, “our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.”
While he emphasizes health in the bodily sense of the word, it is important to remember that health also means our psychological well being. In addition to the fact that physical well-being enhances mental health, food can importantly impact mood states. And it isn’t only the chemical breakdown of foods that can affect our personalities. The way in which food is distributed also shapes and forms personality. Home cooked soup may contain chemical compounds, forge connections to important people (the forager for ingredients, the cook, and those who share the meal), and symbolically enact care and attachment.
Pollan notes, “Of course when it comes to food, culture is really just a fancy word for Mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways of the group — food ways that, although they were never “designed” to optimize health (we have many reasons to eat the way we do), would not have endured if they did not keep eaters alive and well.”
His point is that there needs to be a producer of food who understands both the individual needs of eaters, the range of available foods, and the relational complexity in which food is situated. Yes, it has often been mom, but it can also be dad, or anyone else in a family or a group of eaters. That person is not only taking into account the person’s body. That person also uses food to alter the so-called “chemical” mood of the family or group by providing foods that heal, celebrate, get someone through a hard bout of work, or nurture someone through a loss.
What follows is my psychological elaboration of Pollan’s nine food rules.
1. “Eat food.” Choosing real food as opposed to food products protects a family from chemicals and other ingredients that have been scientifically created or altered. Keeping family members away from unproven foods can eliminate triggers of mood instability. Also, feeding real food communicates important truths about living in the world. Not everything out there is good for you. Learn how to choose what is beneficial by relying on cultural and environmental knowledge. Think of the ecosystem as both cultural and natural sources of information.
2. “Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.” By transforming eating into only nutritional delivery mechanisms it separates eating from its nurturing role. Eschewing health claims in favor of proven foods also teaches the lesson that fads don’t fix psychological difficulties. You can’t fix your body or your mind with scientifically constructed solutions, although they can work temporarily. In the long-term, however, rely on what is real, durable, and trustworthy. Eat real food and have genuine conversations with people that you know and trust. This creates smaller scale eating rituals that are also easier on the planet (less waste, more efficient consumption of resources).
3. “Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.” All of these additives and processed ingredients may alter mental health by impacting neurological, hormonal and metabolic processes. Keep eating simple: tasty, good food made by people at home. Cooking at home creates all kinds of opportunities for family members and friends to work and talk together. Less reliance on mass produced foods will also cut down on energy consumption.
4. “Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.” Supermarkets these days function like ADD training camp. Too many overstimulating and false choices do not help small minds cohere nor do they facilitate the dominance of knowledge and experience over false idols (biblical reference intentional). When you must shop in supermarkets try consulting goodguide for the nutritional and ethical background of most food and non-food products sold in supermarkets. Also supporting local merchants and farmers is good for the local economy as well as its ecosystem.
5. “Pay more, eat less.” This is hard to implement in these troubled economic times. Cutting down on exposure to pesticides by eating organic food is crucial to regulating the developing little selves of kids. We don’t know what the impact is of all those chemicals on any one’s physiological systems. Also, eating fewer higher quality calories is a life lesson about limits and boundaries. In our society we are used to eating whatever we want whenever we want it. Therefore, we teach our kids that they should have whatever they want whenever they want it. This is not how we as a society or culture should relate to anything – not each other, not our resources and not our environment. The limited consumption of high quality resources teaches not only good character but also sustainable habits.It is also more affordable in the long term.
6. “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.” Plants have to be cooked and prepared, and they are renewable resources. Preparing food embeds it into the relational and aesthetic weave of family life. Food becomes not only nutrition but also symbolic, part of individual and group consciousness. When food is meaningful, it is treated respectfully. Respectful eating also helps build solid character structure. It becomes a culinary template for values. And, it is a loving way to treat the ecosystem.
7. “Let culture be your guide, not science.” Or, don’t rely on scientific knowledge over local knowledge. Both are important. When it comes to food, however, eating diets proven to be effective over centuries of eating are generally part of rituals that have helped families get through any number of hardships. When food is removed from the rituals that sustain our minds and our souls, we begin to fall apart. Further, most social rituals maintain a people’s connection to the land. Just like it is most important to psychological health to keep relationships to people, mental health also depends on maintaining our relationships to the ecosystems that sustain us.
8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. Planting a vegetable garden was one of the most under-appreciated initiatives of the Obama White House. Cooking connects people to one another and to their histories (old recipes of beloved family members, ritual special occasion foods). Gardening is a human tradition that dates back to the earliest manifestations of civilization. Cooking and gardening actively engage people with the environment and each other, with who we have been and who we will be.
9. “Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases.” Such flexible farming also protects the land. Likewise, live like an omnivore. Try new ideas and experiences. Add exposure to diverse ways of being to your daily habits. Mental health thrives when people use all parts of their minds and personalities. A steady diet of arts and sciences, of philosophies and religions, as well as cultures and languages keeps people flexible and open. Such emotional and cognitive elasticity is key to sustainable living for the body, mind and the earth.
When the body weakens, there will always be doctors. When the earth wears down, we rely on scientists to help us reclaim the balance. When our psyches falter, we have psychotherapy and medication to help. Yet, at this juncture in our human journey, it is crucial to practice preventative strategies that are based upon sustainable physical, psychological and environmental practices. Too much brokenness can’t be fixed by experts and threatens the cultural and familial transmission of survival mechanisms. Eat Food is a service trying to teach organizations and businesses how to do this through nutrition. But since, in the words of Anton Ego, “anyone can cook”, a thoughtful examination and implementation of eating food with others according to Pollan’s nine food rules can enable anyone to start building a more psychologically and environmentally stable life, one kitchen at a time.
Next to Come: Going Outside, anywhere