Saturday, January 24, 2009

Food-Caused Illness

No, I'm not talking about food poisoning. For most of my adult life, I've been on a gradual trajectory away from processed foods and towards whole, living foods. This wasn't a result of any healthy-eating goal, at least at first, but rather it was caused by formerly favorite foods making me feel sick. When I was in college, I ate a lot of McDonalds, because it was relatively cheap, fast, available, and I could pay for it with saved money on my student ID. However, things that used to taste delicious started becoming nauseating, to the point that eventually I couldn't eat anything on the menu other than the fries. The same sort of gradual disgust has crept in for most fast food.

About two years ago, I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, part of which talks about how the majority of the calories consumed by Americans come from just two sources: corn (mostly corn syrup, but also oil) and soy. I resolved to read labels more closely, and sure enough, it's incredibly difficult to avoid those two plants. We decided to completely ban high-fructose corn syrup from our house, and to cut back as much as possible on soy oil, focusing mainly on hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil. If we can't find an alternative product, we either do without or make it ourselves. I think that the only thing in the house that still contains corn syrup is ketchup, and we've decreased our usage enough to be able to afford the organic ketchup that contains cane sugar instead.

Cutting down on corn and soy means that very few convenience foods even enter our house, and therefore anything we want to eat has to be prepared from basic ingredients. This has had the effect of expanding the number of species of plants and animals that we get our nutrition from. Now, this has all been so gradual that I can't honestly say that I can tell a real difference in health from when I used to eat more processed food. I don't seem to get sick as often, and I seem to gain and lose weight in seasonal cycles rather than just gaining the way many people experience, so I believe that I am healthier now. And I definitely have observed the way my body reacts negatively to large quantities of processed food, now that I don't eat much of it any more.

Earlier this week, Paul brought home a big bag of potato chips for us to snack on while we watched the season premiere of one of our favorite shows. I ate a lot of potato chips and onion dip, because it was three hours of tv and they tasted so good. Now, my digestive system did not complain at all, but when I went to bed that night my throat felt scratchy, like I was getting a cold. For the next two days, my throat was scratchy, I was congested, and I had no energy or motivation to do much of anything. I thought I was getting a cold, but today I woke up early with hardly any symptoms and a lot more energy. I don't know if it was the oil, the salt, or the large quantity of simple starch that affected me so badly, or if it was some combination of the three, but it was definitely a dramatic demonstration of how what we eat affects our health and behavior.

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