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How to eat every day without consuming harmful chemicals

Originally published June 19, 2018 on Maclean's.

Kristin Lawless argues that ‘Big Food’ has obscured the fundamentals of healthy eating—and that some additives actually help cause obesity.

 View of well ordered vegetables for sale in a supermarket. (Denise Taylor/Getty Images via Macleans.ca)

View of well ordered vegetables for sale in a supermarket. (Denise Taylor/Getty Images via Macleans.ca)

Formerly Known As Food is a stimulating read about, as its subtitle puts it, How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. Kristin Lawless, a Brooklyn nutrition expert and journalist, draws on a decade of research. Her book, endorsed by former New York Timescolumnist Mark Bittman and American environmental activist Laurie David, argues that the questionable chemicals Big Ag and Big Food put into our food are increasing the incidence of dangerous health conditions like fatty liver. Lawless spoke with Maclean’s about social engineering, feminism, meal-kit delivery services and the case for animal fats.

Q: “Basic cooking skills are a virtue as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass,” Anthony Bourdain once said. “There are few things more important and integral. As citizens of the world, we should be able to feed ourselves fairly competently, and hopefully a few others.” What’s your response? 

A: I couldn’t agree more. The sad fact is that many people no longer know how to cook. Too many of us grow up in households where no one ever cooks, learning the skills to cook basic whole food is vital to our health and so much more. When I was old enough to hold a knife, I was helping to prepare the family meal. The simple act of cooking your own food is something we can all incorporate into our lives, with profound benefit. Bourdain’s success and the amount of love people have for him and his work shows the value of bringing people together around a shared meal. Bourdain showed us all the authentic connections that are created through exploring food and food cultures. I think what the industrial food system has done, is allow us to forget about the importance and interconnection of food, health, cultural traditions, and cooking. But when we forget, we lose something vital about our human-ness and our connections to each other.

Q: What’s your response to critics who say that it’s anti-feminist to advocate that women (and men) need to cook a lot more?

This thinking stems from the idea that women will achieve liberation and equality solely through work done outside of the home. In the book, I highlight the writings and work of Selma James, the founder of the Wages for Housework Campaign. As women left the home for work, the industrial food system was happy to step in and provide convenience foods and fast foods as replacements for home cooking—after all someone has to provide the food. I’m not clear on how there is anything feminist about letting corporations take over such a vital component of our lives as food production.

Q: There is quality information on the Internet about preparing your own quality food, yet many people are resorting to meal-kit delivery services.

A: I am not a fan of these services. If you can put a meal together based on the raw ingredients in those kits it means that you have basic cooking skills, so why not just go grocery shopping for ingredients based on recipes you want to use? To me, the biggest issue with these services is the amount of waste they generate. Have you seen how they package things? Sea creatures are dying because of the amount of plastic waste in our oceans and we can’t manage to chop our own garlic?

Q: What do you hope your book accomplishes?

A: I hope the book alerts the public to just how drastically our foods have changed under the influence of Big Food and Big Ag and what this means for our health. After a decade of counselling a wide range of people on nutrition and food, I can tell you that nearly everyone I worked with was misled and misguided about what to eat. It cuts across all social demographics. But when you do understand how to eat well—which is so critical to your overall health and well-being—it is incredibly empowering. More broadly, we need to re-localize our food economies and get involved in food production in our communities. And we also need to demand policy change from our lawmakers. I end the book with a “New Food Movement Manifesto” and call for things like federal paid parental leave, a universal basic income, and nutrition and cooking education in all public schools.

Q: What might challenge readers?

A: My critique of the current food movement. Shopping advice to “buy organic” or shop at your local farmer’s market does nothing to change the fact that most of our food is completely controlled by corporations or that the regulatory agencies are not doing their jobs to protect our food supply. They do nothing to help the vast majority of people who are stuck eating the crappy processed foods full of potentially harmful chemicals.

Q: How about your take on gluten? I’m of the school that for non-celiacs, it’s OK if properly fermented/broken down.

A: I love bread and I eat it regularly. I’m partial to whole wheat sourdough varieties and agree that the way the bread is made is crucial to whether or not it is healthful. It goes back to the Whole Egg Theory. There is a vast difference between your regular supermarket, sliced loaf with a huge list of ingredients and a sourdough loaf that should only have about three ingredients: whole wheat, sourdough starter, salt.

 

Q: Is “vegan cheese” cheese? Michael Pollan says, “I think the word cheese should be saved for the products of milks and bacteria, and I do think the same with bacon made out of soy—we should let them come up with their own name for that stuff. It’s a poor imitation.”

A: I agree it is not cheese and actually I don’t even think it’s food.

Q: Given it’s chock full of emulsifiers, is “vegan meat” healthy?

A: It is definitely not healthy. And honestly, I have no idea why people would eat that. If you’re a vegan, then eat the whole foods that are naturally vegan.

Q: Is eating ethical meat morally sound? I reckon your uncle Ben had a point: “Animal fats are the best thing in the world for you.”

A: I don’t know that you can say any meat-eating is ethical or morally sound from a purely philosophical perspective if you agree that animals are sentient beings, which I believe they are. I was a vegetarian for 15 years because of this belief. That said, now I do eat meat and believe that truly humanely raised animals that had a humane life and death are part of a healthy diet. I don’t eat industrially produced meat, dairy, eggs, fish or any other animal product. If you know what goes on in these industrial farms, I don’t see how you can. My younger sister calls it “torture meat.” It’s harsh but it’s true. I definitely agree with my uncle Ben when he said, “Animal fats are the best thing in the world for you.” There’s plenty of solid scientific research to back up that statement. We eat a lot of butter in our house.

Q: You write that stigmatizing people who are overweight or obese “is one of the last prejudices considered acceptable” and goes against emerging research about metabolism and endocrinology. Will this change?

A: For this to change, people need to understand the nature of our food and health crises, which means, number one, actually understanding some of the fundamentals of nutrition that have been completely obscured by the agendas of Big Food companies. There are chemicals in our food that are causing weight gain regardless of caloric intake, for example. Once you become obese your whole metabolic function changes in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult to lose weight.

Q: Dieting advice is so contradictory and confusing. What do you recommend?

A: Follow the idea of my Whole Egg Theory. Eat only whole foods. An egg, butter, whole-milk yogurt, broccoli, an apple, a steak, roasted chicken, etc. If you eat them to the exclusion of all the processed and crappy foods that fill the majority of the space at grocery stores, you will be healthier for it. If you can buy organic that’s better; if you can get sustainably produced animal products that are pasture-based, even better. We need to address the inequality behind why most people can’t access these kinds of foods.

Q: You make a good point that at the height of Occupy Wall Street, you were surrounded by self-satisfied “radical” occupiers consuming McDonald’s vegan oatmeal, and Coke. Isn’t that depressing?

A: I definitely found it discouraging, but it just goes to show how we often overlook the political importance of food. If you oppose the corporate influence over our democratic institutions, then you should also oppose the corporate control of our food supply. Big Food companies, and Big Drink, have been masterful at convincing the public that your right to buy their unhealthy products is akin to political freedom and actually represents some sort of patriotic duty.

Q: You write that 10 companies control food and beverages.

A: Just like in every other industry, corporate consolidation is a major issue, and it threatens the very foundations of our democracy. Especially when it comes to our food supply, these companies have no incentive other than profit—that’s a dangerous thing when you are talking about something as vital as our food.

Q: What are the seven foods that are always in your house?

A: Eggs, bread, butter, coffee, cream, seasonal fruit and—I know this is running joke—but seriously, we always have kale in the fridge.

Q: Anything else you hope people might take away from Formerly Known as Food?

A: I hope people will be inspired to get politically engaged with our food system. We need to organize and advocate for policy that will hold the Big Food and Big Ag companies accountable for what they are doing to our food, our environment and our health. We’ve become so disconnected from our food supply, letting corporations take over this fundamental aspect of our lives. Why did we let this happen? We need to be involved with our own food production at least to some degree—you can learn to cook, plant a garden or join or create a food co-operative in your community.

This dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.

mediaErika Camplin
What You're Eating Probably Isn't Food

Click the link to listen to Kristin interviewed live on KERA by Kris Boyd: Originally published on KERAthink June 19, 2018

 Image via Shutterstock (via KERAthink)

Image via Shutterstock (via KERAthink)

The rise of industrial farming and food processing has changed our diets. And if you are what you eat, then these methods have also changed us. Kristin Lawless joins us to talk about why mass production has led to less healthy foods – and about how we can reverse the trend. Her new book is called “Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture” (St. Martin’s Press).

mediaKristin Lawless
You are What You Eat: How the Industrial Food System is Affecting You

Click link to listen to Kristin interviewed live by Duarte Geraldino on WNYC about the book : Originally published on WNYC.org June 21, 2018

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Kristin Lawless discusses her book, Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture, which looks at how pesticides and GMOs are changing not only our food, but also our bodies. From deteriorating nutritional content to the addition of thousands of chemicals from pesticides, Lawless argues that our bodies are literally changing from the inside out.

mediaKristin Lawless
Bad (and Good) Eating Habits Start in the Womb

Last week my piece "Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb" appeared in TheNew York Times and generated a lot of interest and  commentary — it was the number one most emailed story on the entire site for over a day. I find this to be an encouraging sign that people are really concerned about the food they eat, and especially about the health of their babies and children. Click here to listen to an interview I did for New Hampshire Public Radio discussing my piece. Below is a description from NHPR's website.

You may be familiar with the ordeal of introducing children to broccoli and spinach.  Two new studies suggest that finicky eaters might have picked up their discriminating habit in the womb. Forget genetics, personal responsibility, and discipline. Your taste for junk food and soda may have a lot to do with how your mother satisfied her cravings.

Kristin Wartman, is a food, politics and health journalist. She recently wrote about the new science of food choices for the New York Times.

Photo: Rafael Viana Araujo via Flickr Creative Commons

Vegan Foods, Diet Products, and Other Big Food Scams

Last week I did two interviews both relating to how the industrial food system loves to tell us how its products will help us lose weight and be healthier. Tuesday, I was on Chef Erica Wides' show Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to talk about vegan and vegetarian "foodiness" products, as she calls them. Wides defines foodiness as fake food, made to look like real food that often makes some kind of (false) health claim. When it comes to vegan and vegetarian foods, people often think they are eating better simply because they don't eat meat. The trouble is, people often resort to the packaged and processed versions of vegan or vegetarian food. As an example of how these foodiness products are worse than the read thing, take a look at the ingredients for two products we discussed on the show: Pizza-Pizza-Pizzaz

Toffutti Pizza:

WHEAT FLOUR (UNBLEACHED), CRUSHED TOMATOES, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, SALT, YEAST, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED (CORN), OREGANO, BLACK PEPPER, GARLIC. The dairy-free cheese contains the following: WATER, EXPELLER PRESSED PALM OIL, MALTODEXTRIN, NON-GMO (TOFU, SOY PROTEIN) NON-DAIRY LACTIC ACID BLEND OF NATURAL GUMS (LOCUST BEAN, GUAR, CELLULOSE, XANTHAN AND CARRAGEENAN), ORGANIC SUGAR, POTATO FLAKES, VEGETABLE MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SALT.

Veja-Links:

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00941_2898924704Click here to listen to the full half hour episode.

On Friday I went on Huff Post Live for a segment called "Myths and Facts about Weight Loss." I am sometimes reluctant to do these types of interviews because the focus on weight loss and obesity is a bit misguided. I think we need to focus on the consolidation of the food supply and the way in which the industrial food system is at the root of our collective health and weight problems. Which is why I always emphasize that the solution to weight loss is to eliminate industrial foods from your diet as much as possible. This perspective shifts the blame from the people stuck in an industrial food paradigm to the horribly skewed food system pumping out terrible products. The best way to do this is to emphasize the important of eating real, whole foods. So, what are real, whole foods?

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organically grown)
  • Fresh meats like beef, poultry, pork (preferably pasture-raised, if possible)
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, butter (preferably from grass-fed animals)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Herbs and spices
  • Plenty of filtered water

What's the rest of what you see on grocery store shelves, in fast-food restaurants, and on TV? Packaged and processed foods. If you eliminate these foods from your diet, I guarantee you will lose weight. But even more importantly, you are refusing to participate in an industrial food system that has proven to make people sick, devastate the environment, and exploit people, animals, and natural resources. Once you commit to taking a stand against that, the weight loss seems like an added bonus. For more, you can watch the whole interview here and the two minute version here.