Thursday, July 4, 2013

July: Food in the news

Two very closely related but very different food related items caught my attention last month.  The first is a study of preschoolers that clearly shows eating in front of a TV or computer has serious health consequences.  The second was an interview by Jian Gomeshi on the CBC radio programme Q with food writer Michael Polen, who stressed the importance (and the decline) of home cooking.

The study of preschoolers by St. Michael’s Hospital doctor Navrinda Persaud and his team set out to determine if the levels of bad cholesterol (HDL) were affected not by what you eat, but how you eat it.  Elevated levels of HDL in preschoolers is a key indicator of health issues like cardiovascular problems in later life.  The study determined that kids who eat in front of the TV or computer monitor have higher levels of this dangerous cholesterol.  In fact, Dr. Persaud actually made the point that there was a stronger correlation between eating behaviour and high cholesterol than between what was eaten and high cholesterol. 

While this may be counter-intuitive on the surface, the study team points out that kids who eat while watching TV are not paying attention to what they eat, and tend to ignore the cues that tell them they’ve had enough.  “They’re just kind of shoveling it in,” says Dr. Persaud.  The study concludes that “evidence suggests promoting responsive feeding, where adults provide appropriate access to healthy foods and children use internal cues (not parent directed cues or cues from the television) to determine the timing, pace, and amount they consume.”  In other words, sit down and eat a family meal without the distractions of TV, smart phone, computer, or iPod and set an example of healthy, convivial mealtimes. 

Michael Polen is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a call to eat locally produced foods wherever possible that was a bestseller when it came out in 2006.  His new book is called Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation and he is on the book circuit to promote it.  His conversation with Gomeshi touched on many aspects of our food culture, but centred on the question of “who’s doing the cooking?”  When we eat food produced by corporations, whether it’s prepackaged pizza or canned soup or frozen dinners, we are eating food made from cheap, industrially produced ingredients that include large amounts of salt (to make the crappy ingredients taste better), sugar, fat, and chemicals that make it last a long, long time so it can be shipped from afar and sit on a shelf until purchased.  When you eat industrial food, Polen pointed out, you are supporting industrial agriculture.

When Gomeshi mentioned our current fascination with star chefs and televised cooking programmes, Polen explained what he calls the cooking paradox: “We're spending more time watching other people cook food on television than we are cooking ourselves.  I think on some level we understand how important cooking is and we miss it in our lives.”

The Slow Food Movement is all about good, healthy, local ingredients prepared at home by people who care about what they eat, and consumed in a convivial, social setting.  Dr. Persaud and Michael Polen seem to be on exactly the same page.