You are what your food eats

I’m really not a fan of the adage, “you are what you eat.” I think it perpetuates a lot of the ideologies of diet culture, and can create confusion, frustration, and encourage “all or nothing” thinking about food and health. It also can attach moral language to food choices, which I find promotes disordered eating behavior and yo-yo-dieting.

But, there of course is evidence demonstrating that our food choices influence our physical health status. (This is the whole premise of nutrition, right?) The chemical makeup of the foods we eat determines, at least in part, the chemical makeup of our bodies.

For example, Inuit tribes, whose diets are high in saturated fatty acids, have a higher proportion of saturated fatty acids inside their own bodies. This ends up being advantageous for them in the context of their lifestyles. Despite Western recommendations of limiting dietary saturated fat for heart health, the Inuit populations have comparatively very low rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Likewise, both nutrient deficiencies and nutrient excesses cause disease, and that’s why the biochemical makeup of our food is important. For the average, healthy person, consuming highly processed, nutritionally void food products isn’t an unhealthy behavior on its own (barring autoimmune conditions and other disease processes.) Except when consumed in excess, or when eating these products out-competes consumption of other types of foods, the occasional (or even daily) Jolly Rancher is a normal, healthy, and totally benign part of life.

But healthy eating involves more than just balance and moderation. It’s also important to invest in the integrity of our food. This means looking into things like food sourcing and additives. Homemade ice cream from locally sourced cream and milk is a totally different product from Breyer’s vanilla, and it offers an entirely different sensory experience, too. I also maintain that freshly baked chocolate chip cookies are way more delicious than Chips Ahoy! They also are also typically made from higher-quality ingredients. As a food scientist, I can assure you that big food companies are far more concerned with cutting costs than delivering a high-quality product, despite advertising claims. In industry, short cuts are the norm.

Again, fun foods like cookies, chips, and candy are definitely an important part of life, and it’s our long-term habits that have the biggest influence over our health. Choosing those items every so often is definitely okay. (I personally love my ice cream!) But remember that food is meant to nourish our bodies in addition to satisfying our palates.

What I believe is the best way to ensure food integrity is by engaging with local farmers. Getting to know where your food comes from not only helps you ensure that the food labels are accurate (i.e. “free-range”) but it also provides an opportunity to broaden our connection with ourselves, with our bodies, and with the earth. There’s something special about seeing how food is grown, and understanding its journey from the farm to our tables.

These eggs pictured at the top of this post are from a local farm, where the chickens run around all over the place, and eat crazy things like bugs, vegetables, and grass — no corn to be found. (Conventionally raised chickens enjoy a steady diet of GMO corn and growth hormones.) The result is a totally different product. While both may look like eggs and crack like eggs, these free-range, grass-fed yolks are orange, rather than pale yellow — and that’s how they’re supposed to be. The diets of these chickens are far more robust and diversified, and the nutritional quality of their eggs is, likewise. In addition to having higher levels of nutrients like choline and B vitamins, they have a different fatty acid profile as well (and absolutely zero food additives.) This should be evidence enough to squelch claims that all eggs are the same, or that small farms aren’t important.

Oh, and buying from the local farmer isn’t any more expensive than buying from the grocery store. This dozen was $4.99, and any carton of “brown eggs” at Walmart is upwards of $5.

So, I guess the takeaway I was hoping for this post is this: It’s totally fine to eat conventional eggs, Chips Ahoy!, and cheese whiz. But looking long term, significant health benefits are to be had by eating locally and cooking at home, not to mention that happy orange yolks, grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, and farm fresh cheddar are way more delicious.

My really ugly (but delicious) lunch of sweet potatoes, pesto, and scrambled eggs.

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