Monday, March 26, 2012

Healthy Living Quick Tips

A lot of us talk a big talk about local, sustainable food, and how great we all are for patronizing our favorite independent co-op or whatever, but it's hard not to address the elephant in the room: eating healthy is hard.  And I don’t mean that it’s hard if you’re lazy or if you’re not really committed to it or anything like that.  It is, but sometimes it’s also hard even if you’re really trying.  Sometimes you've been good all week, but now you're meeting up with an old friend and the only place around is TGIFriday's.  And sometimes you're on your way from work to class and you only have time to grab some French fries.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of cheating once in a while- but only if you really want to.  If those afterthought French fries didn’t even taste good to you, that just isn’t fair.  So instead of hiding the wrapper in the glove compartment and pretending the whole thing never happened, I’ve come up with a list of low-stress steps we can all  take to try and minimize those moments.

1) Plant a garden.

If you have a yard with space to really do this right, that’s fantastic.  It can be a wonderful hobby, as well a fun learning opportunity for kids.  Anyone who loves being outdoors knows time in the garden can have a therapeutic effect, and now there’s more research than ever showing how gardening can have a significant positive impact on mental health.

If you don’t have the space and time for the whole thing, though, something as a simple as a potted herb in the kitchen window can add freshness to homemade dinners and save money.  A huge pet peeve of mine is going through the fridge and throwing away vegetables because they went bad before I got around to using them.  The more vegetables you grow yourself, the fewer you have to keep around in the fridge!

Your local grocery store, hardware store, or of course farmers’ market are all great places to find low-maintenance plants and tips on caring for them.

2) Keep healthy snacks at work.

If you're lucky enough to have access to a refrigerator where you work, plan ahead and keep it stocked.  A bag of salad and a bottle of home-made vinaigrette (canola oil, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of oregano or thyme is all you need) can be a great secret weapon to supplement to a lunch that would otherwise be mostly processed carbohydrates.

As for quick morning snacks, the best one I've found for the workplace is a clementine.  You can keep a whole box of them there to last the week if you have the space, or if not they can be brought in from home one at a time.  They don’t need refrigeration and they’re so small they can be eaten as quickly as a handful of chips.  Not to mention, they’re delicious!

Check back next week for the rest of the list.  In the meantime, what's your favorite trick for healthy eating when you're not home?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Something's Fishy

So far the question I've been asked the most about my temporary vegetarianism is, "Are you eating fish?" and I thought it was an issue worth addressing in writing.  Why is it, exactly, that fish sometimes doesn't count as "meat?"  And are those reasons valid?

A quick Google search turned up a discussion among angry vegetarians saying that people who eat fish and call themselves vegetarians are "confused wannabes."  And Wikipedia, master of in-depth information on brand-new cultural institutions, reminded me about the word "pescatarian," coined in 1993, assumably to give the "confused wannabes" a pedestal of their own from which to judge.  All this of course begs the question why does everyone care so much?  And the answer to that, no matter who you talk to, seems to come down to at least one of the following issues:  human health, animal health, and environmental health.  Let's see how fish measures up against other animal proteins in each of them.

Human health:

The China Study comes to mind as one of the more commonly-cited writings on the dangers of a diet heavy in animal protein.  The high fat content in red meat, especially, has long been blamed for the rise in obesity and heart disease, and fish tends to get classified as something of a nutritional compromise between plant-based proteins, and animal proteins with higher fat contents. A recent Harvard study finds correlations between red meat and chronic diseases, but seems to indicate that protein from fish is not unhealthy.  Of course, it's hard not to take this opportunity to get back on the corn soap box and point out that what we feed the animals we eat may have more to do with the nutritional content than the type of animal itself.  A grass-fed hamburger will have much less saturated fat than a corn-fed one, whereas a (naturally carnivorous) salmon that's been fed corn- or soy-based feed pellets rather than the smaller marine animals it was meant to feed on will have significantly lower levels of those omega-3 fatty acids that the cool kids are all trying to get their hands on these days.  And all this messing with the animals' natural diets of course leads up to:

Animal Health:

I think for most of us, it's a lot easier to morally justify murdering a fish than, say, a pig.  But maybe I'm just saying that because I was a Charlotte's Web fan as a kid.  We'll see what happens when Finding Nemo's target audience comes of age.  It is true, however, that pigs are more intelligent than fish, and more able to process the physical and emotional distress involved in being turned into food.  It's been my experience that some vegetarians will make the occasional exception of fish at restaurants that lack vegetarian options for this reason.

Animal health is also a question of how the animal was treated before it died, and there's still a pretty decent chance that your tuna was perfectly happy and healthy swimming around in the ocean until the day it met up with a fishing boat.  Almost any land animal that ends up on your plate, however, had a pretty horrific life experience.  And the weird ways our food system has of housing and feeding the animals it processes, of course, has a lot to do with:

Environmental health:

This is probably the trickiest one when it come to fish, and the main reason I chose not to eat them during Lent.  If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know how much I love animal products that come from small, sustainable farms.  With land animals, our three hot-button issues tend to go hand in hand.  In general, the more humanely an animal is cared for, the healthier its meat will be, and the smaller a carbon footprint the farm that raised it will have.

Fish are a little different though.  No one can really seem to agree on the most "sustainable" way to raise fish, or if there even is one. According a recent Time article, "choosing sustainable seafood does relatively little to stop the depopulation of the oceans."


With the various pros and cons of wild fish versus farmed fish, it's hard to say which approach is better.  (And again, the answer to that may depend on the question of better for whom?)  In his book "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" Paul Greenberg suggests that we should be focusing on "what" instead of "how."  He posits that we may have to say goodbye to certain types of fish we've come to love and driven close to extinction, and start eating different species that adapt better to farming practices and reproduce more quickly.

So what about you?  Why do you/don't you eat fish?