What is health, these days? If, like me, you started answering that question by sitting on your butt reading articles online, you find out that health is yoga girls doing handstands surrounded by cacti, the rippling muscles of Paleo-powered weight lifters, and beaming food-gurus holding up clean salmon-tumeric bowls.
Health is illustrated on Instagram and Pinterest and the interwebs in general with these fabulous human specimens because we’re supposed to find them inspiring. And I assume a lot of people do. But I find it just kind of odd. Who wants to spend all day in Lycra or upside-down or at the gym? Who wants to smile like that? #healthyglow
What if I don’t want to be that happy or that Californian or that thin, but just, like, normal? Or is that a silly question in this country?
I was asking myself those questions today because I woke up the day after Christmas feeling like it was officially time to get my $@% together. I’ve been in this vicious cycle for a couple years now of feeling badly and then doing things that make me feel worse. I’m tired so I don’t go for a walk; I’m blue so I eat foods I don’t tolerate.
A few months ago I went to the doctor to see if she had any theories. As I listed my symptoms, weighed down by the litany of ickiness, I started slumping off the bench, finally collapsing in a puddle on the floor buried under maternity magazines as the doctor gave up and left.
“Can’t test for that,” her glazed eyes and lowered pen imply oh-so-clearly. “Insurance doesn’t cover lameness. Go… pin something.”
Now if you read all these health articles you discover that the lame, icky, lethargic, fat way I feel is pretty much how most of America feels. The causes are always described in compelling, scientific ways, but after you’ve read a few of these articles, you realize all they agree on is that all the best things in life are too blame.
Coffee, alcohol, binge watching shows on Netflix, bread, cheese, fried foods, deep fried cheesy bread with Netflix… the yoga girls and the California nutritionists and the #focused weight lifters all agree that everything you love is making you fat, miserable and, yes, un-Instagrammable.
The current list of villainous foods would seem reasonable except that I was raised, not that long ago, with a food pyramid built on carbs. I was advised in high school to choose the bagel and avoid the bacon. Today, bacon is having a glory moment not seen since 1953 and bagels are practically illegal.
Were the dieticians right before, or are they right now? Add to that all the terrible things we know are done to and with our food, from how livestock are raised to what they’re injected with to all the mysterious ingredients Michael Pollan has opened our eyes to, and one finds oneself wandering the grocery store looking for anything one could buy in good faith. This is usually celery.
And then there’s the question of your overall diet, the combinations of things. You can’t just eat stuff because it’s good, you have to pick a plan. Red meat may not cause heart disease, maybe, but you can’t just eat meat and bread and dairy.
You may find a nutritionist who will allow you to, but the foods will be limited to clean foods, or super foods, these foods that justify their consumption by not only having lots of nutrients but also looking great styled in a blue bowl in front of a San Diego sunrise. I’m talking kale, brown rice, quinoa, salmon, beets. I think maybe you can put a few nuts, seeds or pickled things in there. No cheese, no sauce, no dressings rich in polyunsaturated hydro-whatsis’s. Just the fresh, clean flavors of dry roasted beets and plain grilled salmon and, mmm, nutty quinoa.
As always in moments of severe personal crisis, I reach for Julia Child. My personal favorites are her Julia Child & Company books, from the 70s. They’re very chatty, like she’s dropped by to spur you on to make the cassoulet. It will be fun, she implies, in text accompanied by color photographs of pork feet.
Reading Julia reminds me that we have gone insane. She didn’t need to ask, Is my food clean? Is it super? It was just food. She started cooking in France after the war when the market was full of people selling produce and meat they’d caught or harvested themselves only a few miles away. And you walked to that market and you walked back home to prepare it all by hand. Even in the 70s when she was writing these later cookbooks, industrial agriculture was only just being conceived. There wasn’t soy and corn buried in every ingredient list. We didn’t yet have generations raised on prepared foods so salty and so sweet they had actually destroyed our taste buds.
Yes, it’s true, Julia Child knew what an apple tasted like without having to spend three dollars on an organic Honeycrisp.
Some day we will trust our food again. We will trust ourselves to eat a variety of foods in moderation, and know they were raised humanely, grown ethically, and that we can eat them without weeping or upgrading our health insurance plan. (Because yes, in this fantasy future, we have health insurance.)
In the meantime, about that cassoulet…