Hopefully I sold you on why it’s better to be an adventurous eater than a picky eater, but that doesn’t mean you should eat everything that’s put in front of you.
In fact, you should always question what you eat and never accept food blindly. Learning how to choose good food is one of the most important skills you need to successfully navigate the nutritional minefield we live in.
But how do you learn to be judiciously discriminating without being annoyingly picky? And how do you avoid stepping over the boundary into food snob territory?
Ultimately you need to determine your personal values and define your own healthstyle. Here I’ve outlined a few guiding principles I use to make these decisions every day.
The first step is developing an appreciation for where your food comes from.
Whole foods vs Processed foods
The first great divide in the modern food world is between whole foods and processed foods. Whole foods are those that have not been substantially changed by industrial processes and still look fairly similar to how they are found in nature. Processed foods are those that have been broken down by commercial methods then reassembled into “edible food-like products,” to quote Michael Pollan from In Defense of Food.
For unknown reasons the act of processing foods strips them of their magical powers (pretty scientific, eh?). We’ve learned from dozens of clinical trials on nutrient supplements that removing molecules from the context of whole foods almost always prevents them from doing their job properly.
Thus it seems that natural foods–as far as our bodies are concerned–are equal to more than the sum of their parts, and it is unlikely we will understand all the science behind this for at least several decades.
Luckily we do not need to know the mechanisms of nutrition to make healthy food choices.
The single most consistent finding in the field of nutrition is that whole foods are better for you than processed foods.
Independent food vs Industrial food
The second great divide is between independent food producers and industrial farming and agriculture. A huge misconception among eaters is that all produce and farm products are created equal. But anyone who has shopped at a farmers market knows this is not true for produce, meat or any other farm product.
Not only does produce grown in (or animals raised on) healthy, fertile soil taste orders of magnitude better than anything grown in depleted industrial soil, but it will also have more nutrients, be better for the environment and create a more healthy food culture.
No matter how you slice it, farm fresh food is better.
I will even make the case that the distinction between independent and industrial food is more important than the difference between organic and conventional. While I support organics in general (especially compared to conventional industrial ag), some of my favorite farms are not certified organic, yet their growing practices far exceed certification requirements.
I know these farmers personally, and their food speaks for itself.
There is a world of difference between rejecting food for what it is and rejecting food because of its quality. My personal opinion is that any whole food that isn’t grown industrially is probably worth trying and liking.
Also important in appreciating valuable food is recognizing culinary talent.
The prospect of experiencing an artist’s work is usually enough to get me to try a food, even if it is not the healthiest thing on earth.
As I explained above I rarely find reason to eat processed foods, and that means pretty much anything made with sugar or flour. Most of the time it just isn’t worth it.
But sometimes it is.
Sometimes pastry chefs, bakers and pizza makers can transform simple ingredients into such amazing creations that you’d be foolish to turn them down. I watch my portions when I eat these foods, but generally think life is too short to miss such opportunities.
But proceed with caution. The quest for superior culinary talent is a slippery slope to food snobbery. You don’t want to be that guy who turns down birthday cake unless it is make by Elizabeth Prueitt. Nobody likes that guy.
But of course, where you draw the line is up to you.
For me the value of food is defined by the quality of the ingredients, the talent of the chef and the nature of the occasion.
The purpose of eating should always be to make your life better in some way: may it bring you good health, sensual pleasure or stronger personal relationships.
I think it’s best when it does all of the above.
What kind of eater are you?