Oftentimes in my medical practice, I counsel people on the most basic medicine available to them - their food, and as I tell them, it is this medicine that they happen to put into their bodies several times a day. It’s completely possible that disease can be addressed purely through diet for certain conditions such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, but, it can also impact other diseases for which one may not think would be amenable to dietary treatment such as cancer or multiple sclerosis for example. One of the biggest challenges I face is to be able to change a patients food routine, as many of the millions of Americans who have ever tried dieting know. It can be quite a monumental task. I find that the psychological aspect is usually the greatest barrier to adapting a more healthful diet, not the lack of knowledge. While it’s true that there are varying opinions out there on what constitutes healthy food, I think we can all agree that the addition of a wide range of vegetables and fruits is highly beneficial across the board. A large majority of people that I see know this but implentation and consistency is surely a different story. This is especially true when you start off with what I call a SAD diet (standard ameridan diet), which is essentially brown, white and tan foods; asking someone to incorporate colorful vegetables and fruits can seem alien and can actually be unpalatable. People tend to turn to their comfort foods especially in times of an illness (emotionally or physically). The term “comfort food” means simple, informal home cooked foods that have an emotional significance to an individual. There is a sense of being nourished and happily satiated with the particular food and the emotional connection may be tied to postitive childhood associations e.g. getting ice-cream as a reward or a way to lift the spirits, easily digested rice, bread or pasta when one is ill. Though they can vary quite significantly from person to person, they generally tend to be some variation of fat, carbohydates and sugar. There are some interesting biochemical theories to explain the phenomena, one being that carbohydrates increase the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, known to be involved in improving mood. So a bowl of mashed potatoes may lead to the release of serotonin thus leading one to feel an emotional satiety/happiness. Much of this theory is dicussed in the book “Potatoes, Not Prozac” by Kathleen DesMaisons.
Why the jury is still out (and will be out for many years to come), the question I have is this: putting aside the possibility that there may be complex biological mechanisms for the preference for fat, carbs and sugar, can we enforce a psychological and emotional positivity around healthy foods like vegetables? Can a child grow up with sugar snap peas as their comfort food if given the right postitive associations early in life? It seems very plausible. My sister-in-law S told me that when she grew up surrounded by farms, she learned to eat and love vegetables by picking and enjoying them right on the spot. She and her two sisters eventually became vegetarian. This is anecdotal for sure, but I believe that this is one important piece of the puzzle and I think the awareness and exposure you give a child is one of the major ways you can overcome a lifetime preference for unhealthy food. We recently had kids aged 4-7 at our homestead. We picked some english peas to try. The kids had no idea that peas, which they had eaten a lot of in their short lives, came from a plant, and had to be shelled from a pod. And when they tasted it, no sugary candy could compare. For the next few hours we had constant requests to revisit the pea trellises for more peas! These kids will hopefully have fond memories and associations with this simple interaction by equating peas with pleasure among other things. These are but simple steps to create an awareness that can possibly have huge implications on their health and the health of our planet.
Many farms have educational programs for children. Nearby us are Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (Pocantico Hills, NY), Rainbeau Ridge (Bedford, NY), and Sprout Creek Farm (Poukeepsie, NY). I encourage all of you to expose the children in your lives to there programs. We brought our nephew MM to see a 45 minute production called “Clucky the Brave Little Hen” last week at Stone Barns. It’s a story about a factory-raised hen who yearns to be free in the pastures. Clucky makes friends with a little cell-phone toting, high fructose corn syrup juice-drinking girl who hates being outside for fear of bugs and dirt and who finds the pleasure of video/TV/phone/internet far more entertaining. They head out to find a farm that has happy well-cared for animals. While there, instead of pure grain-feed laced with antibiotics, Cluckly happily acquires the taste for bugs and grass. Similarly, the little girl then finds the strange long orange vegetable called a carrot, as sweet and better than her artifically colored and flavored jelly beans. Interspersed with song and high-energy comedy, the show covered all the important concepts like composting, the cycle of life, humane treatment of farm animals, and sustainable farming. I found it so entertaining, I would even recommend it to any adult on its own merits. And, David Rockefeller, at age 92, patron of Stone Barns, was even at the back row enjoying the show.
There is one performance date left on July 12 and special ticket packages include a livestock tour or a pick-your own eggs event after the show.
Farmer Pam, MD