About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: Have We Arrived at an Evolutionary Crossroads?

I have calmed down from yesterday's rant about dieting shortcuts.

I might even be singing a different tune. Well, slightly.

This evening was full of food conflict. I got home late. I wanted something healthy, mostly vegetables. However, I really really didn't want to cook. I wanted to read and meditate and write in my journal. I was in the mood for some higher level activities, some genuine spiritual evolution, not hours in the kitchen. Hm. Healthy fast food? No, I was too broke to hit up the Whole Foods salad bar or anything of that sort.

So, I sucked it up and spent an hour chopping and cooking. It wasn't enjoyable. I felt rushed. I just wanted to get it over with so I could do the things I wanted to do. I honestly felt that cooking tonight was holding me back somehow from pursuing much more important tasks. It felt primitive.

It got me thinking about what hunting and gathering must have been like for Homo sapiens living on the verge of the first Agricultural Revolution. Think about that for a second. Imagine being an upright walking hunter-gatherer with an ever increasing amount of brain function. You're cranial abilities call you to develop a written language, study the astrological calendar, build permanent dwellings, develop religions and civilizations... but you aren't quite there yet. Every member of your species still has to spend nearly every waking hour acquiring food like the rest of the animals. Imagine what it must have been like to live through any part of that slow Neolithic transition from nomadic to sedentary civilization.

While the transition was slow and complex, the development of agriculture was a huge part of man's evolution at this stage. It allowed for surplus time which led to specialization of labor and increasilying sophistocated societies, for one thing. At that point in time, "faster food" was a major asset to man's evolution.

Flash back to me in the kitchen. I'm chopping. I'm cutting. I'm 10 pounds overweight. I wish I was reading and increasing my brain power. I wish I was free to develop in more sophistocated ways. Faster food would have been a real asset to my personal evolution.

Am I in the middle of another evolutionary food crossroads for humanity?

Gone are the days, in America at least, in which taking in enough calories to survive is a challenge. Instead, I am surrounded by cheap, fast, incredibly calorie dense foods. As a human trying to acquire food in 2009, I am faced with a perplexing situation. Food choices that match up with my animal instinct to maximize calories and keep the cost of acquiring those calories low are everywhere. As far as the primitive Homo sapien in me is concerned, McDonald's is a really good deal.

Lots of calories at a low cost.

"Bingo," says the primitive being inside of me.

That is when the evolved being inside of me speaks up. It brings my awareness to the fact that those calorie dense foods are actually harming my body. Unfortunately, as calorie dense food has become cheaper and easier to get, I have become more sedentary and need less and less of it to thrive. I don't hunt for a living anymore. I sit in a chair. Hopefully, my brain has developed enough to internalize that fact and respond with more self control. Hopefully, my brain is sophistocated enough to turn down the animal voice inside of me that wants more fats and sugars, and turn up the voice of higher brain functioning. Let's be honest, many Americans (myself included sometimes) feel stuck in that primitive place where we know what our bodies need and don't need, but we can't seem to intellectually overpower the physical cravings for harmful, calorie dense foods.

In my better moments I transcend the calorie craving animal inside of me and think even bigger. I tap into that part of myself that is really educated, that has even become mentally sophistocated enough to grasp the impact that my food acquisition methods have on the rest of my environment. If I am really on, I might move beyond the battle of self control to the desire to be a benevolent force in the universe, to make sure my food choices weren't contributing to pollution or the exploitation of other living creatures.

But lets face it, evolutionarily speaking, most Americans don't seem to be there yet. I know that I certainly don't always eat as a highly evolved human, and I write a blog about sustainable food access. That certainly says something, don't you think?

I admit it. I had a spoonful of Nutella with Peanut Butter before I wrote this post. The calorie craving animal in me took over, God damn it! I just couldn't be bothered thinking about the production of Nutella, and how much fossil fuel was spent shipping that vat of sugar and chemicals to their spot in front of me on the counter. All I could think about was the sweet flavor of Nutella on my tounge.

My spiritual evolution it still young and fragile, and it failed. Then my intellectual evolution failed. Then, finally, my self control also failed.

So, faced with the consequences of this all too common pattern of human behavior (Need I say it? An obesity epidemic, a collapsing health care system, an industrial agriculture system that is raping the pilaging the environment... yada yada yada...), what do we do?

Do we accept that self control and highly evolved eating habits are just beyond most of us right now and develop a mechanism to correct for this limitation? Humans are really good at recognizing our limitations and building tools to overcome them, after all. That is what separates us from most animal species.

I'm thinking futuristic, space-age food solutions here: an iPhone application (50 years from now, when iPhone technology has become as basic in America as running water) that measures exactly how many calories we need in a day given our activity level. The technological application communicates with our fridge, via USB cord maybe, and out pops a meal with the appropriate level of calories. This meal was produced in an incredibly efficient and sustainable way. All the veggies in the meal were grown on the roof of our home, for example.

In this futuristic world of carefully prescribed sustainable food solutions, we wouldn't have to have self control, and we wouldn't have to spend time on food. Ever. Instead, humans would spend time on spiritual evolution and intellectual growth. We'd invent things that helped our planet thrive in harmony with other species and with other planets in the solar system. We'd be highly evolved creatures.

Not a bad sci-fi vision, if you ask me. The only problem is that in the above system, all of the sensuality is taken out of food preparation. Although, given the fact that Americans spend about $1 billion on fast food every year, maybe that wouldn't bother most of the population that much after all.

Part of me screams, "No! No! Don't take away cooking. Food production is an essential sensory human experience, like sex. It helps us connect with our most basic physical needs. It is essential to our awareness of our bodies!"

But, then I wonder - did primitive man feel that way about hunting?

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Path to Good Nutrition

Looks like the good people of Herbalife were kind enough to pay my little car a visit today while I was at work. Thanks, guys. I was looking for a path to Good Nutrition. I bet your overly priced vitamin supplements are just what I have been looking for.

Before I got home and started Googling, my biggest problem with Herbalife was that it was a product that advertised itself as being a "natural" miracle weight loss solution. I know that getting healthy and losing weight is hard, and I am suspicious of anything that promises incredible results with no effort or sustainable lifestyle changes.

These types of products really play into our collective denial about health in America. We want our food to be fast, cheap, and easy, and that system makes us fat. Once we are fat, we want our health solutions to be fast and easy at least. Herbalife is exactly the type of product that perpetuates the dangerous denial we are in - most of us can't seem to admit that sustainable health solutions require us to commit to healthy lifestyle changes and maintain them.

That was how I felt about Herbalife before I started Googling.

I soon realized that in addition to perpetuating unhealthy shortcuts, Herbalife seems to be quite a scam. A child of the web 2.0 generation, I have no problem judging things based on the words that my Google search query associates with them. So, when I typed in "Herbalife" and found that Google offered me secondary words like "scam" and "complaints" I became even less of a fan of Herbalife. While some people on message boards swear by it, it sounds like a house of cards to me. A really unhealthy house of cards.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Conversations at a Bar: Food Made with Love

This week I have been doing a lot of my eating with people I love. I am thinking more about how the energy that goes into food preparation affects our bodies, and about the social dynamics of healthier eating.

Last night I was out with a group of close friends, and the conversation took a turn that is particularly relevant for this blog.

We began talking about the similarities between quitting smoking and quitting eating crappy food. I have made the comparison between poor eating and smoking before in the context of voluntary behaviors that cost our health care system a good deal of money. In this case, we were talking about the "tipping point" when choosing not to engage in a unhealthy behavior (like smoking or eating a gallon of ice cream) changes completely. At a point it stops being about holding yourself back and resisting doing something you are craving to do, and it starts being about listening to how your body feels and actually being grossed out the by unhealthy behavior.

Getting to this point clearly takes some effort. You have to slow down, and you have to listen to your body. Those are two things that many Americans find hard to do, especially in the context of food. We are really attached to the idea that food is quick, cheap, and easy. Listening to our body after we eat it would require a change in our food culture, which tends to revolve around packaged food eaten on the fly.

Stacey said, "I keep hearing that how you eat is almost as important as what you eat."

Hm. The conversation was getting good. We all decided to go for another round of the $3 Syrah and dig a little deeper.

My friend Tera was in Paris last year, and she made the inevitable comparison between how Americans eat and how the French eat. One thing she said she noticed while in France was that the food seemed to be alive. People interacted with it in a really special way. They made it for each other with fresh, live ingredients. They ate it slowly, and often with their hands. The food and the food experience was all about life.

In America, she said, food arrives in front of us in a package, like a carcass. It is a dead, scientifically modified and factory produced product. Listening to that comparison, I had flashes of the type of futuristic nightmare world you read about in sci-fi books: food looks like astronaut ice cream. It only comes in a box. Maybe even just as a pill. Wow. All of a sudden the current American packaged food system seemed a bit like a horrific sci-fi book to me.

Who produced that sci-fi looking packed food? No one seems to know.

What kind of energy went into the production of that food? We started to discuss the difference between packaged food and food made by someone who loves us. We all seemed to agree that food that was alive with the energy of loving preparation was much better than the factory produced alternative.

Everyone knows this is true. The idea that "mom's home cooking" is the best food there is is pervasive in America, ironically. We all agree with this fact, but instead of looking to our mom's to cook and teach us how to eat we have begun looking to companies like Stouffers that market "home made family style macaroni and cheese - just like mom's!" Trust me, if the link between mom's home cooking and quality wasn't heavily ingrained in the American mindset, Stouffer's a similar companies wouldn't have bothered to hijack it.

The trouble is, Stouffer's type food is not just like moms. It wasn't prepared by someone who loves us. It was prepared in a factory by people who have no problem making us fat. It was made with tons of weird ingredients. It was frozen and shipped across the country. It isn't particularly healthy for us, but it is engineered to make us want more after we finish eating it.

Some might think this point is too abstract, but I think the energy that went into the preparation of food is a pretty big deal because it impacts how we consume the food as well. When someone makes us something with love, we eat it with love. We eat it slowly, we express gratitude for the food, and we focus on it while we are putting it into our mouths. That level of presence in the moment while eating leads us to register what we have eaten and therefore eat more sensible portions.

At the close of our conversation, my friend and I vowed to start eating dinner together on Sunday nights. We have decided that we are all in agreement that the energy that goes into food preparation is really important. We are all trying to be healthier, and we all want to support each other in this effort with some healthy pot-luck dinners full of lovingly prepared food.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Role Models

My own efforts in the last 6 months to eat really well have certainly illustrated to me just how much our diets are effected by the eating habits of the people we surround ourselves with. The social dynamics of the food environment are a huge part of the healthy eating equation.

This week, my own experience is reinforced by yet another study linking social environments to food consumption. The August issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition released a study that looked at children's eating behaviors when paired with friends or strangers with varying body types. Here is what the researchers found:

Results showed that friends who ate together consumed more food than participants who were paired with someone they didn't know, and that friends were more likely to eat similar amounts than participants paired with a stranger.

However, overweight children who were paired with an overweight peer, whether friend or stranger, ate more than the overweight participants who were paired with a normal weight youth.

I am not surprised by these findings. I think most of us tend to eat more when we are in the company of people we know because we have established our eating habits with them already; they know how much we eat at mealtime, and we are less concerned about being judged based on our food consumption.

Most human beings, unfortunately, take their cues about when to stop eating from their external social environment and not from their bodies. It is a lot easier to pig out on a pint of Ben & Jerry's with a friend who is doing the same than it is with a friend who eats only salads. It is not surprising, really, that kids who ate in the company of obese peers wound up consuming more food. Something about the obese peer, be it their eating habits during the study or their size, made these kids feel ok about eating more calories.

These findings really underscore the importance of the right kind of social pressure in the quest for healthy, sustainable, and affordable food. The message is clear: in order to eat better, we need positive role models to send us the right social clues. And, all of us have a duty to become better role models to the people in our lives by improving our own dietary habits.

Last Monday the LA Times ran an article titled "Does it matter what the doctor weighs?" Apparently, there is a war going on about healthy role models. On one side there are people who are calling on doctors to practice what they preach about diet and exercise and lead by example. This camp feels that Obama's nominee for surgeon general - Dr. Regina Benjamin - is carrying around too many extra pounds and is thus sending the wrong message to the American public. We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, after all.

On the other side are the people of the Fat Acceptance Movement. They say, first of all, that a doctor's size does not matter because people come in all shapes and sizes. On a more exteme level, proponents of Fat Acceptance call for Fat Pride and decry descrimination again the obese. Some even challenge the claims that obesity is really all that harmful to one's health, saying that current research has blown the health consequences of obesity way out of proportion. Two years ago the New York Times explored the growth of the Fat Acceptance Movement with a look at a new academic discipline: Fat Studies.

Since then, Fat Studies and the Fat Acceptance Movement have continued to gain momentum, and I am pretty concerned about that trend. I consider most elements of the Fat Acceptance viewpoint to be a considerable barrier in the quest for healthy and sustainable lifestyles. I actually think radical Fat Acceptance is downright dangerous.

No one should be persecuted for their size, and we certainly need to recognize that overweight is a very complicated issue involving a mixture of voluntary behavior, heridity, and involuntary barriers to a healthy lifestyle such as lack of access to good food and lack of education about nutrition. I do not in any way think that obese Americans should face cruently or discrimination. No one should.

But, I do agree with the scientific evidence that suggests that obesity is indeed bad for one's health. I think it is dangerous to encourage people to be proud of a condition that has been so clearly linked to preventable diseases and early death. Rather, we need to be compassionate to our friends and ourselves in this regard, recognizing that we all need support in getting healthy - from the people around our dinner tables to the people sitting around conference tables making decisions about food policy in Washington.

I think that a doctor's size does matter. Do doctors and health care professionals have to be perfect, muscular, and totally fit? Of course not. In fact, a doctor who has had to work at establishing a healthy lifestyle is a huge asset to the profession because they are able to empathize with patients who are struggling with diet and weight issues. A doctor doesn't have to be perfect, but I do not think it is ok for them to be "dangerously overweight and proud of it" either. There is a line between being obese and being a healthy, curvy, non-supermodel human being, and I think the more radical voices in the Fat Acceptance Movement are missing that line.

Don't get me wrong, I celebrate Love Your Body Day with the best of them. But, I think that part of loving your body is respecting it enough to keep it healthy with good food and adequate exercise. Health care professionals should make an effort to be good role models by loving their own bodies and taking care of them.

Dr. Regina Benjamin is overweight. She is also an incredibly accomplished woman who probably works crazy hours and has little time to exercise. But, instead of declining to comment publicly about her weight, Benjamin could have addressed the issue head on. What barriers has she faced in the quest for better health? Benjamin is blessed with a huge megaphone: she is a well known public figure, and people will listen if she talks. So, why not talk about the challenges she is facing? Why not set an example but setting some goals? Hell, she could even blog about her own quest to get healthier and thus inspire other Americans to do the same.

If I am aware of the fact that study after study continues to suggest that our eating habits are heavily influenced by social and societal clues, I am sure the nominee for Surgeon General is aware of them too. I would like to see her sending a better message, because role models do matter.

The Food Bank for New York City has a fantastic campaign on their website called The Change One Thing Pledge. This campaign calls on people to make one diet change that will simply move them towards "a more active, longer and healthier life." I would like to see doctors around the county, especially Dr. Regina Benjamin, take this pledge. Maybe I should send her the link?

(I am not blessed with a huge megaphone. Yet.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cooking: Bon appétit!

The movie Julie & Julia hit the box office this past week, and it seems to be getting pretty positive reviews. It made about $20 million in the first weekend. The New York Times likes it, my mother likes it, and this weekend several people I know included "seeing Julie & Julia" in their weekend plans.

Anytime a movie is a hit, it impacts our culture. Julie & Julia is no different.

People are seeing this movie, and it turns out that as a result they are talking more about cooking. The LA Times reported that since the release of Julie & Julia, cookbooks are selling off shelves and cooking academies are experiencing a marked spike in class enrollment. The article interviews people who had never been into cooking in the past, but were inspired by the film to buy a Julia Child cookbook and tie on an apron.

While Julia Child has published numerous cookbooks, her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking seems to be the most popular right now. In their review of the film, the New York Times addressed the title of this book:

The book is “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” — not “How To” or “Made Easy” or “For Dummies,” but “Mastering the Art.” In other words, cooking that omelet is part of a demanding, exalted discipline not to be entered into frivolously or casually. But at the same time: You can do it. It is a matter of technique, of skill, of practice.

Suddenly the title of the cookbook and the fact that Amazon.com is selling out of it becomes significant. One of the barriers to accessing healthy, affordable, and nutritious food that I have explored in depth is the whole "cooking" thing.

It is impossible to achieve a healthy diet on $30/week if you are unwilling or unable to cook. Unfortunately, most Americans do not cook. They don't know how to cook, and they do not or cannot make the time to teach themselves. Many would rather hit McDonald's on the way home from work than buy a Julia Child book an start julienning vegetables.

I think one of the largest problems with our food system is that as a culture we Americans are unwilling to devote time or energy to cooking food. It has become ingrained in our thought process that food should be quick, cheap, and easy, that spending time preparing food is a bad thing. Since "quick, cheap, and easy" tend to be in conflict with "healthy" in the American food system, the result is pretty bleak.

My spirits are bolstered by the fact that Julie & Julia is being seen by so many people, and that it is actually motivating people to learn to cook. It is awesome that a pro-cooking message is being shot out to people on a mass level. The revolution continues...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Diabetic Diet: How'd I do?

While I was in San Francisco I met Brieze Keeley. Brieze is a Holistic Healthy Counselor, so I asked her if she would take a look at my food diary and give me a critique. Brieze was kind enough to write up the below guest post for me, dissecting my diet. Hope it is helpful.

Overall, Julie’s vegetarian diet is quite healthy, especially when one considers her food budget. She eats an average of five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day, has a whole grain such as oatmeal or brown rice at most meals, and features sensible portions (1-2 Tbsp or ¼ Cup) of healthy fats in her daily diet, including nut butters, avocados, and yogurt (fuller fat varieties).

In addition, Julie eats at least one ½ cup serving of plant-based proteins such as beans (mostly lentils or pintos) every day. She also eats yogurt regularly, which can be an excellent vegetarian source of protein as well. (I would caution anyone eating yogurt to choose the Plain or Unsweetened varieties to avoid high levels of sugar, food dyes, and other unsavory ingredients. To sweeten it, simply add a teaspoon of a natural sweetener like honey, which is also high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants when unrefined.)

Ensuring an adequate protein supply is very important for anyone following a vegetarian or vegan diet, as protein deficiencies can occur over time. In addition to beans and low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds offer some protein as well, so I’m pleased to see them regularly featured in Julie’s diet.

Finally, Julie’s food choices have the added benefit of being mostly local and seasonal, as she does the majority of her shopping at the Farmer’s Market. Owing to this and to the minimal level of processed foods she is eating, Julie’s diet is likely much higher in nutrients than the typical American diet. Indeed, many people (the budget conscious and otherwise) would do well to try out a modified version of her experiment. For some, it could mean not only a fatter wallet, but a slimmer waistline as well.

Nonetheless, there are a few suggestions I would make to Julie and others like her. When possible, she should try to include more variety in her food choices from day to day. I realize this could be difficult on a tight food budget, but some experimentation may be possible especially during summer, when produce variety is most abundant.

For instance, I would like to see more varieties and servings of leafy green vegetables in Julie’s diet. In addition to kale and broccoli, she could try spinach, Swiss chard, and dandelion greens. Not only are these greens cleansing and rich in different nutrients than her staples, they are also abundant and affordable at most farmers’ markets during the summer.

The same holds true for other areas of her diet: she could try millet instead of brown rice, for example, or black beans instead of pinto beans. In general, variety is important to ensure an adequate supply of a wide range of nutrients, rather than an oversupply of just a few.

If a restricted budget does not allow for much variety, I would advise her to add a liquid multivitamin to her daily regimen (such as Liquid Source of Life Multivitamin). Julie might also do well to add more Omega-3 Fatty Acids to her diet (fish oils are best, though flax oil also works if she doesn’t want to eat any animal products) and a Vitamin-D3 supplement, both of which can be hard to find in sufficient quantities through diet alone.

In addition, I notice that Julie tends to graze on smaller meals throughout the day. This may work well for her. Others, however, may need to sit down to three square meals (with a snack thrown in somewhere, perhaps), to avoid overeating.

Most importantly, I’d like to remind readers that no one diet works for everyone. Julie’s diet is a high-carbohydrate, lower protein, and lower fat vegetarian diet. For her, this diet seems an excellent choice, as evidenced by her thriving health. Yet one’s response to such a diet can vary widely based on ancestry, blood type, and metabolic character (fast, medium, or slow burning). People with Type O blood, for example, may develop issues ranging from chronic fatigue and weight gain to more serious health problems like Candidiasis, hair loss, and dry skin in response to such a diet.

Therefore, my advice is to trust and listen to your body. If you find that a vegetarian diet suits you, go for it! If you have taken on such a diet and find yourself feeling chronically unwell, this diet may not be right for you. You may have to include small amounts of animal protein in your diet and watch your carbohydrate intake more closely.

Finally, I would also encourage everyone to get outside and take walks when possible and experiment with different forms of exercise such as yoga or swimming. These habits can do wonders to reduce stress and improve health. If you are interested in learning more about these topics, try reading Your Body Knows Best, by Ann Louise Gittleman, M.S, or feel free to visit my website: www.briezekeeley.com. Best of luck!

Thanks Brieze!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Benito's Garden

The other day I was walking back to my apartment, when all of a sudden I noticed that there were huge young corn stalks shooting out of the ground at the base of the building next to mine. Someone had planted a tiny urban garden, making use of a 6 inch wide strip of land to grow corn, mint and peppers.

I started asking everyone hanging out outside of the buildings who was responsible for this incredibly creative use of land. "It is Benito," everyone told me. "Benito did that."

I was overjoyed when I heard this; Benito and I are already quite good friends.

Benito is probably about 80 years old. He has the leathery skin of someone who has worked outside for decades. He was born in Mexico, and he and I only speak to each other in Spanish. On the weekends he sits outside of our building with his friends drinking beer and listing to Mariache music very loud on his portable hand held radio. Some might find this annoying, but I feel safer in a ground floor apartment when he is there. I think his presence protects me, in a way. It is eyes on the street, at least. During the week Benito washes cars in our neighborhood. Every other week I let him wash mine. He charges me $8 and hand washes the thing from top to bottom until it shines. I always overpay him, and I also always give him my recycling instead of putting it in the city bin. He is willing to go through all the effort of taking it to the recycling center for the rebate - more power to him. We have quite a good relationship, Benito and I, and I was so pleased that he was responsible for the garden.

I found him right away and started asking him about it. He insisted that I take some mint, and told me all about his garden.

I really love this garden that Benito built because it isn't in an organized community garden space. He found that our landlords were not open to his gardening, so he moved his plantings next door where the landlords would look the other way. This is exactly the type of micro-micro-farming I have been talking about, and here it is, right next door to my apartment!

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Technology has played a very important role in my quest for healthy, sustainable, and nutritious food over course of this blogging project.

As I struggle to eat well as a diabetic this week, I have relied every more heavily on technology. It just occurred to me that everything I have learned about eating better as a diabetic I have learned on the Internet.

I've depended on websites and online calorie calculators to help me learn about diabetes and to keep my diet on track. I've received very valuable encouragement from my online community through emails and blog post comments. I've felt less alone and less isolated thanks to the wealth of diabetes resources on the Internet.

As the week comes to a close, I can't help but give a big 'ole shout out to Internet technology. And of course, this gets me thinking... what about those who do not have a home computer or reliable Internet access?

While most people in North America are online, there is no doubt in my mind that low-income Americans have less reliable access to the Internet than their wealthier countrymen. Low-income Americans may also be less equipped with advanced research skills, which really come in handy when researching a disease that requires a total diet overhaul.

After this week, I am very aware of how Internet access and research skills impact one's ability to succeed in the quest for a healthier diet. I know that if I didn't have my laptop or the Internet this week I would have failed miserably at following a diabetic diet. I wouldn't have known where to start, and I wouldn't have had my online community to bolster my spirits and feed me more resources. I imagine that trying to shape up and turn your diet around is near impossible if your family is unable to afford a home computer or Internet service.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Thank you to everyone who responded with information and resources to help me with my Lentil classification problem. Stacey gave me a fantastic link to the American Diabetes Association Food Advisor page; it is turning out to be a great resource. Thanks, Stacey!

The whole Lentils-are-a-grain scare got me thinking about just how little I know about nutrition and diet. I would say that I know much much more than the average American does about health, nutrition and food sustainability, but I also feel that I barely know anything at all about these topics and still have so much to learn.

I am armed with a pretty privileged upbringing, a good public high school education and an Ivy League college degree, but I know very little about how food affects my body and the environment. Clearly, health and sustainable food have not made it into the American curriculum.

If I feel I know so little about nutrition and I have had all of the aforementioned educational advantages, it suddenly makes sense to me that Americans are so obese and our health care system is such a mess. We have never been taught how to take care of ourselves. We have never been taught how to eat right. (And if we were, we'd be hard pressed to find the time and money to act on our new knowledge.) Most of the information Americans get about food comes from advertisements from huge food companies, not informed and beneficent educators. We form bad habits and pass them on to our children, and no one ever steps in to intervene.

It has been a bit of a struggle for me to learn this stuff. I have really had to teach myself and actively seek out teachers and advisers. So, what were all those Health classes in high school about if they didn't teach me to take care of my body and eat properly? Oh, right. They were about abstinence and drugs.

Granted, maybe my high school tried to put their limited health education dollars towards the issues they felt were most pressing and dangerous to teens, so I will try to cut them some slack. Still, I know that the rates of teen pregnancy and drug abuse are high, but aren't rates of Obesity and Diabetes higher and thus more alarming? I am pretty appalled at how little I have been taught about nutrition, and I know that most Americans know less than I do.

I would like to see some major public policy muscle put behind educating people about food. So many of us are really in the dark on this stuff, and that is really impacting our quality of life in a negative way. The food system is never going to change or improve in America unless people demand that it changes. But, no one is going to demand that it changes if they don't understand the first thing about food or nutrition.

Clearly, stakeholders who have interests in maintaining the broken status quo are not going to start educating people about eating better. If we did that, they wouldn't buy so many Doritos.

A note on the photo: Campbell's Tomato Soup is an iconic image of mass produced food and overall food confusion. To the average American, a can of this soup might seem like a really healthy meal, one to pat yourself on the back after. It is a vegetable serving right? And, isn't it low fat? A slightly more discerning eye will see that its nutritional value is questionable, and its lack of sustainably is undeniable. And, it isn't even that cheap!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


The Diabetic On Food Stamps challenge is turning out to to be different from my month as a Vegan On Food Stamps in some surprising ways.

In the past few months I have developed skills that make last round's challenges less of an issue. For example, I have gotten very good at sourcing cheap, sustainable, and healthy food. I know where and when to shop. I have tons of tricks to save myself time. I have more experience cooking these new cheap foods, and now that I have certain recipes memorized my cooking goes faster. On the last round, time and money were the biggest barrier issues, but I have now moved beyond that. (Stay tuned for a wrap up post with all of my best practices.)

I have found, however, that thinking about my food in portions is quite challenging. When I did the Vegan on Food Stamps experiment, I thought about food in terms of rationing. It was "How much can I eat of this and still have enough for lunch tomorrow?" My portions were based on stretching food to last the week, on maximum possible food intake, and not on how much I should really be eating.

Actually, I was kind of obsessed with the whole rationing thing. At the beginning of each week I felt like a squirrel storing up acorns for winter; I would eat small amounts, hording food for myself to eat at a later date. I was always worried I would be hungry or run out of food, so I developed a mildly unhealthy preoccupation with eating. When the end of the week came, and I realized I had enough food left, I would find myself overeating. It was a weird cycle of deprivation and overindulgence. Apparently, this is pretty true to real life on food stamps. Many food stamp recipients experience the same type of cycle. When benefits arrive at the beginning of the month, it is feast time. When they dry up after a few weeks and the money for food is scarce, it is famine. Really, this is not a healthy way to eat.

Now that I have some practice, I am not afraid anymore that I will run out of food. I know I have plenty to last me through the week. I feel I can eat as much of my healthy and sustainable food as I want. But in reality, I can't - not as a "Diabetic" at least.

The portion control thing is hard. I now feel deprived on TWO levels instead of one. Before, I just had to say "no" to myself when I was at the market buying food. Now, I have to say "no" to myself at the market, and while I'm cooking, and when I want a snack, and when someone offers me free unhealthy food, and at the table when I sit down to eat.

I have a feeling that if I really stuck with this for a few more weeks it would get easier, too. I would get used to the smaller portion sizes just as I got used to the tighter budget. But for now, eating is more stressful than it is joyful.

And there is one thing that I don't think I'd ever get over - how all of this rationing and limiting and deprivation affects my social life. Don't get me wrong, most of my friends are young and broke too. We are all used to saving money, ordering PBR and Tecate instead of Martinis. Cheap is ok when you can be cheap in the company of others. Cheap and unable to go out at all leads to a lot of isolation. It is lonely when you can't eat with anyone because your diet is super restrictive. Again, eating just isn't as fun for me right now.

The truth is, I think eating is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be fulfilling in more than just a physical sense. Eating is about nuturance, sharing, pleasure, and good company. It is supposed to bring us joy and leave us feeling good afterwards. It is supposed to be relaxing and joyful.

In my experience, eating on a Food Stamp budget hasn't been joyful at all. First, it is lonely. My dietary restrictions isolate me because few people want to partake in what seems to them like militantly healthy cuisine. Eating feels full of NO's, and it would probably stay that way until I get used to a new pattern.

I found that after 1 month of eating as a vegan on $31/week, the whole thing did get easier. It felt less and less like deprivation and more and more like my reality. In fact, in between now and the end of that challenge months ago I did continue to eat for close to $35/month. I'd gotten used to it. It wasn't all that hard. And, once I recalibrated my expectations about food I was able to find fulfillment within that budget and my normal vegetarian diet guidelines.

The hardest part was the beginning. I am in that space now with the Diabetic challenge, and I am reminded of just how hard it is. What I am realizing is that this exact period, the month or so that it takes to recalibrate your food habits and expectations, turns out to be a real barrier. Changing one's diet isn't too hard once you get used to it, but the initial commitment is very painful. Again, I am sure I'd get used to these measured portions after a month and it would get easier. Right now it feels like I've sucked all the joy out of eating.

What I have to do is shift what types of joy I expect to get from food. I used to seek out the taste-bud kind of joy. The immediate gratification of salty, sugary, or otherwise tongue-pleasing foods. Now I am more in tune with how I feel after I finish eating, and through this Diabetes challenge I am learning to stop equating the freedom to eat until I am stuffed with joy. I look at measured Diabetes-friendly portions as restrictive, but they are probably just about right. The fact that I can't keep eating until I am absolutely full seem like a crime to me- a real deprivation- when in reality the portions I am measuring out allow me to consume plenty of food.

I am beginning to realize what a major barrier changing the way we think about joy and enjoyment of food really is. It takes awhile to internalize a change in what we consider to be an enjoyable food experience. One has to work pretty hard to go from feeling that eating an entire carton on ice cream is a guilty yet joyful pleasure, to feeling that eating a moderate portion of kale salad and feeling rejuvenated and healthy afterwards is a joyful pleasure.

There is a critical period when dietary restrictions go from feeling like rules to feeling like a comfortable habit or familiar pattern. Until the new habit takes, dietary change is very difficult. As far as portion control is concerned, I guess I'm still stuck in food joy purgatory.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lentils: Grain? Pulse?

I just got back from a pot-luck picnic with a group of young women I was meeting for the first time. On my way to the dinner I stopped at Albertson's (big California chain grocery store) to get carrots and hummus as a contribution to the feast. I was hoping I could buy my pot-luck contribution without blowing over my budget, but it didn't happen. I spent a little over $8 on the whole thing, so I am now over budget by $1.28. Despite their widely publicized "20% price cut" campaign, Albertson's isn't cheap.

I'm not so upset about being over budget because I am reasonably sure that the food I have bought so far will last me more than a week in the end. Still, I am only on day 2 of the week's challenge, and I have no wiggle room left at all. Oops. At least I have lots of extra carrots and hummus.

The interesting part of the experience tonight was the group eating environment. If you haven't noticed, group eating environments tend to be my downfall (see previous post, for example). I have found that I am not so good as self control when I am eating around lots of people in a situation where there are tons of different types of foods to graze from. This picnic was exactly the type of environment I would fail miserably in.

While my eating was not perfect tonight, it was certainly no cupcake bender. I probably consumed a little bit too much sugar and about 1/2 cup more of carbohydrates than I should have as a "diabetic," but it could have been much worse. I tried to steer clear of the pasta as much as possible. I tried to stick to the greens. I tried to be aware that my choice to put more food on my plate probably had more to do with the fact that I was in a group of totally new people (and thus, a bit nervous) than it did with being hungry.

I'd give myself a C- on this one. Probably no diabetic shock, but I am going to watch my sugar, carbohydrate and fruit, intake tomorrow to make up for tonight's imperfections.

Thinking about limiting my carbohydrate intake tomorrow brings me to an important problem I encountered last night: I am not sure how to categorize Lentils.

Lentils are my savior food. They are incredibly cheap. A bag that costs about $1.20 can feed me for 6 meals. I tend to eat lentils with brown rice to make a complete protein. I eat them all the time and rarely worry about over-doing it because in my head I consider them a bean-like vegetable. However, as I do more research about food groups I am seeing that some sources consider Lentils a "grain" since they fall into the Pulse category. Now, I don't really care so much about the labeling. What I do care about is knowing how lentils affect my body. If I am trying to stick to the guidelines of a diabetic diet and I eat lentils with brown rice, am I consuming two portions of grains, or one portion of grains and one of vegetables?

My misunderstanding about how lentils are categorized is a real problem, and it really highlights how lack of knowledge about nutrition can serve as a major barrier to a healthy, sustainable diet. I have been happily chomping away on lentils for 6 meals per week for the last month, never thinking that I might be consuming WAY too many carbohydrates in the process. I thought I was being smart. I thought I was eating really well. Was I just making a big mistake the whole time?

Ah! This nutrition stuff is complicated. I am glad I caught this problem early in the week, but my error about the lentils is making me wonder what other things I might be doing "wrong" in blissful ignorance. Until I can decide how to categorize the lentils I am going to eat them with veggies on the side instead of rice.

Does anyone have any advice about how to count the lentils in my diet charts?

I am also curious to hear if anyone has had a similar dietary shock experience. Ever eat something for awhile without realizing that it wasn't as good for you as you thought it was?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Diabetes Grocery Run

I did some major shopping over the past two days to get everything I need for this week's Diabetic Food Stamp Challenge.

Unfortunately, I missed the weekend's Farmer's Markets since I was in San Francisco. I would prefer to shop for my week's groceries at a Farmers' Market, but the limited hours made it is impossible this week. Once again, limited Farmes' Market hours have proved a barrier to me in my quest for sustainable foods.

Next best thing to a Farmers' Market? The local ethnic grocer. Every low-income neighborhood has one, mine included.

In my case the local ethnic grocery store is A-Grocery Warehouse. I haven't been to A in awhile, and I forgot how wonderfully cheap it is. Yesterday I bought the following for a grand total of $9.73:
  • 1 cantalope ... $0.34
  • 1 head of iceberg lettuce ... $0.69
  • 1lb bag of lentils... $1.19
  • 1 avocado (rock hard)... $0.99
  • 15 ounce can of black eyed peas... $0.99
  • 1.47 lb of lemons at $0.69/lb ...$1.01
  • 2.44 lb head of cabbage at $0.79/lb... $0.81
  • 1.05 lb red bell peppers at $0.79/lb... $0.83
  • 1.56 lb of broccoli at $0.79/lb... $1.23
  • 1.66 lb of purple chinese eggplant at $0.79/lb... $1.31
  • 1 english cucumber at 3 for $1... $0.34
Notice that nearly every produce item is less than $1/lb. It was so cheap I almost didn't mind that I had no idea if the produce was local or if it had been sprayed with pesticides. But, then I thought about my friends at the Echo Park Farmers Market and vowed to be there on Friday for the rest of my groceries.

Then, I hit up "California Market" in Koreatown today. This place would also fall under the local ethnic grocer category. The prices were much higher than I'd hoped; the incredible assortment of exotic Asian food was tempting, but I didn't buy much. I'm quite a price snob now. No way was I buying a small bag of rice for $2.99 when I knew I could get a 5 lb bag for $3.99 at A-Grocery Warehouse. I bought the following:
  • 1 orange at 2lb/$0.99.. $0.32
  • 2 bunches of Kale... $1.18 (cheaper than the Farmers' Market, where Kale is always $1 a bunch. Granted, Farmers' Market Kale is free of pesticides.)
  • 32 oz. plain lowfat yogurt... $3.29 (making Taziki)
  • 0.19 lb of peeled garlic (I'm lazy) at 1lb/$1.79... $0.34
Total: $5.13

Wow. Only four food items for more than half of what I spent for 11 food items at A Grocery Warehouse. Never again, California Market, never again.

I have some other ingredients I am also using this week, so I need to subtract a bit more out of the week's $30. For the following items I am taking out an additional $8.42 (prices based on my best guess):
  • Trader Joe's Natural/Organic Peanut Butter ... $2.79
  • Brown rice (last 1/3 of a 5lb bag)... $1.33
  • Trader Joe's dried peaches... $3
  • Oatmeal... $0.30 (still working that HUGE $1.89 tube of oats)
  • Almonds... $1 worth of a previous bulk purchase
Total: $23.28
Remaining: $6.72

Proper portions are really important for controlling diabetes, so when I was packing my lunch for today I carefully measured out 1 cup of brown rice and put it into my tupperware container. 1 cup of rice did not look like much to me. I estimate that I am normally eating about 50-75% more rice than that, probably at least 1 1/2 cups with my lunch and again with my dinner. I was a bit worried that I'd be really hungry with only 1 cup, but I found that I was fine today.

Throughout this week I will be carefully recording everything I eat. At the end of the week I will have my food diary rated to see how my diet stacks up to one that is prescribed to someone who needs to control their Diabetes.

Wishe me luck trying to go to boxing on that 1 cup of rice later this week. Hopefully I'll be used to smaller portions by then!

P.S. I had to say no to a Rootbeer Float today. Sigh.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Diabetes Day 1: Recovering from a Bender

I spent this past weekend in San Francisco visiting my friends from college. It was truly a fantastic and relaxing weekend. Great to just be; in the kind of way one can only do with familiar old friends.

On my own in L.A., I can get a bit tightly wound. So, while I was visiting my friends I really made an effort to let it all go and just chill. No strict self-imposed rules.

Emotionally, that was very healthy for me. Physically, not so much. I actually think that as far as food is concerned I took the whole "chill out" thing a bit too far. I ate, frankly, whatever the fuck I wanted at all times for three whole days. I was with different groups of people for different meals, so there wasn't even a twinge of embarrassment about eating too much two meals in a row. I feel like my food consumption can be summed up in 3 B's: Burritos, Brownies, Beer.

Needless to say, I now feel like shit. Mondays are always hard after a long weekend away, but this Monday was exceptionally difficult in a very physical way. I didn't have trouble focusing or working. My mind was there. But my body was really out of wack.

It was extremely difficult to eat only my usual serving of 1/2 cup of oatmeal for breakfast today. I just wanted more food. Clearly, my stomach had enlarged after 3 days of huge portions. The enormous salad I ate at lunch was followed by an office birthday celebration. Good thing, too, because that salad just didn't feel like enough either. The potentially harmless little "singing and cake break" completely did me in.

There was box of gourmet cupcakes. Each was different and beautiful, in that newly-trendy and expensive cupcakes kind of way. I had the great idea of splitting the cupcakes into quarters so that everyone could try some of each type. Who can choose between red velvet and chocolate peanut butter cup, or vanilla cinnamon and a berry topped masterpiece?

Everyone seemed pleased at my suggestion. One co-worker even joked "Great idea! You know, 1/4 cupcakes have no calories. It is only whole cupcakes that have calories." Everyone laughed. Her joking comment on eating psychology was spot on, at least in my case. In 1/4 cupcake increments, I probably ate 2 whole cupcakes. (Wow. I am seriously embarrassed to admit this, but I think it might be true. At least 1 and 1/2 cupcakes.)

Had I eaten the cupcakes whole, I never would have eaten 2. Eating them in small pieces really let me off the hook for a few reasons:
  • I was eating in a "picking" or "grazing" fashion, rather than sitting down with one concrete portion in front of me. When you are grazing over a plate of tiny desserts in a room with a lot of people, it is easy to just keep eating.
  • Each 1/4 piece was a totally new burst of flavors and sugary combinations, so though the cupcakes were incredibly sweet and rich I never had the chance to tire of the intense flavors. I just switched from one new intense flavor to the next.
  • I felt like no one was able to keep tabs on how many 1/4 pieces I ate so I didn't feel that anyone would judge me for overeating. Everyone else seemed to go back for more. I did too. I only stopped once I was literally sick from all the sugar and everyone else had stopped going up to the table to get more 1/4 pieces of cupcake.
I really overate during this break, and I felt absolutely horrible about it afterward. Not only had I eaten more than was healthy for me, I had also made a suggestion that enabled others around me to eat too much as well. Everyone felt that they had eaten more than they should have after the cupcake session was done. While everyone sat moaning about being too full, I couldn't help but feel partially responsible.

I suggested cutting the dessert in such a way that made it easy for everyone to eat too much. Worse, I also personally overate and thus sent out a social clue to my co-workers that it was very ok for them to eat too much also. This would have been a great opportunity to lead by example and try to control my own portions in a hope that my behavior would influence others to do so also. Instead, I totally cut loose and sent out a horrible message to anyone who observed and took any clues from me.

What a winning streak, eh? Four days of unabashed horrible eating.

What interests me is that I really, really feel it. I can totally tell that my body is different after that bender. Last Thursday night I was at the apex of health and was feeling incredibly good. I had been on a healthy streak for about two weeks. I felt really strong and flexible during my workouts, and it wasn't hard to eat small healthy portions. I was on a roll. I actually felt better than I'd felt in months.

Coming from such a place, I found that my body's reaction to big portions, too much booze, and lots of sweets was pretty noticeable. By Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, I actually wondered if I might be coming down with something. I was exhausted and wired at the same time; I felt sluggish and mildly nauseated. I was flushed and wondered if I might have a small fever. By Sunday afternoon I did not notice how crappy I felt as much as I had the day before, and I could barely control my cravings for sweets. In the span of 3 hours I ate half of an incredibly rich brownie, a very ripe peach, and an ice cream cone. I had totally fallen off the wagon and was not only getting used to eating crap, but craving it.

The window in which I felt myself decline due to a poor diet was small, and the signals were subtle. Still, I noticed the changes and thought that they likely had something to do with my declining diet. This feedback from my body reminded me of a passage from the book I am reading right now. It is called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explore the many factors which influence how people make choices throughout their life in an effort to develop some suggestions as to how governments and institutions might help people help themselves make better choices (and thus improve their health, wealth, and happiness).

In the Fourth chapter the authors look at why certain types of decisions are particularly hard for people. They offer explanations about why, on a psychological level, people might engage in harmful behaviors (such as eating too much or consuming an overall poor diet). One category relates to Feedback. The authors write that people have lot of trouble breaking bad choice cycles when the feedback on their decisions is unclear or slow.

So if, for example, you immediately put on 10 pounds after you ate 2 cupcakes, you would probably be less likely to eat 2 whole cupcakes. Unfortunately, feedback about bad food choices is very subtle and very slow. We don't immediately gain weight when we eat too much dessert. Alarms don't go off. Kittens don't explode.

In fact, the opposite happens. We have very clear and positive sensations in the taste department when we eat dessert. And, we typically eat more to keep those positive sensations coming. The association between the yummy taste and the cupcake in our mouth is indisputable. The slower consequences - feeling sluggish after crashing from a sugar rush, feeling gross all day, gaining weight, getting diabetes... those are all much slower feedback signals. They are also quite subtle, and are thus not so clearly related in our minds to the cupcake we ate after lunch. We might blame our afternoon sluggishness on lack of sleep the night before rather than our recent sugar frenzy, unless we are really paying attention.

This weekend I felt the slow and subtle feedback from my body about a bad diet like never before, but I really had to listen. As I said, the window of time in which I noticed it was small and the signals were subtle. Still, they where there. I have found that being more in tune with my body has allowed me to tap into what it is trying to tell me much more effectively.

If you are trying to eat a sustainable, healthy, and affordable diet, I suggest you work at paying more attention to exactly how different foods make you feel. This is a holistic process that involves getting enough sleep, exercising, and establishing an overall tendency towards good eating. It isn't easy, but it is possible and probably worth it. My body gave me some feedback this weekend, and it has really motivated me to clean up my act.

Today marks the first day of the Diabetic Food Stamps Challenge. I just ate some broccoli and less than half a cup of brown rice for dinner tonight. So, ok. Here we go again.