The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

When 'Apples to Apples' Isn't a Fair Comparison

When I was young, I thought a frozen pizza was a complete meal, because it contained the 4 Food Groups. The problem is that the cheese was more vegetable oil than dairy, the flour wasn't whole, there really weren't that many veggies and the meat was anyone's guess--loaded with chemicals, no doubt.

This example illustrates a problem with the kind of nutritional perspective Americans have. Let me explain:

Most of us were raised on the 4 Food Groups. While this approach has been denounced in recent years (and for good reasons), I will go out on a line and say that all in all, it is not a bad model for eating, if you don't take it too strictly. At its basic, it reminds us that we should balance our eating between fruits, veggies, starches, meats and dairy, with slightly less on the meats and dairy. That's not bad advice.

The 4 Food Groups has become so fundamental to how we view eating, it is hard to imagine not having such a perspective. Most people know they shouldn't sit down to a meal of just steak. We take it for granted now, but people did not always see it this way before that. I still plan my meals with a meat, a starch and two of the fruit/veggie group. For people who don't take much interest in knowing the details of food nutrition, this is a simple, straightforward approach that will serve you well when you serve yourself.

But the 4 Food Groups is misleading in that a starch is not equal to another starch, and one person's veggies are not the same as another person's veggies.

Look at the hamburgers I ate for lunch today: Grass-fed, organic beef patties on fluffy, whole-grain wheat buns with minimal additives--cooked on a cast iron skillet with some olive oil and simple spices. Compare that to what you get at your local fast food joint: Grain-fed, unhealthy beef on the cheapest refined white bread, cooked in God-knows what kind of fats and oils. The beef is full of the bad fats, low on the good fats (the reverse of mine). Additives, preservatives and maybe even taste enhancers are everywhere. The problem is that in both cases you can use the word "hamburger" to describe your lunch. Yet, I would say these are two entirely different meals.

The 4 Food Groups unconsciously taught us that beef is beef, grain is grain and apples are apples. Not so. How you prepare your foods and how they are raised can put them into an entirely different class of foods. The 4 Food Groups does not take into account the "wholeness" of foods, the cooking method used, the way it was farmed or the amount of additives it has.

We may need a whole new vocabulary for talking about foods this way.

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