Life in the real world! That’s what I’m living. And life in the real world is an endless series of choices, and an endless series of compromises.
I bring this up because I’ve read a lot of diet and nutrition books, and sometimes feel like they don’t want to admit this. They want me to do things like carry little Tupperware containers of nutritionally perfect salad dressing in my purse, so I’ll never have to sin by eating a commercial salad dressing that might – just might – contain refined oils, or a smidge of sugar. They want me to go broke buying nothing but organic meats and produce. They want me to never, ever, ever eat any artificial sweeteners, even though I’m certainly not going to cook with sugar. They want me to shun fast food restaurants, because the grilled chicken might have been marinated with something that would add one measly gram of carb to my day. They want me to count every single gram of everything I eat, and balance the proportions of every meal and snack with painstaking accuracy.
I’ve quit eating sugar. I’ve quit eating white flour – or any flour, for that matter. I rarely miss them, and I don’t eat even artificially sweetened desserts very often. But I do still love chocolate. Should I sit here and obsess, end up feeling sorry for myself, and wind up doing something stupid – like diving right back into the sugar-pit I crawld out of? Or is it better that I eat a couple of squares of sugar free dark chocolate a day, or a handful of CarbSmart chocolate chips, or maybe a sugar-free mini Reese’s cup or two, which is all it takes to make me feel completely satisfied?
Thursday nights I often eat out with my Toastmasters Club. I’ll order the insides of the hot turkey-bacon club sandwich, or the insides of the gyros – lamb, tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, onions and all – on a bed of romaine. That’s a great low carb meal! I’ll also order the herbed oil-and-vinegar dressing, which is unlikely to have sugar in it. I also get a side of mayo – oops! Some commercial mayo has a smidge of sugar in it – not enough to show up in the nutritional breakdown, mind you, but there might be a bit. Furthermore, commercial mayo is made with commercially extracted oils, which are clearly not as good for you as expeller-pressed oils from the health food store. Omigosh! Nutritional sin! Should I eat my “sandwich salad” without any dressing? Nowhere near as tasty that way. Or can I feel good about the fact that my meal is 99.5% nutritionally excellent?
I seldom eat in fast food joints, but every now and then I find myself out of the house, in a tearing hurry, and ravenous. You know what I do? I eat fast food, that’s what I do. Most fast food places have a grilled chicken salad of one sort or another, and if they don’t I can get a hamburger patty and put it on top of a side salad. I’ll get full fat Caesar or ranch dressing, generally the lowest carb dressing they’ve got, but I’ll still get a few grams – and there’s that cheap oil again. Okay, so it’s not an absolutely squeaky clean, perfect meal, or a wildly delicious one. It is a fast way to get a shot of protein and a few uninspiring vegetables, with a minimum of carb, in the minimum time, for minimum work and minimum money.
For that matter, I buy commercially made pork sausage. Virtually all commercially-made sausage contains sugar. There can’t be much, because the nutritional breakdown generally says “0 grams carbohydrate”, but it’s there. I eat sausage every few weeks; it’s not a daily thing for me. Should I feel obligated to make my own, to avoid what may be a half-teaspoon of sugar in a pound of sausage? Or can I figure that it’s not enough to worry about, and that anyway, sausage beats the heck out of Lucky Charms?
My daily beverages are sparkling water and tea – I drink tea by the gallon, both hot and iced. (My Aunt Grace got me addicted as a tiny child. We used to go to her house for tea parties, and we’d always use the good things – bone china tea cups, sterling silver spoons, the works. I got hooked. It’s that simple. I love you, Aunt Grace, wherever you are!) I never drink soda pop, not even diet soda pop – can’t stand the stuff. Don’t drink coffee, I never liked it. Just tea and sparkling water, sparkling water and tea. (And usually wine or lite beer in the evening.)
But I do drink black tea – you know, caffeine, tannic acid, all that stuff – instead of the more “health-foody” herb tea or green tea. Green tea gives me killer heart burn. Most herb tea tastes like dishwater to me; so does straight decaf tea. And, okay, I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to caffeine. I have gone over to half-caf, but I still crave the stuff, and I get headaches without it. I’ve read plenty of nutrition books that put all caffeine-containing beverages in the untouchable category, and never mind the fact that tea (and coffee, too!) is chock-full of antioxidants, and may even prevent cancer. Should I feel bad for drinking caffeine, or good for drinking something that is unprocessed, sugar-free, devoid of artificial ingredients, and full of antioxidants?
For that matter, for years and years I drank – gasp! – tap water. Boy, how’s that for a violation of health food law? Look, I have better things to do than haul bottles of water around, and I’ve got so much food in my refrigerator that I don’t have room for one of those Brita filtering pitchers. (You’ve never seen a fridge quite so full as mine. I write cookbooks, and there are only two of us to eat the leftovers of my experiments. Furthermore, I tend to buy mostly food that has to be refrigerated, on the theory that if something won’t go bad, it’s probably not real food. Plus I live next door to the Organic Gardening Gods (http://permacultureactivist.org), who frequently pop in with huge bags of whatever is over-crowding the garden.) When we moved to this house four years ago we finally installed a whole-house water filter, and an expensive experience it was, too. So I now drink filtered tap water. But I don’t hesitate to grab a glass of tap water elsewhere.
Should I worry about these compromises of nutritional purity?
Here’s how I see it: I’m very careful about my macronutrient intake – that is to say, I make sure I get plenty of protein and good fats, and only very modest amounts of carbs – and I get those from the healthiest and lowest impact sources, mainly vegetables and nuts. The vast majority of what I eat is good, real food: fresh meat and poultry, vegetables both fresh and frozen, real olive oil, grade A butter, unprocessed lard from pasture-raised pork, fresh nuts and seeds, fresh eggs from the chickens in my back yard, fresh low sugar fruits. I eat no sugary, starchy, highly processed junk food. None. I eat no packaged meals.
So if I happen to eat an artificially sweetened dessert now and then, in lieu of the tons of sugar I used to eat, or I eat commercial mayonnaise or store-bought pork sausage instead of making my own, or I drink tea and tap water, I think that’s okay. I just don’t see it as having a major impact on my health. And so far as my doctor and I can tell, fourteen years of eating this way have led to me being darned healthy at fifty.
Now, there are people who really revel in being “hard core”. If they’re going to do something, they want to do it all the way. They really want to make sure that they’re not getting even the tiniest speck of sugar or artificial chemicals, and they’re willing to make everything from scratch or spend the money to do it. They feel good about giving up caffeine. They find the whole thing very satisfying and motivating. And that’s cool! For some folks, it’s easier to go all the way than to go most of the way. And if you’re one of those folks, hey, go to it! Whatever works for you, that’s fine by me.
But if you, like me, are willing to give mindful attention to your nutrition, but don’t want to make it the focus of your entire life, I want you to know that it’s okay to make the little compromises. Only little ones, mind you! No compromises involving triple-scoop sundaes or super-sized orders of fries.
But you don’t get any Cosmic Brownie Points for being perfect. It’s okay to live in the real world. Just consistently make the best choices you can, given the situation that you’re in, and you should do fine.
Being good enough is good enough.