We are what we eat. We've all heard it, but most of us probably don't quite believe it. After all, you've had french fries and didn't sprout french fry antennae. So we're not really what we eat ... are we?
We are. It's every bit as true as it is hard to see. Just as our homes are made from lumber without looking like trees, our bodies are made from the nutrients we extract from foods without resembling those foods. The nutritional content of what we eat determines the composition of our cell membranes, bone marrow, blood, and hormones. Consider that the average adult loses roughly 300 billion cells to old age every day and must replace them. Our bodies are literally manufactured out of the food we consume.
That's why what we put in them is of utmost importance — and why "clean food" is an urgent priority and "junk" food is neither cute nor innocuous. In short, our bodies are only as clean as the food we feed them.
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What difference does that make? Nothing less than this: Our forks — and our feet — are the master levers of medical destiny. Let me explain.
Before 1993, a list of the leading causes of death in the United States included heart disease, cancer, and stroke. But in that year, J. Michael McGinnis, MD, and William Foege, MD, changed this paradigm when they published "Actual Causes of Death in the United States" in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which looked at the causes of these diseases.
They concluded that fully half the annual deaths — roughly a million — were premature and could've been postponed by modifying behaviors, including smoking, diet and exercise, alcohol consumption, use of firearms, sexual behavior, motor vehicle crashes, and illicit drug use. Smoking and poor eating and exercise habits alone accounted for 700,000 premature deaths in 1990.
In 2004, a group of scientists at the CDC revisited this issue in JAMA and came to the same conclusion. This time, however, the toll from eating badly had gone up, due to obesity and diabetes.
Then, last summer, CDC scientists published a paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine analyzing records of more than 23,000 German adults enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study (EPIC) and investigated four behaviors: Are you eating well? Are you a healthy weight? Are you physically active? Do you smoke?
Those with four good answers (eating well, body mass index below 30, active, not smoking), compared with those with four bad answers (not eating well, BMI above 30, not active, and smoking), were 80 percent less likely to have any major chronic disease. (Imagine if a pill could reduce our risk of dying prematurely from any cause by 80 percent!)
You have doubtless heard of nature (genes) versus nurture (environment) — but this shows that lifestyle is so powerful, we can use it to nurture nature, or influence our genes. Various studies have shown this, but Dean Ornish, MD, and his colleagues have produced the most compelling results. Assigning men with prostate cancer to a "clean living" intervention that included a wholesome, plant-based diet; regular physical activity; and stress management, they demonstrated a marked reduction in the activity of genes that can promote prostate cancer growth and a significant increase in the genes that are able to control it.
That's the power and promise in clean eating, so it helps to know what it means. Is it organic? Not necessarily. Food can be organic without being nutritious — think organic gummy bears — or nutritious without being organic, such as conventionally grown broccoli. Organic is a good thing, but it's not a summary measure of "clean."
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Clean foods are minimally processed and as direct from nature as possible. They're whole and free of additives, colorings, flavorings, sweeteners, and hormones. I particularly like foods with one-word ingredients, such as spinach, blueberries, almonds, salmon, and lentils. The longer the ingredient list, the more room there is for manufacturing mischief — additions of chemicals, sugar, salt, harmful oils, and unneeded calories — and the more likely it is that you should step away from the package so no one gets hurt!
There's also strong evidence that, as a rule, the closer to nature you eat, the fewer calories it will take for you to feel satisfied. The reason? Processed foods often have low amounts of fiber and water; a high ratio of calories to nutrients; and a mix of tastes from added sugar, salt, and flavoring that overly stimulates the appetite center in the hypothalamus. Clean foods are the opposite: lots of fiber and fluid, a high ratio of nutrients to calories, and free of added flavors — all of which send signals of satiety to your brain before you consume too many calories. As an example, think of how many raw almonds you eat before stopping, then compare that to honey roasted almonds — that sugary coating spurs you to eat more. By eating clean, you can control your weight permanently without feeling deprived or hungry or having constant cravings.
So, let's sum up the importance of eating clean. Our bodies are replacing billions of cells every day — and using the foods we consume as the source of building materials. Eating well is part of the formula that can reduce our risk of any major chronic disease by 80 percent and reach into our innermost selves to improve the health of our very genes.
I recall my mother admonishing me, as a child, to clean my plate because there were starving kids in China. These days, China, like us, has epidemic obesity. Forget about cleaning your plate — focus instead on choosing clean foods to put on it in the first place. You know what's at stake: life itself, the liberty that comes with good health, and the likelihood of happiness.
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To belong is to understand the tacit codes of the people you live with.
Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging
The first time my mother and I open a can of tuna, I am nine years old. We stand in the doorway of the kitchen, in semi-darkness, the can tilted toward daylight. I want to eat what the kids at school eat: bologna, hot dogs, salami—foods my parents find repugnant because they contain pork and meat by-products, crushed bone and hair glued together by chemicals and fat. Although she has never been able to tolerate the smell of fish, my mother buys the tuna, hoping to satisfy my longing for American food.
Indians, of course, do not eat such things.
The tuna smells fishy, which surprises me because I can’t remember anyone’s tuna sandwich actually smelling like fish. And the tuna in those sandwiches doesn’t look like this, pink and shiny, like an internal organ. In fact, this looks similar to the bad foods my mother doesn’t want me to eat. She is silent, holding her face away from the can while peering into it like a half-blind bird.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.
She has no idea. My mother does not know that the tuna everyone else’s mothers made for them was tuna salad.
“Do you think it’s botulism?”
I have never seen botulism, but I have read about it, just as I have read about but never eaten steak and kidney pie.
There is so much my parents don’t know. They are not like other parents, and they disappoint me and my sister. They are supposed to help us negotiate the world outside, teach us the signs, the clues to proper behavior: what to eat and how to eat it.
We have expectations, and my parents fail to meet them, especially my mother, who works full time. I don’t understand what it means, to have a mother who works outside and inside the home; I notice only the ways in which she disappoints me. She doesn’t show up for school plays. She doesn’t make chocolate-frosted cupcakes for my class. At night, if I want her attention, I have to sit in the kitchen and talk to her while she cooks the evening meal, attentive to every third or fourth word I say.
We throw the tuna away. This time my mother is disappointed. I go to school with tuna eaters. I see their sandwiches, yet cannot explain the discrepancy between them and the stinking, oily fish in my mother’s hand. We do not understand so many things, my mother and I.
On weekends, we eat fried chicken from Woolworth’s on the back steps of my father’s first-floor office in Murray Hill. The back steps face a small patch of garden—hedges, a couple of skinny trees, and gravel instead of grass. We can see the back window of the apartment my parents and I lived in until my sister was born. There, the doorman watched my mother, several months pregnant and wearing a sari, slip on the ice in front of the building.
My sister and I pretend we are in the country, where our American friends all have houses. We eat glazed doughnuts, also from Woolworth’s, and french fries with catsup.
My mother takes a catering class and learns that Miracle Whip and mustard are healthier than mayonnaise. She learns to make egg salad with chopped celery, deviled eggs dusted with paprika, a cream cheese spread with bits of fresh ginger and watercress, chicken liver pâté, and little brown and white checkerboard sandwiches that we have only once. She makes chicken a la king in puff pastry shells and eggplant parmesan. She acquires smooth wooden paddles, whose purpose is never clear, two different egg slicers, several wooden spoons, icing tubes, cookie cutters, and an electric mixer.
I learn to make tuna salad by watching a friend. My sister never acquires a taste for it. Instead, she craves:
and a range of unidentifiable meat products forbidden by my parents. Their restrictions are not about sacred cows, as everyone around us assumes; in a pinch, we are allowed hamburgers, though lamb burgers are preferable. A “pinch” means choosing not to draw attention to ourselves as outsiders, impolite visitors who won’t eat what their host serves. But bologna is still taboo.
Things my sister refuses to eat: butter, veal, anything with jeera. The babysitter tries to feed her butter sandwiches, threatens her with them, makes her cry in fear and disgust. My mother does not disappoint her; she does not believe in forcing us to eat, in using food as a weapon. In addition to pbj, my sister likes pasta and marinara sauce, bologna and Wonder bread (when she can get it), and fried egg sandwiches with turkey, cheese, and horseradish. Her tastes, once established, are predictable.
When we visit our relatives in India, food prepared outside the house is carefully monitored. In the hot, sticky monsoon months in New Delhi and Bombay, we cannot eat ice cream, salad, cold food, or any fruit that can’t be peeled. Definitely no meat. People die from amoebic dysentery, unexplained fevers, strange boils on their bodies. We drink boiled water only, no ice. No sweets except for jalebi, thin fried twists of dough in dripping hot sugar syrup. If we’re caught outside with nothing to drink, Fanta, Limca, Thums Up (after Coca-Cola is thrown out by Mrs. Gandhi) will do. Hot tea sweetened with sugar, served with thick creamy buffalo milk, is preferable. It should be boiled, to kill the germs on the cup.
My mother talks about “back home” as a safe place, a silk cocoon frozen in time where we are sheltered by family and friends. Back home, my sister and I do not argue about food with my parents. Home is where they know all the rules. We trust them to guide us safely through the maze of city streets for which they have no map, and we trust them to feed and take care of us, the way parents should.
Finally, though, one of us will get sick, hungry for the food we see our cousins and friends eating, too thirsty to ask for a straw, too polite to insist on properly boiled water.
At my uncle’s diner in New Delhi, someone hands me a plate of aloo tikki, fried potato patties filled with mashed channa dal and served with a sweet and a sour chutney. The channa, mixed with hot chilies and spices, burns my tongue and throat. I reach for my Fanta, discard the paper straw, and gulp the sweet orange soda down, huge draughts that sting rather than soothe.
When I throw up later that day (or is it the next morning, when a stomachache wakes me from deep sleep?), I cry over the frustration of being singled out, not from the pain my mother assumes I’m feeling as she holds my hair back from my face. The taste of orange lingers in my mouth, and I remember my lips touching the cold glass of the Fanta bottle.
At that moment, more than anything, I want to be like my cousins.
In New York, at the first Indian restaurant in our neighborhood, my father orders with confidence, and my sister and I play with the silverware until the steaming plates of lamb biryani arrive.
What is Indian food? my friends ask, their noses crinkling up.
Later, this restaurant is run out of business by the new Indo-Pak- Bangladeshi combinations up and down the street, which serve similar food. They use plastic cutlery and Styrofoam cups. They do not distinguish between North and South Indian cooking, or between Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cooking, and their customers do not care. The food is fast, cheap, and tasty. Dosa, a rice flour crepe stuffed with masala potato, appears on the same trays as chicken makhani.
Now my friends want to know, Do you eat curry at home?
One time, my mother makes lamb vindaloo for guests. Like dosa, this is a South Indian dish, one that my Punjabi mother has to learn from a cookbook. For us, she cooks everyday food—yellow dal, rice, chappati, bhaji. Lentils, rice, bread, and vegetables. She has never referred to anything on our table as “curry” or “curried,” but I know she has made chicken curry for guests. Vindaloo, she explains, is a curry too. I understand, then, that curry is a dish created for guests, outsiders, a food for people who eat in restaurants.
I have inherited brown eyes, black hair, a long nose with a crooked bridge, and soft teeth with thin enamel. I am in my twenties, moving to a city far from my parents, before it occurs to me that jeera, the spice my sister avoids, must have an English name. I have to learn that haldi = turmeric, methi = fenugreek. What to make with fenugreek, I do not know. My grandmother used to make methi roti for our breakfast, corn bread with fresh fenugreek leaves served with a lump of homemade butter. No one makes it now that she’s gone, though once in a while my mother will get a craving for it and produce a facsimile (“The corn meal here is wrong.”) that only highlights what she’s really missing: the smells and tastes of her mother’s house.
I will never make my grandmother’s methi roti or even my mother’s unsatisfactory imitation of it. I attempt chapati; it takes six hours, three phone calls home, and leaves me with an aching back. I have to write translations down: jeera = cumin. My memory is unreliable. But I have always known garam = hot.
My mother learns how to make brownies and apple pie. My father makes only Indian food, except for loaves of heavy, sweet, brown bread that I eat with thin slices of American cheese and lettuce. The recipe is a secret, passed on to him by a woman at work. Years later, when he finally gives it to me, when I finally ask for it, I end up with three bricks of gluten that even the birds and my husband won’t eat.
My parents send me to boarding school, outside of London. They imagine that I will overcome my shyness and find a place for myself in this all-girls’ school. They have never lived in England, but as former subjects of the British Empire, they find London familiar, comfortable in a way New York—my mother’s home for over twenty years by now—is not. Americans still don’t know what to call us; their Indians live on reservations, not in Manhattan. Because they understand the English, my parents believe the English understand us.
I poke at my first school lunch—thin, overworked pastry in a puddle of lumpy gravy. The lumps are chewy mushrooms, maybe, or overcooked shrimp.
“What is this?” I don’t want to ask, but I can’t go on eating without knowing.
“Steak and kidney pie.”
The girl next to me, red-haired, freckled, watches me take a bite from my plate. She has been put in charge of me, the new girl, and I follow her around all day, a foreigner at the mercy of a reluctant and angry tour guide. She is not used to explaining what is perfectly and utterly natural.
“What, you’ve never had steak and kidney pie? Bloody hell.”
My classmates scoff, then marvel, then laugh at my ignorance. After a year, I understand what is on my plate: sausage rolls, blood pudding, Spam, roast beef in a thin, greasy gravy, all the bacon and sausage I could possibly want. My parents do not expect me to starve.
The girls at school expect conformity; it has been bred into them, through years of uniforms and strict rules about proper behavior. I am thirteen and contrary, even as I yearn for acceptance. I declare myself a vegetarian and doom myself to a diet of cauliflower cheese and baked beans on toast. The administration does not question my decision; they assume it’s for vague, undefined religious reasons, although my father, the doctor, tells them it’s for my health. My reasons, from this distance of many years, remain murky to me.
Perhaps I am my parents’ daughter after all.
When she is three, sitting on my cousin’s lap in Bombay, my sister reaches for his plate and puts a chili in her mouth. She wants to be like the grown-ups who dip green chilies in coarse salt and eat them like any other vegetable. She howls inconsolable animal pain for what must be hours. She doesn’t have the vocabulary for the oily heat that stings her mouth and tongue, burns a trail through her small tender body. Only hot, sticky tears on my father’s shoulder.
As an adult, she eats red chili paste, mango pickle, kimchee, foods that make my eyes water and my stomach gurgle. My tastes are milder. I order raita at Indian restaurants and ask for food that won’t sear the roof of my mouth and scar the insides of my cheeks. The waiters nod, and their eyes shift—a slight once-over that indicates they don’t believe me. I am Indian, aren’t I? My father seems to agree with them. He tells me I’m asking for the impossible, as if he believes the recipes are immutable, written in stone during the passage from India to America.
I look around my boyfriend’s freezer one day and find meat: pork chops, ground beef, chicken pieces, Italian sausage. Ham in the refrigerator, next to the homemade Bolognese sauce. Tupperware filled with chili made from ground beef and pork.
He smells different from me. Foreign. Strange.
I marry him anyway.
He has inherited blue eyes that turn gray in bad weather, light brown hair, a sharp pointy nose, and excellent teeth. He learns to make chili with ground turkey and tofu, tomato sauce with red wine and portobello mushrooms, roast chicken with rosemary and slivers of garlic under the skin.
He eats steak when we are in separate cities, roast beef at his mother’s house, hamburgers at work. Sometimes I smell them on his skin. I hope he doesn’t notice me turning my face, a cheek instead of my lips, my nose wrinkled at the unfamiliar, musky smell.
And then I realize I don’t want to be a person who can find Indian food only in restaurants. One day, my parents will be gone, and I will long for the foods of my childhood, the way they long for theirs. I prepare for this day the way people on TV prepare for the end of the world. They gather canned goods they will never eat while I stockpile recipes I cannot replicate. I am frantic, disorganized, grabbing what I can, filing scribbled notes haphazardly. I regret the tastes I’ve forgotten, the meals I have inhaled without a thought. I worry that I’ve come to this realization too late.
Who told my mother about Brie? One day we were eating Velveeta, the next day Brie, Gouda, Camembert, Port Salut, Havarti with caraway, Danish fontina, string cheese made with sheep’s milk. Who opened the door to these foreigners that sit on the refrigerator shelf next to last night’s dal?
Back home, there is one cheese only, which comes in a tin, looks like Bakelite, and tastes best when melted.
And how do we go from Chef Boyardee to fresh pasta and homemade sauce, made with Redpack tomatoes, crushed garlic, and dried oregano? Macaroni and cheese, made with fresh cheddar and whole milk, sprinkled with bread crumbs and paprika. Fresh eggplant and ricotta ravioli, baked with marinara sauce and fresh mozzarella.
My mother will never cook beef or pork in her kitchen, and the foods she knew in her childhood are unavailable. Because the only alternative to the supermarket, with its TV dinners and canned foods, is the gourmet Italian deli across the street, by default our meals become socially acceptable.
If I really want to make myself sick, I worry that my husband will one day leave me for a meat-eater, for someone familiar who doesn’t sniff him suspiciously for signs of alimentary infidelity.
Indians eat lentils. I understand this as absolute, a decree from an unidentifiable authority that watches and judges me.
So what does it mean that I cannot replicate my mother’s dal? She and my father show me repeatedly, in their kitchen, in my kitchen. They coach me over the phone, buy me the best cookbooks, and finally write down their secrets. Things I’m supposed to know but don’t. Recipes that should be, by now, engraved on my heart.
Living far from the comfort of people who require no explanation for what I do and who I am, I crave the foods we have shared. My mother convinces me that moong is the easiest dal to prepare, and yet it fails me every time: bland, watery, a sickly greenish-yellow mush. These imperfect imitations remind me only of what I’m missing.
But I have never been fond of moong dal. At my mother’s table it is the last thing I reach for. Now I worry that this antipathy toward dal signals something deeper, that somehow I am not my parents’ daughter, not Indian, and because I cannot bear the touch and smell of raw meat, though I can eat it cooked (charred, dry, and overdone), I am not American either.
I worry about a lifetime purgatory in Indian restaurants where I will complain that all the food looks and tastes the same because they’ve used the same masala.
About the tuna and her attempts to feed us, my mother laughs. She says, “You were never fussy. You ate everything I made and never complained.”
My mother is at the stove, wearing only her blouse and petticoat, her sari carefully folded and hung in the closet. She does not believe a girl’s place is in the kitchen, but she expects me to know that too much hing can ruin a meal, to know without being told, without having to ask or write it down. Hing = asafoetida.
She remembers the catering class. “Oh, that class. You know, I had to give it up when we got to lobster. I just couldn’t stand the way it looked.” She says this apologetically, as if she has deprived us, as if she suspects that having a mother who could feed us lobster would have changed the course of our lives.
Intellectually, she understands that only certain people regularly eat lobster, people with money or those who live in Maine, or both. In her catering class there were people without jobs for whom preparing lobster was a part of their professional training as caterers. Like us, they wouldn’t be eating lobster at home. For my mother, however, lobster was just another American food, like tuna—different, strange, not natural yet somehow essential to belonging.
I learned how to prepare and eat lobster from the same girl who taught me tuna salad. I ate bacon at her house, too. And one day this girl, with her houses in the country and Martha’s Vineyard, asked me how my uncle was going to pick me up from the airport in Bombay. In 1973, she was surprised to hear that he used a car, not an elephant. At home, my parents and I laughed, and though I never knew for sure if she was making fun of me, I still wanted her friendship.
My parents were afraid my sister and I would learn to despise the foods they loved, replace them with bologna and bacon and lose our taste for masala. For my mother, giving up her disgust of lobster, with its hard exterior and foreign smell, would mean renouncing some essential difference. It would mean becoming, decidedly, definitely, American—unafraid of meat in all its forms, able to consume large quantities of protein at any given meal. My willingness to toss a living being into boiling water and then get past its ugly appearance to the rich meat inside must mean to my mother that I am, somehow, someone she is not.
But I haven’t eaten lobster in years. In my kitchen cupboards, there is a thirteen-pound bag of basmati rice, jars of lime pickle, mango pickle, and ghee, cans of tuna and anchovies, canned soups, coconut milk, and tomatoes, rice noodles, several kinds of pasta, dried mushrooms, and unlabeled bottles of spices: haldi, jeera, hing. When my husband tries to help me cook, he cannot identify all the spices. He gets confused when I forget their English names and remarks that my expectations of him are unreasonable.
I am my parents’ daughter. Like them, I expect knowledge to pass from me to my husband without one word of explanation or translation. I want him to know what I know, see what I see, without having to tell him exactly what it is. I want to believe that recipes never change.
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Geeta Kothari is the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. She is a co-founder of the www.novelworkshop.org (formerly Kenyon Review Novel Workshop). Her writing has appeared in various anthologies and journals, including New England Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. Her essay "If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?" is widely taught in universities and has been reprinted in several anthologies, including in Best American Essays. She is the editor of ‘Did My Mama Like to Dance?’ and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters, and her short story collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories will be published in February 2017.