The XX Factor

Dietary Perfection Is the Enemy of the Good

I love Mark Bittman. An entire NYT op-ed column devoted to the way we eat is genius. There’s a thousand things to be said, and Bittman is the right guy to say them. His skewering of the new USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 is dead on. Why won’t we ever get food guidelines that make sense from our government food agency? Because it counts among its many missions the promotion of more consumption of the foods produced by American agriculture, and right now that means Big Ag and highly subsidized corn, rarely eaten in its natural form. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” will never fly as long as the subtext is “Eat corn. Lots of corn. Mostly processed.”

But (of course there’s a but) while Bittman is rocking his governmental critique, he’s sounding a little tone-deaf on the subject of another big reason we eat the way we do. It’s not all government promotion, or even powerful corporate advertising and lobbies. It’s the way we live. It’s two-working-parent families, single parents and people working two jobs. Convenience foods do something more than make us fat. They free up the labor that once went into all that eating of real food, and that labor was mostly female. As we encourage each other to get off the chips and back on the salads and rice and even steak, we can’t forget that that “real food diet” demands real time in the making (or real money in the purchasing).

This is something Michelle Obama understands. As she ramps up her anti-childhood-obesity campaign in the coming year with a renewed focus on military families, she manages, in almost every speech, to make it clear that she understands that what she’s asking of families is hard. Replacing chips with carrots isn’t just a one-off switch, or even just a question of developing a taste for carrots. Carrots have to be washed and peeled, unless you spend the money to buy them that way. Carrots are tastier, or at least different, with dressing. Dressing takes a bowl, or, if it’s in a lunchbox, a little container. At the end of the day said container must be removed from the lunch box and washed. Yes, that’s a lot of whining about nothing. Multiply it by four kids and add in every orange that has to be peeled, every apple that needs slicing and two or three additional meals and you’re looking at a lot of work. Are there tricks and ideas to make it easier? Sure. Should other family members help? Absolutely. But we have tried, in this family with helpful, independent kids (9, 6, 5 and 4), disposable income, and two involved parents, to give up all forms of packaged non-food for a week, and by the end of it, I would have crawled to the store on my knees in four feet of snow for a bag of chips. Eat real food means almost every single thing demands adult involvement. There are exceptions. There are not enough of them.

When Michelle Obama partners with Wal-Mart to make produce more affordable and packaged foods healthier, she’s embracing the reality of the modern family. She’s not asking the working single mother to do something that does indeed feel unthinkable-to do without the foods that help her get her kids out the house every morning without getting up to cook breakfast. She’s saying, start here. This is better. And that’s a fantastic thing to hear. And by involving Wal-Mart, she’s recognizing that to get every family to eat better, someone out there is going to have to provide better, but still easier, alternatives to spending our busiest weekdays eating unsliced apples, nuts and berries. Wal-Mart’s start with “healthier” packaged foods may feel laughable. Obama knows you have to start somewhere.

Bittman’s “Eat Real Food” slogan gets, to use his words, “limited kudos.” It’s good advice, but in the form of a counsel of perfection that threatens to become the enemy of the good. Without a promise of more hours in the day, more patience, or more inexpensive but easy options, “Eat Real Food” is the kind of directive that can make a person throw up her hands and pass out the Twinkies. Like any quest for dietary perfection, it dooms its followers to at least some failure. What I would love to hear in a future Bittman column is “Eat MORE Real Food. Here’s How.”