July 19, 2024
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This piece, along with many others on mountain climbing in Japan, book reviews, and politics alike is on my blog: theravingsofthaneauxthemadcajun.wordpress.com/…

 I have written in the past about how incredibly offensive and stupid the whole “pick your hard” philosophy is—both in my writings on sport and diet, and on my social media. It is no surprise to me that the bulk of the “you choose your hard” group of people are all young people without family or personal commitments, and who, for the most part, either work part time or have a regularly scheduled job and generally middle-class backgrounds. As I wrote when I touched on this subject before, it is pretty easy for a 23-year-old guy working an 8-5 job with no relationship or kids to lecture people about choosing their hard—he has no barriers to doing whatever the fuck he wants! The inability of the pick your hard acolytes to picture people in different walks of life than them speaks to a general lack of empathy in America (particularly in public, yet online spaces), but also to a pernicious culture of fat-shaming and unsustainable dieting. The tendency to completely ignore structural inequalities and placing the onus of health solely on individuals, regardless of whether they are impoverished, under-educated, and overworked, is itself a massive problem with health outreach.

Because a 36-year-old Hispanic woman with two school-age kids and a husband (let’s make him a truck driver who is gone for long stretches of time), and who works two part-time jobs, can’t simply set aside a regular exercise time. Part-time work is by nature irregular, and with two jobs, a person’s schedule gets messed up all the time with sudden shift changes and requests that aren’t optional. Kids require various obligations too—perhaps walking them to bus stops or at-school pick up, and at the very least meal prep, laundry, baths, and the shopping associated with all of that. Tens of millions of people do all that via public transportation, meaning they don’t have the flexibility to simply shake up their schedule, since their movement must follow the schedule of transit. The “choose your hard” sloganeering is, ultimately, just another conservative culture war front, and ironic too, because conservatives are quick to emphasize that people have different abilities, chest-thump for rugged individualism, and criticize equality under these banners, but get very quiet very quickly when you point out that people have different burdens too.

The issues of the problems with American diet and exercise do go far beyond culture wars however. Roughly 95% of American foodways are controlled by a handful of food processors and agra-conglomerates, and the name of the game in America is growing huge volumes of shit-quality foodstuffs very cheaply and shipping them out efficiently to distant processors and then to distant cities. This includes harvesting various foods, such as tomatoes, most fruits, and some other vegetables, before they are ripe in order to lengthen shelf life and make them easier to ship—never mind this makes the flavor shit and, along with breeding practices designed to hype up yield (which generally means breeding to increase water weight) the actual nutritional value/100 grams of food has fallen steeply in the America over the last half century. Hence the contemporary push for heirloom seeds and local foodways incorporating more small-scale farmers. This framework is enough for an entire separate critique of the system, and I want to clearly lay out at the start that I understand that there are structural elements to the problems of American diet and establish that I am not sympathetic to the “choose your hard crowd” because I am about to make a broad strokes criticism, one is that is not oriented in the Left or Right, but just shoots straight across the expanse of American culture (from an American with the added perspective of living a long-time overseas, in Japan, the longest-lived country in the world, and who has a Japanese family).

I think that, on occasion, the Left lives up to its right-wing caricature as too permissive, in the general lack of non-structural criticisms, which often miss how cultural norms inform structural practices, both legally and economically. In the social sciences, it can be a bit tedious to deal with teleological debates and the different academic frameworks where everything is 100% contained in a rigid structural system. Even when such a structural criticism is correct, which they often are, the result is much like Leslie White’s definition of a civilization’s level of advancement by their energy utilization; not wrong, but largely useless to the analytical purposes of considering pros and cons of differing forms of social organization–the project at the heart of social sciences. There is a fatalistic air to the whole project of ascribing everything to external systems removed from culture as well, because such systems are difficult-to-impossible to change. So, I think that while a lot of the causes of America’s chronic diseases pandemic and poor diet 100% lie in unfettered (very poorly regulated) late-stage capitalism, I don’t ascribe to the Calvinist, pre-ordained view that such a system inevitably creates such an outcome—the reason modern capitalism is almost unbeatable is in fact because it can tolerate such a huge array of outcomes, something that used to be a core analytical framework for Marxists in understanding capitalism.

There is no way to soften this: the American diet is one of laziness and convenience, and within society there is a profound lack of knowledge about health and nutrition. It is a combination of unfettered capitalism, incompetent government policies, and collective social failings intertwined with BOTH, not just one or the other. Part of living in a capitalist democracy, for all the bullshit, is that everyone shares responsibility (not equally), as people can vote or they can make purchasing decisions (not equally), both of which function to shape the system of that society to an immense extent. There is no way around this, but the American diet is also only possible due to casual affluence—except among the most truly deprived poor of the poor—across the vast majority of the society. The issues in America do not hold true across all or even most capitalist societies. For example, when I talk to Europeans about American food, one of the first complaints is usually that American bread is almost as sweet as cake. In Ireland in fact, Subway lost a case before the Irish High Court to label several of its sandwiches as bread, when in fact, they met the legal definition of cake under Irish labeling laws, based on what dry weight percentage was made of refined sugar.

Three years ago, before coronavirus and when I was still teaching English, I did a cupcake baking lesson with my 6th grade classes. For this lesson, I used a popular American recipe I found online, and modified it. Most of my modifications were simply converting to metric system baking (I measured the salt, baking soda, and baking powder in advance for each group), and switching out the butter with vegetable oil because I didn’t have that kind of budget. I found the first time I tested the recipe that the cupcakes came out sickeningly sweet. The Japanese teachers all grimaced and said it was too sweet when they tried the test batch—and this was with me forgoing the TWO inches of piped buttercream icing on each cupcake that the recipe called for. I ended up removing 33%, one whole third, of the sugar in the recipe, and ended up with much better tasting cupcakes (which the Japanese teachers said were still very sweet, but at least not overwhelmingly). I had to adjust the oil down slightly and the flour up just a bit to not mess up the balance of dry and wet ingredients, but otherwise there were no issues. There was absolutely no need for the cupcakes to be so sweet, and yet this recipe had a 4.9 rating, was on a popular blog, and had hundreds of reviews.

I recounted that story to my closest friend from grad school, and she replied, very seriously, that Americans (she is from Appalachia and no stranger to sweets herself, as a health-conscious amateur baker), just cannot taste sugar normally. “We’ve lost the ability to taste normal amounts of sugar” she told me. As I said, the original recipe was incredibly sweet—so sweet that I could barely taste the blueberries or lemon zest in the cupcake—and the actual recipe had a mountain of buttercream icing (just pure emulsified sugar and butter) equivalent to half the height of the cupcake itself. I frequently encounter such issues with both sugar, and added fats, when searching for recipes (Japan’s recipe sites are god-awful, usually designed for making two servings, sparse, and of questionable quality; the near total lack of reviews makes it hard to even judge which recipes are good or bad, and the Japanese language internet just doesn’t have convenient, well-designed recipe-sharing systems). For instance, I will find a recipe that calls for a half cup of melted butter and a full cup of shredded cheese for a single tray of mushroom and broccoli rice casserole, and then includes instructions, including another half cup of cheese and another stick of butter, for making the sauce that goes on top—and can’t stop myself from thinking Jesus Christ a majority of this recipe by weight is butter and cheese, before proceeding to make my own with no sauce, a half the butter, and half the cheese (and it was delicious; I did add a half cup of French’s onions and tempura flakes to give the top a nice crispy cover).

Both the casserole and the cupcake recipe were highly rated with a large number of reviews—they weren’t unreflective of the general problems with American cooking; that is to say an excessive and thoughtlessly heavy hand with sugar, salt and added fats. I’ve had this issue in countless other places—extremely popular buttermilk biscuit recipes that call for twice as much salt as needed (even with unsalted butter), or a chicken and dumpling recipe I made and thought came out amazing, with delicious dumplings, only to realize I had misread the recipe and used teaspoons of vegetable shortening and not tablespoons, i.e., what had turned out great had a third (five teaspoons versus five tablespoons) the added fats of the original recipe.

Most Japanese people have a general awareness of calories and are somewhat conscious of what they eat. Some kids and young men break this mold, but on the whole, it is remarkable how much normal, ordinary, everyday, regular, working-class secretaries, teachers, insurance brokers and the like, think about what they eat, and, maybe not count calories, but have a good awareness of how much they’ve eaten and adjusting accordingly throughout the day; the basic ability/effort to balance out their diet. How people here avoid eating really fatty stuff all the time, and when they do, usually eat small portions slowly and savor them (with the notable exception of fried pork cutlets). The inevitable American excuse is “look at the French? They use more butter than us and also love sweets, but they’re so much healthier so it must be something else.” Which just outs the typical American as never having actually eaten a typical French meal. Yes, French cooking is big on fat and butter—the  hollandaise and other sauces, confits, delicious sweets and so on. French portion sizes are also small! Dinner is the biggest meal of the day (a stereotypical French breakfast is some cereal or a piece or two of bread, maybe with jam or butter, and lunch is also often on the lighter side as well), and there are usually several courses, even if some are very simple salads and sautés. There are butter-based sauces, yes, but a diner gets maybe two tablespoons of sauce (of which only about half is butter), on a single, relatively small cut of fish, meat, or shellfish.

A stereotypical French dinner with all that butter and dessert at the end, lasts an hour to an hour and a half, and includes a very light, simple salad, several small pieces of fresh bread (baked that day and with little to no added sugar), several small portions of proteins, and a variety of seasonal vegetables in different presentations, from sautés and salads to soups. Eating slowly, and savoring the food (chewing 25 to 30 times is also important for digestion and fullness), creates a sense of fullness on fewer calories. Whereas I can describe the typical American dinner (even Thanksgiving) as eaten with rapid speed, self-served and without structured courses or much time for chatting in between courses of food, nor while eating, when chatting is even seen as a sign of bad manners and as crass. Needless to say, American meals typically come with huge portion sizes, often with few if any vegetables, and those that are present, are nearly always processed, non-fresh foods out of a can or a freezer.

I can just say that, using the examples I am most familiar with, French, German, and Japanese people in general (Japanese people easily win first prize on this), have awareness of what they eat. Americans are notorious for undercounting their calories because of high food illiteracy and just not being that conscious of what they eat. Those Venti Frappuccinos and other drinks from Starbucks have 160~500 calories in them at the size American’s typically drink! A pumpkin spice chai latte in venti size has 360 calories and 66 grams of sugar, which is nearly a full day’s worth of added sugars (mostly fructose, which has been increasingly found to have higher impacts on insulin resistance and increased body fat as well as metabolic disorder) and a big chunk of added fats (10 grams of saturated fats in a caramel frappuccino), yet millions, even tens of millions of Americans drink these every day or nearly every day and on top of regular breakfasts or fast-food fare like donuts and McMuffins. Many millions more drink sugary energy drinks for a morning pick me up, which generally contain over 100% of the recommended daily allowance of added sugar. Most Japanese people I know that even like McDonalds (more than a few don’t), would never get an L-size of fries to eat alone, and a lot of people just eat the S-size if they want to eat some fries. This is to say nothing of the fact that an American L-size cup of soda is 1.5 times larger than an L in McDonalds Japan, whose fry and hamburger sizes are also all considerably smaller.

In America, from when I was a kid, I had soda every single day. Usually several. In High School, I moved in with my grandparents because of family troubles, and my grandmother had a strict one can of soda a day rule. She counted the cans of soda and we got into several fights over it, as I fucking hated that rule, but eventually fell into line. When I first went off to university though, I suddenly had an unlimited dorm cafeteria, and started drinking two cans’ worth of soda a day (or more) in addition to the sugary vitamin water drinks or Gatorades I bought at the on-campus dining court with lunch. That and eating five to six meals a day (often as a stress relief at night, right before the dorm cafeteria closed), put me up to 221 pounds by Sophomore year and before I was even 20 years old, despite the hours of walking I did almost every day. I was even starting to get some occasional prehypertension blood pressure readings (almost no one in my family even suffers from high blood pressure) at 19! I slowly stopped drinking coke (I am southern, so all carbonated soft drinks are coke), first limiting myself to one a day, then, studying abroad in Germany, the inconvenience and cost pushed that to one every few days, something I worked hard to mostly keep up back in America my Senior year and through Grad school, and finally in Japan, I just gradually stopped drinking coke. The less frequently I drank coke (and having to walk 2km to shop and carry everything 2km back home makes you evaluate what heavy things you want to buy!), the less I craved it. I am not, even today, an anti-soft drink health Nazi—I 100% will enjoy the fuck out of a Coke or Pepsi or ginger ale, etc, but I only drink them rarely—going months sometimes not drinking them. Breaking the addiction (and going from 2~3 soft drinks a day to just 1) was much harder than largely stopping. Oddly enough, dropping soft drinks has made me crave the crispness of sparkling water and related beverages, mainly in the hot, un-airconditioned Japanese summer, when they are so refreshing and hydrating. On the contrary, when it is really hot, I find Coke or Pepsi to dry my mouth out and be too heavy; they actually make me feel hotter (I suppose from metabolizing all the sugar that rushes into blood stream), and are actually diuretics because they contain caffeine, so biologically speaking, they do dehydrate you (the high sugar concentration also plays a role in that; your gastrointestinal tract has to pull in water from your bloodstream in order to dilute the sugar content, to facilitate osmosis).

That is my experience, but my experience of drinking a couple of soft drinks a day starting from childhood is absolutely the norm in America. In the South especially, I know many people that guzzle sweet tea and soda all day long. There are people in America drinking 30-ounce sodas. That’s almost a liter, and around 90 grams of added sugar (the American Heart Association recommends 24 grams of added sugar a day for women and 36 grams for men, in the UK, the National Health Service recommends adults of either gender consume no more than 30 grams of added sugar a day), if my fellow Leftists want to be consistent with the whole “follow the science” and “wear masks like the experts say” approach to public health), which again is largely in the form of fructose, which has increasingly shown correlations to metabolic issues and insulin resistance. In Japan, Germany, and France, sodas like Coke and Pepsi are occasional treats, not an everyday routine. Japan is infamous for its vending machines (one on every street corner practically), but if you go and look at them, out of 28~32 options, only 7~12 will be sweetened, and of those, only 2~3 will be non-diet sodas, and several other sweetened options will be tiny, carbonated nutrition drinks that are only around 120ml and have 75 calories. I stopped drinking very sweet drinks in Japan partially just because there are so many unsweetened, high-quality drinks available, including 50-50 fruit and vegetable juice mixes with no added sugars or juice concentrates (which is basically no different from adding syrup to a juice) and high quantities of nutrients like Vitamin A and Vitamin C and even some fiber, to say nothing of the dozens of forms of tea. Europe especially frowns on giving kids sodas on a daily basis, while Japan does not give kids sweetened milk with lunch. It isn’t an option here. You get 200 mL of amazing, delicious, fresh whole milk, or you get water/barley tea (only kids with crippling lactose intolerance skip milk; moderately lactose intolerant kids and teachers just suck it up so to speak). This is a crucial segue to another anecdotal story, one that starts with chocolate milk.

I am an oldest-child, but my parents divorced, and my father subsequently remarried several times, culminating in having another child when I was a Junior in college (and another, born after I moved to Japan). My dad’s family lived in Wisconsin a few more years, then moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be closer to his family and his partner’s mother. A year later, my little brother started kindergarten there. My dad’s partner is a bit of a young hippie, and while not a health nut, she definitely worked to eat a wide variety of foods and introduce my little brother to various things while he was still young. She enjoyed making curries, and banh mi, as well as more typical midwestern dishes like broccoli casseroles, lasagna, scalloped potatoes, etc., and avoided exposing him to sweet juice packs and soda. So, my little brother enters kindergarten, in a very rich, affluent, mostly White area in the northern end of Little Rock—this is the sort of area with running and bike trails, Kroger’s, lawns and white picket fences, antebellum manors of lawyers; there was a fucking bicycle and espresso shop just down the road from the older townhouse they rented, somewhat on the outer edge of the “nice” area. You can’t make this shit up, but the point is, this wasn’t a kindergarten of struggling working-class parents working multiple jobs at irregular hours and with financial issues, lest my example be construed as classist or racially tinted.

The kids at this kindergarten are given an option of plain milk or chocolate milk, and of course every 5-year-old is going to fucking choose chocolate milk. There is 5 grams of sugar per 100ml in the form of lactose in milk naturally, so a 200ml carton of chocolate milk (they may have had 150ml cartons, I didn’t get details that granular from her), has 10 grams of added sugar in its 20 grams of sugar. The recommended daily allowance of added sugar for kids that age is 19 grams, so half of that is used up by the fucking drink at school lunch starting from kindergarten. My stepmother told the school to only give him regular milk (which in school lunches in America is universally an almost flavorless, and cheap, 2% milk served in cartons that are thrown away, not reusable glass bins as is done in Japan), but he got really upset being the only kid not drinking chocolate milk and the other kids were making fun of him, so his mother, not being a psycho, relented. With that same lunch, the kids also received, every day, fruit. Not fresh fruit. God-forbid a government institution figure out the inconceivable logistics and pay the extreme cost of providing kids with any fresh and unprocessed food. Canned or plastic-packaged fruit mixes were the norm, which are cooked, processed and preserved in a pure sugar syrup—basically Dole fruit cups, which have 13 grams or more of sugar, sometimes in the form of “juice concentrates”, which such companies use in order to label their sweetened and processed fruit as “all-natural” or “no-sugar-added.” The cherry on top, pun intended, is that because sterilized and processed fruit cups have a long shelf-life, said companies can outsource the growing to farms in the Philippines, Chile, or Guatemala, to name some major production centers, then outsource the labor of processing to unregulated and cheap countries, like Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and then ship the product back to their main market (hence what I meant when I said unfettered capitalism has a role in this fucked up system). These fruit cups contain little fiber (which is usually in the skins of fruits) and no nutrients other than a bit of potassium, trace amounts of minerals and some vitamin C (and even that is mostly added in the form of ascorbic acid for taste and preservation purposes).

Thus, my little brother got chocolate milk and sweet syrupy fruit cups with lunch. What really pissed his mother off though, was snack time. Snack time was set up so each kid brought snacks on a revolving basis, and included a drink and one snack, with no nutritional guidelines or constraints. My little brother loved those cheap General Mills chocolate granola bars, which are by no means particularly healthy but have at least only a modest amount of added sugar and a bit of fiber, iron, and other nutrients present in oats. My stepmother also tried to find 100% fruit juice (not from concentrate) that didn’t have added sugars or concentrates in them (namely Honest Juice and what not), and sent those. The other kids all hated them and bullied him to tears. I watched him crying, begging, in a panic, to try and get his mother to send a different snack. To send what the kids wanted, the snacks that made you popular with the other kids and what all the other parents sent. Which was Fruit fucking Gushers (literally just candy) and Capri Suns (literally just sugar water). Fruit Gushers has 9 grams added sugar, and Capri Sun has 15 grams of sugar per pouch. I was even angrier than she was that she basically had to give her kid candy and sugar water for scheduled snack time just because a public institution of education had no nutritional requirements. It felt like a system designed to peer pressure, cause bullying, and basically put 5 years in charge of their own nutrition.

Thus, my little brother was going home every day, at age 5, getting 58 grams of sugar, of which at least 40 of which was added sugar, just from school, not including his breakfast and dinner. So, his government education facility was feeding him double the recommended amount of added sugars that scientists and that same government’s nutritional guidelines say is appropriate and healthy. And there was literally nothing my stepmother could do, other than homeschool him, or make him a pariah and be hated by him. I really don’t think it is any different than grabbing a 5-year-old and sticking a cigarette in their mouth. Age 4~7 is a critical period where a lot of dietary habits are formed (I have struggled for 15 years to overcome the bad dietary habits and pickiness I formed in elementary school), and that age group also has poor impulse control and really enjoys sweet things (this is natural, evolutionary behavior). Therefore, what I have seen not just with my little brother’s situation, but across American society in a number of places, is small children being desensitized to sugar and given free access to sugary products all the time. They quickly become little addicts who have fucking meltdowns if you deny them their fix (high sugar consumption has correlated to loads of behavioral problems) and parents just quickly say, “okay, okay, whatever, here you go.” On my mother’s side, my second oldest sibling drank so much coke and juice that his baby teeth were completely rotten by kindergarten. Eight-year-olds are just coming home from school (where they drink chocolate milk), and cracking sodas and getting another 200% of their recommended intake of sugar just from that with no parental oversight or concern—this is normalized behavior in America. A typical kid like myself (believe me, I grew up in a fucking typical family, on both sides of the poverty line) is also getting ice cream after dinner! In America parents are increasingly over-present in kids’ lives everywhere except where they should be: that statement could be the blurb describing an entire future book.

And this isn’t a personal choice, or an outcomes-neutral system that we can embrace under the banner of cultural difference: this is nutrition and health and it is everyone’s problem, because this kind of diet lowers life expectancy and creates a pandemic of chronic diseases. High rates of chronic disease consume huge amounts of public resources and strain the medical system, increasing costs and impacting everyone, as we have repeatedly been told during the COVID-19 pandemic (and just as we know various preventable chronic diseases massively increase risk of severe disease from the SARS-Cov2 virus). Prevention is simply much simpler than curing or even managing most of these diseases, and I think there is a strange permissiveness within the Left on this issue, alongside a hesitancy to talk about the problem from both structural (shitty capitalist practices) and cultural (shitty, lazy and often ignorant American me-first convenience culture) standpoints.

This isn’t fat-shaming, as I have not mentioned obesity and I won’t—I intend, in fact, to write in the future about how shitty a parameter BMI is and how fat-phobia has created more problems than it solves. Obesity (excluding the extreme end of the spectrum which does have clear health risks) may have a direct impact in raising risks for certain autoimmune diseases and/or lead to elevated mortality risks with infectious diseases (there has been a clear correlation in COVID19 data), but for the most part, actual scientific evidence would suggest obesity is more a co-symptom emerging from common risk factors (poor diet and lack of exercise, and in many cases genetics), rather than the cause of any kind of chronic disease itself. I have made this point before, but someone with a BMI of 38 who walks every day, doesn’t smoke or drink, and eats a satisfying and balanced diet (perhaps with lots of nuts, cheese, avocado, olive oil, and whole grains, as in the Mediterranean diet and other well-researched dietary lifestyles), is far healthier than a person with a BMI of 19 who doesn’t walk or exercise at all, barely eats breakfast or lunch and then drinks three or more alcoholic beverages at a bar while chain smoking and who eats unhealthy fast food most nights. The fact that the former gets judged and is considered unhealthy and even has to listen to unfounded lectures from doctors that usually first try to connect any health problem to weight (despite the fact that other than blood pressure, weight is not proven as a direct factor in most common health issues), while the grossly unhealthy, “skinny” person gets a free ticket is, in a separate way, another problem with America and its form over substance obsession.

The BMI measure itself is simply flawed (even more so than IQ tests) and not based on any sound medical research; it is an outdated measurement that often exaggerates obesity rates, is only based on body weight not adipose tissue, and fails to account for the extreme differences in bone density/weight and muscle percentage. BMI also tends to place more women as obese because it doesn’t accurately account for natural differences in body structure. Obesity may be a problem, at least for certain people with certain genetics, but BMI is a piss poor indicator, as is the suggestion that anyone with a BMI over 30 is *significantly overweight* (snort). The claim that a man my height (5’10) who weighs 220 pounds has, just by virtue of that body weight and adipose tissue, substantial increases in long-term health risks, including greatly reduced lifespan, is just not actually founded in any kind of scientific research and is extremely variable. Most statistical risks associated with BMIs in the 25~38 range are more likely to relate to the fact that people with a higher BMI are much more likely to smoke, be a heavy alcohol consumer, eat a poor diet, and to have an inactive lifestyle—those are the risk factors, not body fat itself—not to mention a lot of high-BMI people who do have health problems, have had them since before their BMI became high; in many cases chronic health issues lead to weight gain, not the other way around. Many people have a high BMI in which genetic factors and age play an outsized role, but, lacking other risk factors, are perfectly healthy.

Harping obesity is grossly wrong, but ignoring the rise of chronic diseases (for example, diabetes, heart disease, cerebrovascular issues, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, kidney failure, certain cancers, and so on) and their correlation to poor dietary and lifestyle habits is also grossly wrong. American foodways are just profoundly broken, and broken to an extent far beyond pure capitalism. Having lived in Europe (briefly) and now Japan (for a quarter of my entire life), I am always astonished, when I go back to America, just how much food people eat out of cans and frozen packs. Every single day. How little fresh food of any form (eggs, meat, vegetables, fruit) people eat, how bread is also loaded with preservatives and designed to last for weeks sitting on a kitchen counter. Japan sells bread in packages of 4, 5, 6, or 8 (there is also, sometimes, a super thin sliced bread, sold in packs of 10; the number of pieces of bread in the pack corresponds to the thickness, so four pack are very thick cuts of bread, Japan doesn’t do outer crust), and I have to make a conscious effort to use it quickly, because my American habits die hard and Japanese bread will mold in less than a week, even when properly sealed or before its even opened. Like, in America, at my family’s house and in college, bread was something you bought a giant-ass loaf of and ate intermittently for more than three weeks until it was gone or the last few pieces suddenly sprouted some mold.

In Europe and especially Japan people shop every day or every other day for groceries, usually buying a little each day and planning meals day by day based on what’s available and this includes a strong sense of seasonality in food. In America, everything is always in season (even if price increases and the flavor/freshness turns to shit), and people buy staggering mountains of food once every two weeks or so—which is itself a structural and cultural product of America’s lack of small, local grocers, and poorly designed sprawling cities and suburbs, where commercial and residential areas are starkly divided, meaning even in “big cities” that are all suburban sprawl residents have to drive (lol what public transport) twenty-to-thirty-minutes, if not more, just to buy food. I shop twice a week and that puts me well into the less frequent half of the population in Japan, and I also try and cook larger portions and deal with less complex meal prep, (as opposed to Japanese people, who tend to focus on multi-course meals and lots of small portions of stuff and frown on leftovers) because I am also working and commuting every day. I want to emphasize this, because it is so important to me, that I am not making light of the time involved in cooking and shopping, because I handle all of it, and I am also not arrogantly promoting wellness like those fancy youtubers, tech bros, and instagrammers who treat spending 3~4 hours on meal prep a day on top of a full-time job and commute as perfectly sustainable and natural (“why aren’t you burning the midnight oil, choose your hard bro”).

To return to the issue of freshness in America, the default of everything there seems to be canned or frozen (which means sterilized, and high quantities of added salt and other preservatives, plus a further decrease in the nutrient content) whereas in Japan and Germany (other than sauerkraut, which is fermented), people tend to eat fruits and vegetables fresh and mostly by season. The last time I was back home, before coronavirus in August 2019, I kept being surprised at how easy it was to go a day or two without eating barely any vegetables and certainly no fresh food at all. I slipped right back into eating highly processed sweet breakfast cereal, which is my drug of choice and always will be, but also to just eating frozen mozzarella sticks, canned corn and PB&J, just caught in the flow of my family and the foods they bought and had around the house when I was staying over. I asked for blueberries, because it was August and I would usually be eating blueberries every day, as Shinano Town is famous for its tart, delicious crisp blueberries (which I buy directly from 75+ year-old farmers who grow only forty or fifty blueberry trees on the side of the sweet corn and other vegetable crops), and what I got was a seven-dollar four ounce tray (even more expensive than buying blueberries from labor-intensive Japanese farmers), of flavorless, gooey blueberries over-ripened to the point they were almost rotten, with no tartness and a coyish sweetness. I know better than to try and eat American produced fruits when I am back home, because I’ve had the same problem with apples, pears, peaches, and grapes, but keep trying to find something–anything–that tastes good from American supermarkets and failing.

This plays into a big cultural issue: American consumer habits. A lot of what are termed “food deserts” lack almost any fresh foods because people aren’t buying lots of fresh foods and they rot on the shelves (even when local incentives come in encouraging them to stock more, they usually see weak demand), and without high turnover, the unit price also increases, further decreasing accessibility. There is such a widespread attitude within distinctly “American” culture (and is less pronounced in immigrant cultures), that ignores the importance of food, and devalues meal time as both a social and cultural institution, especially for Gen X and Millennials, two generations who think nothing of heating a can of Chef Boyardee in the microwave and eating it alone while watching TV and drinking soda, something that dates back to the Boomers and their “TV dinner.” As a result, not only are Americans weirdly picky about textures, but they are also somehow often incapable of discerning quality and freshness, and seemingly oblivious to added sugar and fats.

Subway is a useful example of this. The 6-inch sub (and a lot of people get the foot long subs) range from 270 calories to nearly 600, and the average person is probably getting closer to 400 calories on their order. They then get an order of baked chips, which seem healthier because they are baked, but which adds another 130 calories, and then feel fine getting a sweet drink with it, (because hey, it’s not McDonald’s) so add another 170 calories. The problem is that studies find American consumers then think they have made their “healthy” choice for the day and indulge more in snacks or at dinner time, even when they have eaten a normal lunch with 1/3rd their daily caloric intake covered, and close to 1500mg of sodium and 40 grams or more of added sugar if they had a soft drink with it. Americans who exercise have the same maddening and stupid psychology, wherein a half hour or an hour of moderate exercise at the gym is an excuse for snacks and other eating (hence long-term gym membership has no correlation with weight-loss and little indication they are contributing to much improvement in health). Hell, just drinking a standard twelve-ounce Gatorade while at the gym completely counters any burned calories for those who want to lose or manage their weight or blood sugar better, hence Americans have far more gym memberships and spend way more time in the gym than the Japanese do, and have a vastly greater problem with chronic diseases and extreme obesity (body fat percentages over 40).

Restaurant salads are another example of Americans’ terrible eating habits, which are catered to, not created, by businesses. The regular Oriental Chicken salad at Applebee’s has an eye-popping 1390 calories, 98 grams of fat (15 grams of saturated fat and even 1.5 grams of trans fats) plus 1610 milligrams of Sodium. Even the lighter meal-salads at Applebee’s, like the Grilled Chicken Caesar salad, weigh in at 800 calories and 58 grams of fat and 1640 milligrams of sodium. McDonald’s Big Mac is the emblem of oversized portions and unhealthy American eating, yet it weighs in with just 550 calories, 1010 milligrams of sodium, and 30 grams of fat—meaning many of these popular chain restaurant salads are worse than eating two Big Macs in one sitting. McDonald’s salads seem much better, only because they intentionally include the dressing servings separately, in which case McDonald’s (relatively small salads) average around 400~500 calories, and I know many people who get double dressing. Again, consumers are so nutrition-illiterate that even with health information and smartphone tracking apps now readily available and information transparency (which companies fought against) people still just don’t really give a fuck; don’t put any time or thought into it and operate on very shallow, casual assumptions that are generally wrong. Likewise, the image people have is: any salad is healthy. Thus, people eat salads that are mostly nutritionless iceberg lettuce and fried chicken breast, drowning in salad dressing. Likewise, you can just see American culture in its salad dressing, which is always loaded with added salt and sugars, and many of the most popular variants like Ranch and Caesar or Thousand Island, are extremely fatty, and people drown anything green in them before consumption, whereas in most European countries, dressings are lightly used and often simply and fresh-made (egg yolk whisked with balsamic vinegar, oil, pepper, a bit of salt, honey, and mustard, or, gasp, just olive oil and salt). The naïve and inaccurate perceptions of “healthy” combine with the frequent American attitude that if they do one healthy thing, they can “reward” themselves with a soda or a side of fries or a bowl of potato chips at night, because we’ve turned healthiness into a chore, into an unpleasant, occasional task rather than an outlook and lifestyle. Except the “healthy thing” is a 600-calorie salad loaded with saturated fats and sodium, and adding that soda and side of fries puts a standard person up to half their daily caloric intake needs. It is entirely possible for a middle-aged woman to go to Applebee’s for lunch and have the Oriental Chicken salad and unsweetened tea, then get dessert, and leave having inadvertently consumed their entire caloric needs for the day.

Portion sizes don’t help. New York City’s ban on large drink cups had a point: research shows people drink or eat more when presented with a large container. This is a behavioral tendency. And at the same time, people are less aware or conscious of how much they have eaten or drank. You don’t have to ban refills (that doesn’t defeat the point of the regulation) to reduce intake; simply regulating serving-size (a business regulation, not personal intrusion) actually greatly reduces intake, and not just from to-go orders, but even people in-store in terms of refills. I like the example of a movie theater: if someone received a 20-ounce bag of popcorn, they would likely find themselves satisfied at the end, maybe eating a little slower to stretch the portion size out. Give them a 40-ounce bag, and at a certain point they may get a little tired of the popcorn or realize it’s more than they really needed, but will finish it anyway. The ginormous American portion sizes for everything are unregulated but they are also, because of simple human behavioral tendencies, a major contributor to the country’s poor diet and lifestyle diseases.

I live in Japan. Know what a typical bag of chips contains in Japan? 350~390 calories worth of chips. A jumbo bag may contain 550~600. I buy the regular bags and typically share them with my wife and our son, or a jumbo bag when our daughter is with us and not her grandparents, so that neither are huge calorie bombs. Rather, Japanese portion sizes are appropriate for an occasional snack—we typically enjoy them in the evening on a weekend, or if we are having a game/movie night as a family. Even if I buy three bags of chips, once they are done, I go a few days or a week or two without eating any potato chips—because I don’t have any at home and unless I have a sudden craving, it’s not something I will bother to go shop for or am obsessed about having continually available. American bags of potato chips, normal bags, are fucking massive, even if they are 50% air. Several times the size of a jumbo bag in Japan. American jumbo bags, like from Costco, are even more staggering, as they can contain over 4000 calories worth of chips, and preservatives to keep them fresh (or something; Japanese potato chips are small portions, and designed to be eaten on the spot, as they get stale and taste like shit if you close the bag for even a day). Buy a bag of potato chips in America, and suddenly there are over 2000 calories on the counter, and I will and do fucking stuff myself with potato chips 3~4 times a day in America, every time I walk by that counter. It isn’t one and done, and if there is a party or game night, with an American bag everyone would end up overeating potato chips (and groaning, “oh, I feel nauseous, I ate too many potato chips”). Big portion sizes simply encourage overconsumption, either in one sitting or by enabling casual junk food snacking to form into daily habits by constant, convenient availability.

I am not suggesting people be mono-obsessive about diet; I actually find that kind of mono-obsession grating and if not unhealthy, at the very least puritanical. The luddite, anti-GMO crusading, Food Fascists preaching about the evils of MSG in Blue Diamond Wasabi & Soy Almonds and the wonders of leek and watercress are enough to make me crack open a bag of chips and a Coke out of pure, seething spite. I can’t really comprehend the folks that freak out over 2 grams of added hydrogenated fats and 3 grams of added sugar per serving of Skippy Peanut Butter and who thus pay triple the price for unsweetened powdered or natural peanut butters that taste like shit, given a few grams of both those additives a day or every other day has no discernible impact on health. Humorless and obsessive, narrow-minded approaches to diet, steeped in fundamentalist Christian themes of guilt, sin, and indulgence, aren’t the way to go, and neither is giving out blank passes of acceptance for whatever anyone wants to do or finds convenient. The problem with the former is that the watercress anti-vaxxers that make up a huge and very active part of the healthy living netscape, from social media to blogging, are (unsurprisingly) quite anti-science and prone to conspiracy theory logic, and a lot of their dietary dogma reflects that in its narrowness and open suspicion and hostility to the medical establishment. Basically, anyone researching healthy lifestyles should consider any source promoting black and white dualities onto food like “good” and “bad”, wherein some foods are ultra-good for you and other foods are described in terms normally reserved for a SuperFund cleanup site, to be questionable. So basically, most popular websites and magazines on lifestyle and diet should be taken with a healthy grain of salt, which is good, because those people also hate salt (which traditionally is seen as warding off evil spirits, COINCIDENCE, I THINK NOT).

Diet is extremely important; I see no disagreement in the medical and biological research on that topic. Indeed, diet has proved more important and much more complex than medicine in the 1980s and 1990s envisioned, as, it turned out, promoting dietary supplements or simply fortifying largely unhealthy, and ultra-processed foods had no statistically significant impact in epidemiological and clinical trials (like the SELECT Vitamin E trial), despite expectations that such interventions would have large benefits. The low-hanging fruit like Rickets disease have already been picked. Scientific research is now recalibrating, recognizing that isolating the health benefits seen in subpopulations consuming high quantities of cruciferous vegetables, fresh fruits and nuts, among other dietary lifestyles, can’t be distilled into the nutrition in those foods. Rather, there is an emerging understanding that looks at how well bioactive compounds like vitamins, minerals, (like say Molybdenum, Selenium, Iron, Magnesium, etc), and other nutrients (antioxidants or bioactives, whichever term you use) are absorbed and metabolized by the body, and an increased role for the bacterial biome of the gastrointestinal tract. Beyond the handful of established essential nutrients we know as vitamins, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bioactive compounds including types of fats, polysaccharides (like beta glucans and fructans), terpenoids, carotenoids (such as beta-carotene), and polyphenols (which include flavonoids and catechins such as those present in tea, chocolate and coffee), some of which likely play an important role and interact with each other, vitamins, nutrients, and affect the gut biome as well as have direct immunostimulatory effects and impacts on gene expression. To say nothing of bioavailability and whether consuming high densities of nutrients in the form of supplements may have net negative effects on health for some sub-populations (as clinical trials of folate, preformed Vitamin A, huge doses of Vitamin C, and Vitamin E have shown).

A diverse and balanced diet coupled with a good lifestyle is crucial. Especially on societal scales, where the number of health issues and chronic diseases this would prevent number in the tens of millions and the corresponding savings on health care resources would be hundreds of billions of dollars a year. On top of this it would save hundreds of thousands of lives and preserve quality of life for many millions more. That is why I view the food fascist approach, as I have tongue-in-cheek labeled it, so wrong. Things even out in the long run much more than the puritans will admit. The Blue Zone Project’s arbitrary standard where if you eat more than like 1.5 ounces of red meat (like three bites of meat) a week on average you get 3~4 years taken off your predicted lifespan in their calculator is non-scientific nonsense, as is most of their orientalist, non-rigorous pop-anthropology. Yes, regular and sizable daily consumption of red meat, especially fat-heavy meat and processed meats containing sulfites and high concentrations of salts and other additives (deli meats and sausage are the biggest contributors) correlate to a number of health problems: the scientific research on this is very clear at this point. As does heavy alcohol consumption. Germany has both (the world’s highest per capita alcohol consumption in fact), but it has a better, more equitable and affordable health care system than the U.S., Germans eat a lot more vegetables, and also walk more on average and have a longer average lifespan.

There is no evidence to suggest that any common food has a long-term negative impact on health when consumed occasionally and in reasonable amounts. I see no issue with enjoying a Big Mac and fries on occasion, or Oreos and milk, or ice cream, or a glass of coke or any number of other things. A box of popcorn and cola once a month at the movie theater may bankrupt you at current prices, but it isn’t going to cause long-term health problems. The issue is with daily, cumulative bad habits, including a truly miniscule consumption of fresh vegetables and fresh fruits and an astonishingly large percent of the diet occupied by nutrient-lacking ultra-processed foods. When your breakfast is Fruit Loops, followed by KFC for lunch, followed by Cheese-Its and Campbell’s tomato soup for dinner, you are going an entire day without eating a single fresh or relatively unprocessed food, a script that applies to at least thirty million or more Americans every single day. Looking at that diet nutritionally as well, paints a diet that is deficient in a number of vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds, and may additionally lead to poor absorption of nutrients (it’s not really clear how well supplements and fortified cereals/foods are actually absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, nor whether this kind of diet can interfere with a healthy equilibrium of the GI microbiota).

The percentage of American adults consuming any fruit on a given day is down all the way to 65%, and while vegetables have remained at the 95% mark, if non-fresh potatoes and processed tomato products were to be removed, that mark would undoubtedly crash to much lower levels. The most consumed vegetables in America are potatoes and tomatoes, with a loss-adjusted average consumption of 80 pounds, which is 55% the average annual total consumption of all vegetables, a figure that sits at 145 pounds. With potatoes, roughly half the consumed weight is from the frozen, dehydrated or potato chip categories, and a sizeable chunk of what is labeled “fresh” is also consumed in the form of French fries. Tomatoes are mostly consumed in the form of ketchup, canned soups and sauces, or salsas, all processed foods with added salt and sugar. Americans barely eat any cruciferous vegetables, with the most popular choice by far being Iceberg lettuce, a lettuce variety that is almost completely devoid of substantial nutritional content other than a small amount of Vitamin A (it has at best, half the nutrients as romaine lettuce, and 1/20th the beta carotene). Laughably, a majority of American fruit consumption comes from juice, namely Apple Juice and Orange juice; almost 70% of orange “consumption” is in the form of juice. Processed applesauce, and pre-peeled snack pack apples are also an additional major proportion of apple consumption, despite the fact that the vast majority of an apple’s nutrition lies in its peel. None of these foods are fresh, and the common theme is that many contain added sugars, as well as added salt and preservatives, while with juices, people are drinking the fructose of fruits in high concentration without the fiber and body of the fruit to balance it out and cause fullness. It is very easy to drink 6 oranges worth of juice (and the accompanying sucker punch of sugar), and not very easy to eat 6 oranges in one sitting.

The fact that American fruit is often intensively farmed (with minimal pruning and lots of fertilizer and pesticides) and picked while immature means the taste is, as I noted earlier, vastly inferior to fruit in Japan but cheap (the price is half or even a third the price in Japan), and more importantly, the nutritional value is lessened, something I also noted is an issue with selective breeding of vegetables for size (water weight) and agricultural practices that are too intensive and not sustainable. Scientific testing has actually found a marked decrease in the nutritional value of a range of fruits and vegetables when compared to their 1950s counterparts. Another side effect is the “flavorless” or “bland” taste profile of a lot of American fruits and vegetables, which my Japanese boss has also noted with Australia (he had to grow his own daikon and eggplant because he couldn’t stomach supermarket varieties), and which even Americans often acknowledge after they are exposed to “heirloom varieties” of common vegetables, especially squash and tomatoes.

It is hard to not be infuriated by a system that manages to have every problem possible: cheap, mass-produced corporate agriculture that has put profit and low prices ahead of flavor, nutrition and environmental footprint, shitty convenience culture, dietary illiteracy, lack of interest in food and meals, overdependence on large corporate chains which can, by nature, only produce heavily processed foods with lots of added fat, sugar, and salt, and lastly picky eaters who by and large avoid fresh vegetables and even brag about it (the I don’t eat vegetables flex honestly looks super childish to most Europeans and Japanese). I want to eliminate the good-bad talk about food; I don’t want people to feel guilty about food all the time, but I do think that thinking about balance is important, and people should be thinking about the following three parameters: caloric intake versus daily needs, nutritional density, and added sugars, fats, and salts. Added sugar alone is a 500-pound gorilla in this discussion, especially added fructose, given its association with greater insulin resistance and weight gain, as well as increased rates of inflammatory illnesses and chronic intestinal illnesses. However, Americans consume an average of 126.4 grams of sugar a day per person (25% more than the second leading country, Germany), which is 2.5 times the FDA recommendations, and five times the WHO’s recommended best intake level (5% of daily calories, excluding sugars naturally present in dairy, vegetables, and whole fruits).

I have found an unexpected lesson in studying longevity and health in various regions of the world in a more thorough, and statistically documented manner than the Blue Zones orientalist nonsense. South Korea. Japan. France. All three countries have extremely high rates of tobacco use, 1,667, 1,583, and 1090 cigarettes per year per smoker averaged, with smoking rates of 22&, 21.9%, and 34.6% respectively (sourced from World Population Review and the Wikipedia article on tobacco consumption). The three countries have fairly high alcohol consumption, and only South Korea has lower consumption than the US, while France is one of the world leaders in per capita alcohol consumption at 12.23 liters per person average for both sexes (World Population Review). Japan smokes and drinks more than the U.S., and is on average less educated (education is another huge health indicator), yet has a staggering 5.7 year longer average life expectancy and lower rates of dementia and spends far less on medical care for the elderly, who suffer from low rates of chronic and debilitating disease. Both South Korea and Japan have a per capita GDP a third lower than the US, and some pretty extensive income inequality and certain parameters of medical care are poor. South Korea and Japan have 24.8 doctors per 10,000 people, (the US has 26.1 and France 32.74, Sweden has a staggering 70). The one thing Japan and Korea have is hospital beds, 128 and 124 per 10,000 residents respectively, as the entire medical system in both is operated through a proliferate hospital system; there are no general practitioners, private practices, family doctors or the like (the statistics on doctors and hospital beds are taken from the WHO, but are from over a half decade ago).

When it comes to heart disease too, the countries with the three lowest heart disease and heart attack related fatalities per 100,000 people are, surprise! Japan, South Korea, and France in that order (31, 35, and 38, cited from the OECD iLibrary), which is around a third that of the US. The three countries have world leading life expectancies, and all are marked by smaller sugar consumption, high vegetable intake, diverse diets with lots of seafood, and moderately active lifestyles. I think there is a case to be made that high fructose diets lacking in nutritionally dense food, coupled with low-activity rates (and Americans also almost never leave temperature-regulated environments designed for maximum comfort, whereas the countries above, use air conditioning to only a limited extent), are far worse for long-term health outcomes than chronic tobacco and alcohol use.

Yet we regulate, discourage and regulate the latter and the former is the purview of only food fascists and naturopath hippies; we slap sin taxes in the name of public health only on tobacco and alcohol, while touching added sugars is the third rail of American politics. I increasingly think that making lower income people pay 10 dollars a pack of cigarettes (the Left needs to evaluate how sin taxes disproportionately impact the poor; sin taxes are very regressive forms of taxation, but governments in Red and Blue states alike have increasingly jacked them up in recent decades as the only form of tax increase they can get away with without political consequences), and leaving 18-ounce sodas and twinkies untouched is, at best, a hypocritical application of logic. I fear there is a narrative that even moderate smoking and drinking is likely to take years or decades off your life, while in actuality there is quite a bit of genetic variability in terms of vulnerability there (the oldest documented person ever, Jeanne Calment, enjoyed a daily smoke and glass of port until she was over 120 years old), but also that moderate smoking and drinking paired with good diet and regular physical activity are not corresponding to the economic costs their taxation suggests (likewise inactivity and poor diet seem to supercharge the health risks associated with tobacco and alcohol use).

I especially find it galling that society recognizes the nicotine in cigarettes as addictive and habit-forming and hence introducing smoking to kids is seen as the height of irresponsibility, yet, caffeine and sugar are both addictive and habit forming as well, and in the case of the latter, deleterious for health (the problem with caffeine is that Americans are accustomed to consuming it exclusively in very sweet mediums, even drinks like tea, which most of the rest of the world drinks unsweetened at least some of the time). But so many kids are drinking coke every day, and consider that a 350ml can of coke, for a 10-year-old who weighs 70 pounds, is like an adult of 150 pounds drinking over 700ml in one sitting. I know plenty of elementary kids who drink Red Bull and Monster, which hooks them on the double sugar rush-caffeine kick (I suspect that there is a synergistic addictive effect between caffeine and sugar). However, I can encounter Leftists who argue for mask mandates, vaccine mandates, public smoking bans, sin taxes, and laud the banning of vapes and menthol cigarettes in one breath, and then rant that regulating serving sizes and added sugar, removing soda and junk food from the SNAP program, and so on are unfounded, unnecessary class warfare in the next breath.

The truth of the matter is that there aren’t any fast and easy solutions with this crisis, just as there were not and are not any fast and easy solutions for the coronavirus pandemic. Like with the pandemic’s countermeasures, society and government have to make due with clumsy tools, at times like trying to carve a statue with boxing gloves. There are only so many things a liberal democratic government can do, and many direct measures are bound to be controversial and mired in political debate and corporate lobby (especially added sugar taxes), while others like SNAP reforms are probably long overdue but a sensitive subject. On the community level, by writing and discussing the issue, I hope to at least define the problem and create a sense of urgency and outrage. If I can get other people moving and also educate others on sustainable lifestyles, I would consider that a great victory.

I mentioned three parameters to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, with the hope that perhaps that would demystify and simplify the mountainous volume of diet advice, most of which is pseudoscience and often in bad faith. My approach to food is not similar to an Evangelical Christian, declaring classes of food filth and sin and staining the act of eating with a spiritual dimension. No, I approach food like Marie Kondo approaches hoarding, asking of each food item “Does this give me joy?” You may laugh, or cringe in horror, but I approach any food stuff by analyzing the amount of satisfaction I can get from eating it compared to the number of calories it contains compared to how many calories I have consumed that day (and whether I have undereaten or overeaten in recent days). The key point is that I have self-control and am capable of planning. If I really want something, even if that something is a large Domino’s pizza to be eaten with coke in one sitting by myself like a starved animal released from a poacher’s cage, I will God be my witness eat it. I’m just not going to let myself (or want to) indulge like that every day (nor every month). I evaluate whether I will enjoy something enough to justify the calories, and to justify adjusting my food/nutrition intake elsewhere—because yes, those things need to be balanced, and oftentimes the amount of satisfaction I would obtain just isn’t worth the trouble. In essence, I am a maximalist, and like to maximize the pleasure I take from food, so I often pass over snacks, candy bars, and other quick eats that have a lot of calories but which wouldn’t, so to speak, bring me much joy unless I am really craving them. This is the difference between thoughtless overeating, and balanced, responsible consumption.

Other than the occasional huge meal eating out, I tend to stick to a general rule: a quarter of my daily caloric needs are free game to do whatever the fuck I want with. And in my case, I burn around 3200 calories or more a day on average (I enjoy my running, it keeps me sane, but I also do it because I love food and want to eat copiously without developing blood sugar, blood pressure or weight issues), so I have 800 calories to fuck around with. I could drink a soda a day, but I, one, don’t really like drinking so many calories (it feels like a waste), and two, just try to avoid consuming lots of straight sugar even in my free calories. I aim to follow the WHO recommendations of under 5% total calories from free sugars. But you know, 8 Oreos soaked in a high glass of milk? Totally game when I am having cookie monster cravings. I got a few care packages from America recently and have eaten a Reese’s cup almost every day for the past two months. I frequently have Captain Crunch or other sweet American cereals for dessert or for a snack. I like my potato chips too. Even if I don’t even end up using all my “free” calories every day, I never begrudge myself the pleasure of a junky meal or some snacks, (usually three or four times a week), and, as someone who is already uptight and over-stressed about a million things, that is absolutely the correct and healthy lifestyle to have, not to mention the only sustainable one.

The main difference is that, if I eat 800 calories of SevenEleven chocolate eclairs and potato chips, I am conscientious to increase the nutritional density of the rest of my food that day, including upping my intake of fresh vegetables and/or fresh fruit. I make an effort to eat fiber dense foods and consume lots of whole grains, except for buttered toast, which, when I eat it, is always white bread. My calorie needs also vary day to day depending on my level of exercise, and I use my Garmin watch as a general guide since it measures heart rate and respiration throughout the day (though I find it consistently underestimates my burned calories by 100~200) to determine this. 3200 is my average. Some days where my only activity is walking my 12000 steps, I only burn around 2600 calories. Other days with big hikes or runs, I burn 5000. My personal record is 6000. I don’t precisely measure my eating based on those calorie counts—I eat mostly by feel, with only a general count that usually comes into play in deciding when to stop eating. For example, “I want to eat some ice cream right now, but I’ve already eaten more than enough today so I’ll save it for tomorrow.” There isn’t any real need to be perfectly precise and rigid with caloric intake; the human body didn’t evolve that way, and you can overshoot by one or two hundred calories one day and end up undershooting by that much the next and it won’t have much of an impact on health or weight. It’s only regular overshooting, daily, for months and years, that has a cumulative impact on metabolism, health, and the creation of excess adipose tissue (body fat, which again is not in and of itself a health issue).

So, what does my diet, for example, actually look like? My 4-year-old son recently caught COVID-19 from a classmate and by the time we were contacted, he had already developed symptoms and everyone in the household ended up getting infected, myself included. I hadn’t been boostered yet, but I had an extremely mild case, which left my 12000-step walking streak intact and I was able to start running again after a seven-day rest. When it looked like Ren might have it, we took antigen tests and mine was negative, so I went ahead and bought a bunch of groceries anticipating we might have to quarantine soon if Renki tested positive with the PCR test the next day, at which point I wouldn’t be able to leave the house for 14 days. My wife’s mother brought us a few groceries two or three times, but I bought the bulk of what we ate. Two adults, one four-year-old, one twelve-year-old, a breastfeeding baby, and we ate: 1.5 pounds of potatoes and sweet potatoes, 2.5 pounds of carrots, 1 pound of cherry tomatoes, 1.5 pounds of cucumbers, 1.5 pounds of cabbage, a half-pound of other leaf vegetables, a half-pound of broccoli, a half-pound of burdock root, 1 pound of bean sprouts, 2.5 pounds of a half dozen species of mushroom, 1.5 pounds of tofu, a half-pound of natto (fermented soy beans), 1.5 pounds of daikon radish, 1 pound of mountain yam (nagaimo), 1.5 pounds of eggplant and 3.5 pounds of onion, over the course of ten days. None of these fresh vegetables are expensive or hard to find, and the total was over 20 pounds of vegetables. Alongside this we had fresh bananas, sliced watermelon, pineapple, oranges, golden apples, and strawberries for fresh fruit.

I must mention I have no savings, we rent a (cheap) apartment, and my wife earns less than 8000 USD a year and receives government assistance, because my own income doesn’t exceed 30,000 USD, so this is by no means to story of a very wealthy or upper-class power couple bragging how they eat healthy on a simple, accessible budget of 3000 dollars a month! Nor do I by any means think we are poor; I have a lower middle-class household by American standards. The two weeks of groceries cost 170 dollars—because meat, fish, and fruit are all very expensive in Japan, much pricier than in America. My “diet” is simple: aim for 12~14 ounces of mostly fresh vegetables every day, including at least one type of mushroom (I really like them and they are very nutrient dense), and at least one fruit, fresh or not. It isn’t rocket science, nor does it mean seeking out expensive or exotic ingredients, including those such as quinoa whose overconsumption is not ethical. I generally aim to eat between four and five varieties of vegetable a day, and try to get fish once or twice a week, similarly I maintain a flexitarian approach to beef, pork and chicken, typically avoiding beef, both because it is expensive and because it isn’t very healthy or environmentally sustainable, and have the latter two in moderation. I use vegetables and mushrooms to stretch them out: I can make 7 ounces of sliced pork into 10 servings of food using king oyster mushrooms, bean sprouts, and other cheap vegetables like garlic chives and seasonings. When 7 ounces of pork costs 6 dollars (in real purchasing power, not current exchange rates), this is both the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do (i.e., I eat vegetables just as much because I am a cheapskate as because a vegetable rich diet is healthier).

Cheap is the name of the game. American wellness blogging is basically pure fantasy for about 66% of Americans, given the amount of prep time or money and frequent shopping trips the meals it depicts require. You might as well rave about eating Lembas bread daily, delivered to you by eagle from the High Elf Galadriel for how realistic wellness blogging is for ordinary people. One example: I like oatmeal; a good thing about oatmeal is that it is cheap, easy to prepare, and with lots of soluble fibers like beta glucans, and high concentrations of iron, selenium, zinc and molybdenum among other minerals and vitamins, oatmeal is a budget-effective “health food.” I love my chocolate German muesli, which is about 70% oats and also pretty affordable (2.2 pounds for 10 dollars or so), but wonder why that pitch (simple and inexpensive) has to be shot dead in an alley like Bruce Wayne’s parents by people who erstwhile argue they are promoting healthy lifestyles. If so their branding and people-reading skills fucking suck. Because their cold brew oats end up including chia seeds (very expensive), and honey (expensive, especially to use in a regular meal), then they top with walnuts (I like them in oatmeal too, but walnuts are also, ditto, expensive), and a mix of fresh blueberries and raspberries (again, both expensive) to make these colorful, pretty bouquet “probiotic breakfast bowls” or whatever inane and pretentious title the influencer community has to slap on it. A normal person looks at that and instantly calculates they need to buy 45+ dollars’ worth of accoutrements (which is a half day’s work or more for most people) to make a couple of fucking breakfasts and instantly writes it off, especially since the healthiness of oatmeal itself is not particularly emphasized or promoted by the original post (and the healthiness of oatmeal is enough for qualified health claims even in the strict EU and much more scientifically established than any benefits from berries and antioxidants or walnuts and polyunsaturated fats).

I like root vegetables and cheap gourds, like kabocha squash. Americans somehow consume just 9.4 pounds of onion yearly, loss adjusted. Japan being in the middle of an onion shortage because the crop in Hokkaido failed this year due to excessive rain is the only reason I didn’t eat more during the two-week quarantine. I went through about 20 pounds of onion in January, and another 20 pounds in February alone (this is a two adult one kindergartener household figure). Onions and carrots are my household’s two staple vegetables: because they are, repeat after me please, cheap and easy to use. When making homemade chicken noodle soup or Cajun food, I buy celery, which is also relatively affordable. I like cherry tomatoes and cucumbers with simple salads of romaine lettuce and mizuna (potherb mustard is the awkward English translation for this Japanese green). I very rarely use canned corn, mainly when I make Japanese style curry, and only because I was ruined by the delicious school lunch version of Japanese curry which always had canned sweet corn in it to appeal to small children (and me). Otherwise, I don’t use any canned or frozen vegetables and also don’t break the bank. My lifestyle isn’t predicated on hours of hidden labor either; my wife is breastfeeding, and also works part-time from home, so I make sure to handle all the cooking and grocery shopping, and help with all the other household chores. This means, for instance, getting home at 6 after an hour commute, picking our four-year-old up from the kindergarten within walking distance of our apartment, and then cooking dinner.

My entire process is based on the fact I’m starting to cook dinner at 6:30 in the evening. Thus, while I am a gourmet and I like cooking and if I have company, I will spend 6 hours prepping an intricate dinner, on work days it’s all about no frills, easy, and healthy cooking. I put a big store on using lots of vegetables and nutritionally dense food while also cooking enough for my wife to have leftovers, so that she can have an easy lunch or brunch the next day and not have to cook during the day, when she is often working and otherwise taking care of a finicky infant. A common meal is as follows: I wash the rice and then set the rice cooker on, and while that is cooking, prepare miso soup and another side. From February 1st through May until the quarantine, I managed to avoid repeating any recipes and changing up the miso soup and fish dishes, along with a host of other Japanese staple dishes. I am usually done cooking and ready to eat by 7:30~8:00. The name of the game is 60~90-minute dinners that also make enough for my wife’s lunch the next day, plus a portion of leftover rice for me to use with my lunch. I aim for things to taste good, but the result is not usually artful or visually dynamic, and I also simply don’t have the patience to make five to six different dishes as is traditional in a Japanese meal spread.

Because my wife is in quarantine until May 20, I tried to cook a little more on the second Saturday and Sunday of quarantine. That Saturday, I baked up a premade margherita pizza and made spiced chai with honey for my wife (I do like honey and keeping some around for milk teas and cooking doesn’t break the bank). I played a few games of online scrabble, and then I made a few jars of homemade rhubarb jam since it is in season, but that took about an hour and a half. I had a brunch of around 25 grams of 100% chocolate mass chips (the product after the cocoa butter has been removed), that I buy in 1-kilogram bags from a seller on amazon, for about 25 dollars, and we eat on for 6~8 weeks, along with a glass of whole milk, for a roughly 400 calorie brunch. After that I whipped up a root vegetable miso soup and washed rice and set the rice cooker on. The miso soup had julienned carrots, daikon radish, shiitake, burdock root (which I buy from the supermarket fresh, but precut, because it is way too much trouble to deal with), and freeze-dried tofu for a very thick, heavy miso soup. Me and my wife both had a bowl of white rice accompanied by two bowls of miso soup for lunch, and I went running, then came back and prepped dinner. I sautéed some nameko mushrooms with mirin, soy sauce, cooking sake and a bit of sesame oil and brown sugar, then grated mountain yam into a dish called tororo. I made two small bowls of tororo with about 70 grams each of nameko mushrooms, and then baked simple salted salmon and used the remaining rice for a simple dinner. It was very filling, but I went for a second, 2km run and got hungry again, so I had a bowl of milk and chocolate rice crispies, and later ended up eating a bag of potato chips as well. That night I prepped a homemade pie crust and set it to rest in the fridge before playing Smash Brothers on the Switch with my son and then watching several hours of mountaineering documentaries.

On Sunday, breakfast was milk and my dark chocolate chips again, followed by a simple cup of coffee. I brewed some roasted green tea for my wife, and made her a breakfast of cut banana topped with around 15 grams of paper-thin sliced 100% dark chocolate, vanilla yogurt, and some puffed rice cereal. Our son wanted regular butter toast with jam, specifically the rhubarb jam I made. I played a few games of online scrabble, got fucked by my letters in all of them, and then went to the grocery store seething in anger. Once back home I rolled out part of the pie crust, made some stupid looking, crappy lattices with the leftovers (because no one was going to see them in the middle of my unholy brown betty-apple pie fusion), and thinly sliced 5 small Nagano Shinshu Gold apples, leaving the skin, where all the nutrients are, intact and mixing them with brown sugar, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg (which I honestly only buy for chai tea and making gingerbread once a year for Christmas). I baked my Brown Betty apple pie, heated everyone a bowl of miso soup with the leftovers from the day before, did the dishes and cleaned up the post-baking disaster zone in the kitchen, and made our son his rice and natto (his favorite dish) while our daughter had instant yakisoba noodles. My wife and I ate a simple sauté I made of sliced squid, button mushrooms, butter and soy sauce (another meal for two I made in under fifteen minutes using fresh, healthy ingredients at a cost of less than 3.00 a person). It also did not look amazing or fancy, but had a rich, very delicious flavor. Afterwards I had two whole pieces of apple pie because my pie crust turned out great and with butter, oats, sugar, panko and seasoned apple, there is nothing not to love about the gooey filling. Two servings of homemade apple pie still gave me less added fat and sugar than a Wendy’s salad and small coke.

Afterwards I changed a few diapers, rocked my infant daughter to sleep, and watched two hours of anime with my wife and our kids, before I went out for a two-hour run (19 km or 11.8 miles). Once back home, I literally just washed my face and hands, changed clothes, and cooked dinner. I prepped a salad of hand-shredded romaine lettuce which I washed thoroughly before soaking in a warm water sodium bicarbonate bath for ten minutes to remove trace pesticides (and also make the leaves crisper and fresher tasting), and served it with cut mizuna, sliced cucumber and cherry tomatoes. The main dish was a clam, oyster mushroom, and spinach pesto carbonara. The pasta was 60 yen for the portion I used (the last of two packs of pasta we bought in 2020; I don’t make pasta dishes often), the portion of pesto was about 80 yen, the oyster mushrooms 150 yen, and the portion of spinach 40 yen. The clams I bought that morning at 50% off because the expiration date was that day, so they cost 150 yen. Total cost was 480 yen (around 4.80USD in real purchasing power) for my wife and I to eat dinner and her to have lunch the next day (and again, this was day two of fancier dinners to make up for the fact we couldn’t have our usual date night). Rather than a luxury, cooking at home is simply a far more economical way of eating and stretching financial resources than fast food and pre-cooked meals. The kids had butter toast, some buttered noodles, cherry tomatoes and a healthy granola cereal for dessert since they are both picky and my wife doesn’t like fighting over getting them to eat. I changed my daughter’s diaper again, changed her clothes, then we watched Encanto together (in Japanese), before I went for a short run, took a shower, and then played Smash an hour with my son before eating a bit of bread and having another bowl of chocolate rice crispies right before bed,

I’m tired of the image of wellness as glamorous and perfect. Set on artificial stages of pure white and uncluttered kitchens and spacious dining rooms in big homes that don’t appear to have people and certainly not children or elderly living in them. No sense of seasonality because folks are paying premium for long-distance shipped ingredients. I think the message of expensive meals, whose prep time is hidden or misrepresented, has the opposite of effect of driving people away from wellness and burning those out who try to emulate its unrealistic standards, and in the end, it turns into another form of online prancing and showing off. But I am also tired of the people that whine and hand-wring as if any form of wellness is impossible without a six-figure income on a part-time job. Sunday, I shopped, prepped three meals for a family of 4 (not including the breastfeeding infant whose care I helped with), baked a pie, cleaned the kitchen and did dishes twice, played online scrabble, spent over two hours running, did laundry, and still had time to play Smash and watch over four hours of movies and anime with my family. I detest the lazy and narrow definitions of what self-care and relaxation is, as if having to do anything related to maintaining a household on your day off is tantamount to not being able to relax at all, and I say this as an ADHD sufferer with bad executive dysfunction. Taking care of household duties, meal prep, and the like, are simply not that time-consuming or physically difficult for those without existing medical conditions (who are a majority of the people whining online). You can work at your own pace, take breaks, pursue your hobbies, enjoy delicious, healthy and simple meals (I spent little over an hour prepping three meals of different things for different people on Sunday), and not break your spirit or bank book.

I look at the ongoing culture wars in America from a distance (in Japan, where I will probably apply for citizenship in the near future), with an ever-growing sense of exhaustion. Personally, I often feel there is space between frivolous criticism (the hallmark of which is to ignore socio-economic conditions, and to focus on marginal issues like BMI which is more contingent on genetic and hormonal conditions than diet), and spurious permissiveness that seeks to avoid critique of an increasingly lazy, self-centered, high-strung, and vain American culture. I think you can make the cultural criticisms without class warfare (if anything these cultural problems are worse among the upper class than the poor) or fat-shaming and without failing to mention the culpability of big corporations and corporate profit-seeking (for instance, the rise of high fructose sweeteners).

For example, “choose your hard” memes are, for the twentieth time, infuriating and miss a huge part of the picture, but leftist memes that are like “you assuming pEopLe have kItcHeNs just shows how clueless you are about how poverty works” which idiotically acts like contemporary America has an issue with people having no access to cooking ware of any form, or that because a fraction of a percent of the population is homeless, we suddenly cannot make any separate criticisms of culture and habits. My goal, personally, is to highlight affordable healthy lifestyles like, again, oatmeal, but also beans, onions, cabbage, mushrooms, peanuts, carrots, and so on—ingredients that are neither expensive or time-intensive to prep. And yes, the issue is a majority structural; America has a government that doesn’t teach any practical life skills in public education settings it seems; certainly, there are no cooking and nutrition classes and classes on meal planning and shopping, which leaves a lot of stressed, tired, and uninformed people dependent on brand name preprocessed foods. The same foods that are more vulnerable to inflation because of the corporate greed and economic heft of the huge conglomerates that own them, and which also have few incentives to improve quality or nutrition.

But the thing about structural problems is they often create independent cultural problems, cultural problems that, contrary to what anthropologists like Marvin Harris predicted, live on long past the original structural process (a certain form of capitalism, government policy, famine, etc.) that created them. Likewise, the American culture of convenience and instant gratification in all things is itself a driving factor that crafts business decisions and corporate policy, enables the worst elements of corporate excess, and has made this crippling health crisis an often invisible issue in the pantheon of Leftist policy discussion and activism, even as it intersects health care (contributing to enormous per capita health costs in America compared to say, France or Japan due partially to high rates of chronic diseases), and socioeconomics. The people hit the hardest, and with the least access to both the skills and knowledge implicit in exclusionary wellness narratives (because again, wellness has been largely co-opted by a small class of rich upper class white people, largely conservative and vaccine/medicine skeptical too), are the poor, whose lifespans were already starting to drop before COVID and have taken the brunt of the hit in U.S. Life Expectancy from COVID-19, and also face a critical health crisis in terms of growing numbers of lifestyle illnesses, many of which have no simple cure and whose basic management (not dying) is costly and requires continuous medication. America is broken, yes, but America is not an artificial, external thing, it is Americans collectively, and to fix it, there needs to be a sense of individual responsibility for endemic problems, because collective change and collective improvements only happen through such individual responsibility and activism, not foisting everything off onto abstract academic concepts of externalized, fully independent systems that exist in a vacuum.

 


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