There's nothing like a block of frozen spinach to make you feel bad about your family dinner. There's good food and bad food and pretty food and ugly food--and then there's the frozen-spinach block. By any rights, this is not something you should want to eat. The picture on the box looks lovely, and the very idea of eating spinach is healthy. But what you find inside is a frosty, slightly slimy, algae-colored slab.
Somewhere out there--maybe just a five-minute drive from your house--a farmer's market is selling fresh, organic leaf spinach that might have been sprouting from the soil an hour ago. This, as we're told by any number of glossy cookbooks, TV cooking shows, food snobs and long-winded restaurant menus, is how we're supposed to eat now. It may be more expensive than that frozen block of spinach. And more perishable. And more complicated to prepare. But it's all worth it because it's so much healthier than the green ice from the supermarket. Right?
Wrong. Nutritionally speaking, there is little difference between the farmer's-market bounty and the humble brick from the freezer case. It's true for many other supermarket foods too. And in my view, dispelling these myths--that boutique foods are good, supermarket foods are suspect and you have to spend a lot to eat well--is critical to improving our nation's health. Organic food is great, it's just not very democratic. As a food lover, I enjoy truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes as much as the next person. But as a doctor, I know that patients don't always have the time, energy or budget to shop for artisanal ingredients and whip them into a meal.
The rise of foodie culture over the past decade has venerated all things small-batch, local-farm and organic--all with premium price tags. But let's be clear: you don't need to eat like the 1% to eat healthily. After several years of research and experience, I have come to an encouraging conclusion: the American food supply is abundant, nutritionally sound, affordable and, with a few simple considerations, comparable to the most elite organic diets. Save the cash; the 99% diet can be good for you.
This advice will be a serious buzz kill for specialty brands and high-end food companies marketing the exclusive hyperhealthy nature of their more expensive products. But I consider it a public-health service to the consumer who has to feed a family of five or the person who wants to make all the right choices and instead is alienated and dejected because the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism, with all the expense and culinary affectation that implies. The fact is, a lot of the stuff we ate in childhood can be good for you and good to eat--if you know how to shop.
Of course, there's a lot to steer clear of in the supermarket. Food technologists know what we like and make sure we always have our favorites. So alongside meat and fruits and veggies, there's also pasta, jelly, chips, pizza, candy, soda and more. Is it any wonder two-thirds of us are overweight or obese? Is it any wonder heart disease still kills so many of us?