The producer and director of the Oscar®-nominated documentary Food, Inc. gives you seven ways to make better food choices—your family's health depends on it.
I came to the subject of food and nutrition as a filmmaker—not as an expert or an activist, but as someone who was interested in exploring our nation's food industry. While making Food, Inc., I discovered a lot of things that troubled me about America's food system. What struck me the most is the unseen cost of our low-cost food system. We spend less on food today than ever before, but will we be paying higher costs down the line in regard to our health?
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan brilliantly lays out the argument that corn is the key driver of the industrial food system. Our government subsidizes corn and encourages farmers to grow it. So much corn is being grown that it shows up in just about everything we buy, from the processed foods in the supermarkets to the meat and poultry we eat.
The low cost of corn has driven prices of other food down. When a gallon of soda is cheaper than a gallon of fresh milk, families are faced with the difficult decision of deciding what is most important: Feed their families something healthy and not have money left over for necessities; or fill them up with something affordable that also may be bad for their health.
This dilemma of having to chose between costly, healthy food and affordable food that may have negative repercussions really hit home when we filmed in a Southern California community that is considered a "food desert"—a place where there are virtually no supermarkets, but lots of fast food options. We met parents that wanted the best for their children, but they were drawn to fast food because it was inexpensive. It filled them up and was easily available.
The problem is that this family and many others may be saving costs, but they also may be paying a higher price down the line. This particular community suffers a disproportionately high level of diabetes, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children born in the United States in 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives.
How can we break this vicious cycle when we're hardwired to crave fat, sugar and salt—the very things that lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease?
Here are a few things I learned while making Food, Inc. that might be useful to your family. Take what you can from these tips, but more importantly, I hope you will begin to feel that you have more choices than you might be aware of.
Limit your family's consumption of soda or candy. They are loaded with unnecessary calories and absolutely zero nutrition. Save these treats for special occasions a few times a year.
Read labels on packaged and canned foods. If you see a number of ingredients you can't pronounce, think twice. Author Michael Pollan says, "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
Try to buy "whole foods" that have not been processed. Things like fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, meat and poultry, fish and whole grain breads are good options.
Prepare meals at home as often as you can. Your family budget will go further. Try cooking in bulk on the weekends. Big pots of beans and rice are a perfect protein combination that is very economical. Also, spending time with your family at the dinner table is a wonderful way to check in with your kids. The time you spend there could be the most valuable of all.
Find out what's on your children's school menus for lunch and breakfast. Improving the food options available to growing children is something we can all support. Sign the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization petition and support providing healthy food choices in our nation's schools.
Suggest starting a vegetable garden at your local school. This will help nutrition and healthy food become a topic of daily discussion and will reinforce the messages you are trying to teach your family at the home level.
Check out the Let's Move program, featuring first lady Michelle Obama. This site is loaded with facts about healthy eating and information on where to get healthy food in your community.
It is time for all of us to make a commitment to take back the table from the fast food companies and the corporate marketers of junk food.
I am asking you as parents to question what is in the foods you are buying at the supermarket or fast food restaurants. Is it healthy for your family? Would your great-grandmother recognize it? Or is it loaded with sugars, fat and sodium?
Read the labels and read the facts. Decide what is right for you and take action every day to make your life and your family's life healthier. Your family's health is up to you, and you are the one who has to lead the way in breaking this unhealthy eating cycle.