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I just finished reading a very interesting and infuriating article that I highly recommend you read. It is by Michael Moss and is an adaptation of his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The article focuses on the way that food companies design and market foods to appeal to the consumer and to make sure they eat as much as possible as frequently as possible. It examines the way that the food companies intentionally manipulate their recipes to ensure that their customers can’t help but come back for more. In other words, how they design their products just like a drug. As someone for whom junk food has been a nearly constant companion for 35+ years, I can assure you that, yes, these foods are addictive and that breaking that addiction is incredibly hard. I’ll let the article speak for itself and encourage you to check it out. There are a few things that did strike me as interesting and I thought were worth commenting on from the perspective of a Buddhist and as someone who has suffered because of the way these foods are carefully crafted to encourage a consumer to eat more.

One of the food scientists that Mr. Moss interviewed is Howard Moskowitz. He was responsible for revolutionizing things like spaghetti sauce, Dr. Pepper and the MRE’s that are served to members of the Army. His approach is thoroughly grounded in research and experimentation. His models plot hundreds of data points in order to identify a range of configurations for these foods that people will enjoy and want more of. His work has influenced the entire processed food industry and it changed the way that the food companies formulate and package their products. When confronted with the negative impact that his research has had on the lives of millions of people, he had a very interesting defense.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

When I read this line, I had to stop for a few moments and take a few deep breaths. I have to ask, when did being a moral creature become a luxury? I understand the pain of struggling to survive. I grew up in a home that, while not in poverty, was certainly not affluent. Free lunches and food stamps were a part of my life growing up and I have struggled as an adult to provide for my family. It is hard to do, but at no time did I ever consider maintaining my morals to be a luxury. Two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Action  and Right Livelihood. These two components encourage us to end suffering in ourselves and in others by acting in a way that will not harm others and by choosing a profession that does not bring harm to another being. Mr. Moskowitz did not approach his career or work with this kind of mindset and, in so doing, millions of people have suffered from obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke and early death or been effected by a loved one who did. Here we see the way that the actions of one person have had long term negative ramifications for more people than one could hope to count. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stark example of just how important living according to the principles of the Eightfold Path are in relieving or preventing of suffering.

Frito-Lay spent $30 million a year to develop snacks that would appeal to changes in consumer tastes. According to the article, Frito-Lay learned that

Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks.

In response, they developed snacks that would be more appealing as meal replacements. They worked with scientists, marketers and psychologists to design new snacks to appeal to consumers who were in a hurry. New flavors added to current product lines were designed to maximize “bliss” so that eating these new snacks would become a regular thing rather than an occasional thing. They created products that encouraged people to forget about regular meals and, as has been examined in other places (herehere and here) encouraged the decline in cooking and food preparation skills.

In this case, I believe that a lack of right mindfulness, right effort and right concentration on the part of our society as a whole allowed the food companies to replace cooking with convenience. We have lost the aptitude to take time for making simple things in exchange for constant movement and stimulation. Having foods that are easy to heat and serve or to open up and dig into make the effort of cooking superfluous.  Why make spaghetti sauce when you can open a jar and heat it up? I’m at the top of the “guilty” list for this kind of behavior and I have the physique to prove it. I went to culinary school and I find great enjoyment in cooking and preparing food but I still reach for the box or the jar or the can in order to save time. Here’s a basic recipe that I have used before to make tomato sauce. It’s very low in sugar because of the natural sweetness of the carrots and considerably lower in sodium than any pre-made sauce you can buy. The tomato paste is the closest thing to a prepared food item in the list and it is not really necessary and (at 1 teaspoon) is really just a flavoring agent and not a significant source of salt or fat. I prefer to use fresh parsley, basil and garlic but, if you are working on a time crunch, those ingredients can be found in “convenience” versions (pre-chopped, dried, etc.). This sauce takes 45 minutes to make, assuming that chopping the onion, carrot and celery takes you a long time. It’s possible to make this in large batches and set it aside in the freezer for future use. It’s also a fairly simple sauce and is the base sauce for a lot of other really delicious and nutritious options. The foods we eat don’t have to be from cans or boxes or bags, but we have to be willing to put forth the right effort to make sure we are not falling prey to the food giants any longer.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
1 small stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and parsley. Stir to coat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

2 Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook for garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shred them with your fingers if you are using canned whole tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency.

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What happens when you start something, make great progress, redefine what a “normal” life is and then lose it all? That’s a question I’m asking myself lately because that’s what I did. I lost over 60 pounds and felt better than I had in a very long time. The next 40 pounds seemed like a small bump in the road compared to the hurdles I had already crossed. Losing weight was second nature at that point and I was going to coast to my goal. Then my life got turned upside down. Then it got turned upside down again and again and again. I spent 2011 and the first part of 2012 just struggling to keep my head above the emotional waters I was drowning in. I was in survival mode and all the progress I’d made evaporated. Sixty pounds down, sixty-five back up. The clothes that were stuck in the back of the closet never to be worn again made their way to the front and even they started to feel a little tight. I didn’t have the energy or the emotional bandwidth to focus on being healthy or mindful. I was still meditating and that helped me to stay focused through the turbulence and make decisions that reduced the suffering of myself and others but I wasn’t able to draw strength from it to be mindful of what I was putting inside myself.

And now, here I am. Back at square one. I watched my scale go over the 33o mark and not stop. I lost hope of ever losing again. I figured I was doomed to a life of medical complications from obesity. I had failed. Then, at this very low point, I remembered that this is how I felt when I first started to lose weight. I re-read some of my old posts and saw that I was repeating 2010 all over again. I realized if I did it once, I could do it again. I talked with a friend about the need to make positive life choices and started to focus once again on doing that. The emotional turmoil I was dealing with has mostly subsided and I have learned how to cope and with things and process issues as they arise. I could do it.  I will do. I am doing it.

I’ve started exercising again. I haven’t had soda for a week. I’m paying attention to the food choices I make and I’m trying to plan ahead to have healthy foods when it is time to eat. I am focusing on why I eat what I do and asking myself if it’s a good idea to eat it. I’ve already lost seven pounds. There is a saying in Zen, “Correct Situation, Correct Function, Correct Action” and I’m trying to put this into practice when I sit down to eat. At a meal time, the situation is to provide my body the fuel it needs to be healthy. The correct function is to eat mindfully and be aware of how my body responds to eating. The correct action is to eat foods that are healthy for my body and to stop once I’ve provided the fuel my body needs. When I find myself craving sugar or fats or unhealthy foods I am asking myself what the correct action and correct function is for the situation I find myself in. Ten times out of ten, the correct function and action is to not eat the unhealthy food or drink the sugary drink. I haven’t made healthy decisions every single time but more often than not I am. When I do make the wrong choice I am making it a point to have compassion on myself and to pay close attention to the long-term negative effects of the bad choice rather than the short-term reward of a quick fix. Reminding myself that after the soda there is a crash and being mindful of that crash makes it easier to resist the next time around. Last night I wanted a soda so bad I could taste it. I chose to focus on the task that I was supposed to be doing instead and sent a text message to a friend for support and a reminder that I’m making the right choice. It was just one small victory in a long chain of good decisions that will lead me back to good health.

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