What to Eat? It Depends Who You Ask

by Hannah Packman

The question of what to eat perplexes many Americans. We’re constantly barraged by conflicting dietary advice, much of which does not fit within our personal preferences or cultural practices. To help navigate this rocky territory, seven Friedman professors offer their take on the matter.

“What should I eat?”

As a food and agriculture student, I am frequently asked this by friends and relatives. It’s a question rife with controversy and complexity, one that I don’t generally feel comfortable answering, despite having a relatively comprehensive background in nutrition. There are countless contingencies that can influence dietary needs and preferences – religion, cultural practices, family tradition, ethical values, and personal biology and psychology, among many others. While my own diet – mostly vegan, mostly unprocessed, with plenty of chocolate and coffee – works for me, I would be remiss to universally recommend it, as it would inevitably dissatisfy a great number of people. So rather than address this question myself, I’ve asked seven Friedman professors to share their own thoughts on this quintessential dietary dilemma.

What do you eat on a normal day?

Sean Cash
Breakfast is typically berries, a toasted whole grain bagel with some sort of protein on it, and a few cups of tea. At work, I bring a big pile of fruits and veggies in, some leftovers from the night before or a sandwich, and graze throughout much of the day, usually at my desk or in meetings. My favorite afternoon snacks include almonds (the alleged villainous nut du jour!), Belvita crackers, and bananas. In the evening, anything goes: sushi and other fish dishes are favorites for meals out, but favorite meals at home lately include salads, pastas, homemade pizzas, oven-roasted chicken, and lots of broccoli and squash side dishes, washed down with a glass or two of barley juice.

Parke Wilde
Breakfast at the kitchen counter at home: coffee and Cheerios with granola sprinkled on the cereal.

Lunch at my desk: two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and an apple from home, with a chocolate chip cookie and a coffee from Au Bon Pain.

Supper: pasta and pesto, with a big plate of salad, and some bean soup brought over by a friend who works in food service at a Waldorf school and who is passionate about never seeing food wasted.
Beverages during the day: water, coffee, and a beer or wine around 9 p.m. when early evening work or trip to gym is done.

Will Masters
Weekday breakfast is black coffee and toast with peanut butter and jam. Weekend breakfasts vary a lot, but lately I’m liking French toast. The lunch bag that I bring to Jaharis has leftovers from dinner, plus fruit, yogurt, muesli, and other stuff that I eat a couple of times during the day, maybe around 11 and again at 3 or 4. I often have peanut butter in the office that I eat with a spoon.

My wife loves to cook, so dinner is her choice: always a lot of cooked vegetables, and always a salad, often with beans or lentils and blue cheese or goat cheese, sometimes fish or meat. It usually includes pasta or rice or potatoes only when we have guests, and even then sometimes not.

Caloric beverages are pretty rare and alcohol triggers migraines, so I only drink when necessary.

Dariush Mozaffarian
Usual breakfast: whole-fat plain yogurt, almonds, blueberries, raisins, glass of OJ.  Weekends: eggs/veggie/cheese scramble, lox, or homemade whole-wheat blueberry pancakes with fresh walnuts and berries.

Usual lunches: sushi; tuna in oil and a cheese Panini with olive oil, carrots and hummus.

Typical dinners: big mixed salad with walnuts, cheese, avocado, olive oil; salmon, asparagus, mixed veggie quinoa; mozzarella and beef tomato salad.

Desserts: dark chocolate (65%+) almost every day; daily espresso; frequent fresh fruit; occasionally Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (Colbert’s Americone Dream is a favorite).

Diane McKay
Well, breakfast is usually a bowl of cut-up fruit with non-fat milk and a little granola sprinkled on top. Lunch is a salad with beans and a grain (usually chick peas and corn) with a little olive oil-based dressing.  My afternoon snack is either an apple, popcorn, or a few pretzel crackers with spinach hummus. Dinner is more varied. My favorite is grilled salmon with some brown rice and a big serving of fresh vegetables – all paired with a lovely pinot noir. Dessert is usually some type of cut up melon or grapes.

Bea Rogers
I ALWAYS start the day with coffee! That’s the one constant. In the summer my standard breakfast is berries or peaches with milk and a sprinkle of cheerios.  I’m much more varied in the winter: whole grain bread with gjetost (brown goat cheese) is one of my favorites, but whole grain toast with peanut or almond butter is another. I eat berries and milk in the winter too, if anything looks decent at the supermarket. Or fruit and (plain) yogurt.

My standard lunch on weekdays is salad with my homemade dressing, some cut up cheese and a cut-up half-apple or pear.
I cook dinner most night. Meat, chicken, or fish…with a couple of vegetables (always).  I make hearty soups for dinner fairly frequently.

I keep nuts in my office for snacks, and I also keep nuts in my car for the same purpose.  I don’t dare admit I usually have cookies in my office too, which I share at meetings.

Christian Peters
I generally eat three meals plus one to two snacks. Breakfast and dinner are the most regular, eaten at home around 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively. I eat lunch daily, but the timing varies depending on the day’s schedule and my appetite. I often have a snack in the late afternoon, sometimes dessert in the evening.

What do I eat? All over the map in terms of cuisine. Here are some typical meals:

Breakfast: yogurt with fruit, toast with peanut butter and jam, coffee.

Lunch: leftovers from previous night’s dinner.

Dinner: ranges widely, but includes vegetables, grains, and a protein source.

Snack: coffee or tea and a cookie.

What do you prioritize most when eating – sustainability, ethics, nutrition, taste, or some combination?

Sean Cash
I favor nutrition and taste, but also pay attention to sustainability and price. I’m fortunate that I enjoy eating things that I also think are fairly good for me and honestly prefer savory to sweet, but don’t sweat it much when I want an indulgence. When I do, it’s usually a donut or more barley juice.

Parke Wilde
We enjoy food greatly and arrive at a meal pattern that is healthy, sustainable, inexpensive, and personally meaningful, without worrying much about any of those goals.

 Will Masters
An overriding goal is to find a mix that suits the whole family without too much waste of time or money or other resources, including packaging and food waste as such. I generally find no conflict at all between nutrition and taste: for the many unhealthy things that I find delicious, like Nutella (palm oil!) and all kinds of charcuterie, they’re most delicious in small quantities so there’s no real compromise involved.

The harder goals for me are ethics and sustainability. In my experience working on various types of farms, any use of animals other than as pets involves some degree of cruelty. So I just limit animal-sourced foods as much as possible. I believe that eating eggs and milk and fish probably does somewhat less violence to the world than eating meat, and I believe that beef does a bit less violence than poultry or pork, but none of it seems benign to me.

In general I expect that my priorities are fairly typical of the Friedman community, except maybe regarding sustainability: I don’t aim to reduce food miles and I don’t credit organic certification for much, because my reading of the evidence is that these don’t actually help regarding climate change or biodiversity or anything else I really care about.

Dariush Mozaffarian
Taste and how it makes me feel, that day and over the week. Fortunately, both of these criteria match nearly perfectly with good health. It’s a marketing- and modern-culture-driven myth that good food tastes worse, or is much more expensive.

Diane McKay
Taste, nutrition, and health issues are the reasons why I choose most foods.

Bea Rogers
I always think about taste, nutritional quality, and calories. Pretty much all at once.  I think about issues of sustainability and ethics, of course (given where I work), but it’s not really front and center when I go to the supermarket. I guess I choose organic when there’s a choice. I buy all my produce at the local farmers market during the season. I really do prioritize fresh and local when available, mostly because it just tastes better.

Christian Peters
All of these factor in, albeit imperfectly.

Do you have any rules of thumb or general guiding principles when deciding what to eat?

Sean Cash
I don’t eat red meat beyond a taste from a friend’s plate, and a few years ago I started finding that fried foods and dairy bothered my stomach so I avoid them most of the time.

I love donuts and when I lived in Alberta I walked by three Tim Horton’s donut shops between home and work. I put myself on a “once per week” rule as I was afraid it might become my regular breakfast, and have kept to that after returning to the land of Dunkin’ Donuts.

Parke Wilde
Real food. Low cost. Little or no meat (but not vegetarian).

Will Masters
My overall rule of thumb is to eat low on the value-added food chain. Those are things grown mostly by hand, without too much water or fuel use, so consuming them might help pull up farmers’ earnings and limit natural-resource use.

In general, if you want to know how big the environmental footprint of something is, you can start with its price tag–that gives you a rough approximation of the total amount of economic activity embedded in it. Then you can guess at the share of that activity which is just labor, and among the rest you can guess at the product’s degree of energy-intensity and other major sources of externality burden on other people.

About nutrition, a guiding principle is that I generally believe the results of careful meta-analyses of big cohort studies. Since I can’t do epidemiology myself I have to trust what I read about which dietary patterns are associated with healthy outcomes. Eventually there might be enough randomized trials in various settings to have experimental evidence, but for now I’ll continue with yogurt and tree nuts and fruits and vegetables because of observational data. For things I can observe myself, like my own energy levels and weight gain/loss, I do a lot of self-experimentation to see how different things feel — but for long-term health I have to follow what works in the cohort studies.

My final rule is not to take any particular rule too seriously — I think what’s dangerous for diets, as for many things in life, is self-certainty. The Internet worsens our tendency to live in information bubbles.  In my experience, the key to healthy living is an open mind.

Dariush Mozaffarian
I eat what tastes good and makes me feel good – energy for my body, mind, and soul.

Diane McKay
I eat mostly vegetarian, including dairy, but try to include fish three times a week. I try to stick with organic dairy products, and for produce I choose whatever looks good or is in season at my local market. My beverage of choice these days is water; no more espresso or diet Coke.

Bea Rogers
I never drink soda! I don’t believe in wasting calories on drinks… that includes soda and fruit juice. (But not coffee.) I try to keep low-carb (that is, I avoid refined grains and sugar, pasta and potatoes) and eat mostly whole grain (bread, pasta, rice) and eat lots of fruit and vegetables. I can go without meat at dinner, but not without vegetables. But since I cook for myself and my husband, generally we have a meat/poultry/fish protein source at dinner.

Christian Peters
I seek to eat meals that have a balance of flavors and textures and that constitute a complete meal. Nutritionally, my meals almost always include grains, vegetables and/or fruit, dairy and/or protein. In terms of taste, meals usually contain a mix of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and pungent flavors. At home, we typically cook meat (or fish) 1-2 times per week, though this may get included in multiple meals. The rest of the meals rely on eggs, beans, tofu, cheese, yogurt, or nuts for protein. I drink coffee or tea in the morning and in the afternoon, otherwise water is my drink of choice.

Hannah Packman is a second year student in the Agriculture, Food and Environment masters program. When she isn’t busy filling her head with food-related facts, she enjoys filling her stomach with food-related objects.

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