I used to routinely say that when I would order Chinese food in New York City. Everyone knew that MSG—monosodium glutamate—was bad. Really bad. The "flavor enhancer"—a crystalline powder chemical patented by the Japanese in 1909—has been shown to increase or cause obesity, headaches, rapid heartbeats, breathing difficulty, numbness, nausea and all sorts of other fun sensations.
Oh, and enough of it can burst your taste buds wide open.
So we healthy types smugly demanded that it be left out of our Chinese food. But what most of us didn't bother to learn back then was that MSG was in our Campbell's soup, Rice A Roni, take-out pizza, most fast food and thousands of items routinely bought in the grocery story.
It wasn't until nearly a decade ago that I started paying attention to what I was really consuming. Todd and I read a book by Dr. Andrew Weil, "Eight Weeks to Optimum Health." It was a deceptively simple approach to getting healthier. The first week you walk 10 minutes four times a week, then 15 the next and so on until you were in an exercise routine, for instance. We dug the gradual approach, and it worked.
On the diet end, though, Dr. Weil wasn't so gradual. Early in the book, he tells you to get your butt into your cabinets and get rid off all the stuff likely to cause you health problems. In other words, you didn't gradually lose the junk; you cleaned out your cabinets and started over with as many organic and non-pesticide-treated foods as possible. You learned to read labels, and you just didn't buy certain items any longer. And when you wanted treats, you learned to choose healthier versions and eat the bad stuff much less often.
So we tackled our cabinets. Suddenly, we found that grocery shopping took longer as we had to figure out what we couldn't buy. One night, I rolled around the corner with our shopping cart and saw Todd standing there holding a roll of Pillsbury sugar cookies in front of his eyes, his bottom lip poked out about an inch. Now, we just skip whole sections at the market, and it's quicker than ever.
In many ways, choosing a more organic lifestyle required a sea change in attitude. But the good news was that we had fun doing it. And because we've never been wealthy, it wasn't like we could go out and buy everything organic in sight. And then, "clean" organics weren't in the grocery stores, being put on sale just like chemical-laden food (which I like to call "corporate" food) as they are now.
We had to learn to bargain-shop health-food stores (like Rainbow co-op) where you can often buy foods like pastas, grains and flours in bulk (big fun). We watched for sales and stocked up on organic soups just like I used to with Campbell's and Progresso. We also gave up meat, so that helped, financially, as does just having meat once or twice a week, or more often in tiny portions.
We also decided to just be excited about learning how to be healthy. We read books, and magazines and, most importantly, food labels. We learned to substitute better ingredients in recipes we loved. And we allowed our tastebuds to adjust to slight changes, which doesn't take long. (I make a delicious version of my mama's Thanksgiving dressing, for instance, without a drop of trans-fat or MSG in sight.)
Speaking of my mama—I have to tell you that my mother was the best cook ever born in Mississippi (and that's saying something). And she used all sorts of bad ingredients—trans-fat oils, soups with MSG, pesticide-soaked produce, hormone-laden chickens and dairy products, you name it. Her food was delicious, and I used to love to come home from up north and eat "home-cooking." I certainly understand why people don't want to touch their traditions, even as the corporate food companies make many ingredients less healthy with every passing year.
But you know what? My mother died at age 65. My father died at age 50. My stepfather died at age 60. All of them had myriad health problems throughout much of their adult lives, as do many Mississippians (we are the least healthy state, have the highest obesity and low birthrates, and the highest rates of many diseases—all affected by bad diets and exercise habits).
I would gladly have given up every plate of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and pork-soaked vegetables that my mama ever set in front of me if she was still here to give me a hug when I need one.
Folks, we owe it to ourselves, our children and our state to improve our diets. The best place to start is by hauling ass into the pantry.