Thoughts on Food

Because ‘Food for Thought’ felt too cliché.


Growing up, eating well meant eating low-fat; I felt good about a snack of instant oatmeal and Diet Coke. When I started to gain weight in college, the concept of looking at a food label for ingredients instead of calories was altogether foreign, and later, while living in New York, I swung between street meat, my aunt’s macrobiotic home cooking and an uncomfortably tight waistband.

I currently split my time between NYC and Northern New Mexico, surrounded by small farms and fresh food. In this new life with little conveniences or nearby McDonalds, I basically have no choice but to eat well. Ironically, once I stopped worrying about calories and started focusing on actual health, numbers on the scale became a non-issue.

21 year-old me was a different story — I’d basically eat sugar-free crap all day so long as I consumed no more than 1250 cal. Counting calories felt like a good way to be health-conscious, because every woman I knew was keeping track in one way or another.

At some point in the last few years, though, actual health became more important than dress size. For me, the shift came thanks to a few wise women and herbalists who helped explain what my body actually needed. Once I realized how well I could function with the right fuel, the seed was planted for a larger overhaul. And while it got me down to a steady, healthy weight, that was no longer as important to me as the improvements I was seeing in overall health.

What’s more, I’m seeing a similar trend among friends and relatives. Ten years ago, the women in my family opted for aspartame and low-fat milk in their coffee; now, the few who still drink coffee wouldn’t touch Sweet-N-Low. Meals are as delicious and joyful as always, but very little comes pre-packaged. Part of that is motivated by the awareness of sickness that comes with age. However, it seems there’s also a larger cultural change — while it still costs a fortune, organic food is no longer reserved for conspiracy theorists and the uber-wealthy.

The organic food market is expected to grow 14% per year over the next 4 years, and organic food production in the US increased 240% between 2002 and 2011. While healthful eating isn’t solely about eating organic, the increased production is a good measure for interest in eating well. It may be optimistic, but I don’t think we’re that far off from a time when girls are less worried about their weight and more aware of their waning energy post-candy bar.

To be clear, this isn’t an “I lost weight and you can do it, too!” post, or a plea for everyone to start gardens on their roof. (Though that would be amazing.) Nor is it a celebration of some great personal accomplishment — I will always want a pack of Twizzlers when I see them. But the sense of constant deprivation, and the embarrassment or hubris that comes from either succumbing to or resisting temptation no longer exists.

So, I guess my question is: have you felt a cultural change in the approach to food and calories? What about among your friends? Has it affected you or your habits? Does it feel like just another diet? Or is it finally a healthy, sustainable life-change?

Image via Vogue Brasil

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  • I’ve taught people how to change their relationship with food to lose excess weight, for the past 6 years, and I can tell you based on my professional opinion — there’s been a huge change in general education about how to eat.

    My average client now often knows to listen to her body, that overeating isn’t really about the food, that sugar + fats have undesirable health consequences beyond chub. Our work now is HOW to do that. VERSUS: Six years ago, clients came to me to lose weight, and when I told them it’s about changing their relationship with food, they’d roll their eyes.

    I have personally struggled with controlling food intake to be skinny, obsessing over all of that, it’s truly the pits. I look wayyyyyy better and feel my best now that I eat for health and detoxification (whole foods + food combining), and would never in 10 million years would deprive myself or live my rules. I never thought I would be able to effortless live this healthily — let alone not even want a diet coke.

    • Kate Barnett

      Yes! i’m so pleased to have this confirmed. i feel like when i first started becoming truly health conscious there was still this underlying interest in physical appearance over health. and obviously i’ll always want to look good, but once that shift in priorities happened and my interest became genuine, it turned into this beautiful experience and opportunity to learn.

      by the way, food combining is HUGE for me. as someone who doesn’t handle sugar well and is always spiking and crashing, learning how to combine foods made such a difference.

      • I’m so with you — I’ll always want to look good, too, and the priority shift was *it* for me. I love how you called it beautiful.

        Also: food combining! Blood sugar! Yay!

  • Kate! I really love your input and wisdom when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. Man, this site just teaches you how to live well all around, huh? I have definitely felt a change when it comes to “thoughts on food”. I now look at artificial sweetener as the devil, and cringe at the thought of a lean cuisine. I would much rather have a 500 calorie meal consisting of real food than a boxed up 250 calorie frozen meal. I learned most of this on a “clean eating” cleanse I did last year. The cost of eating well can be tricky, but I like to live by the rule, “what you pay for now for health you won’t have to pay for doubly later” That is also how I justify my expensive gym clothing purchases. For me it can be a real uphill battle to stay healthy, but it is now a lot more important to me to check the ingredients list on the label than the calories marked. My father recently had a heart attack, so he’s completely converted to a healthier lifestyle. I heard him on the phone the other day telling his BFF “man, I used to come home and eat a handful of cheez-its before dinner, you won’t believe the crap that’s in those things!” So believe me, if that man has changed his thoughts on food, then there is 100% a movement. UGH AND NOW I REALLY WANT A ROOF GARDEN!!!

    • mind you, I wrote all of that after I just tweeted that I’ve been eating sweet tarts for the past two days.

  • Kate

    I love eating healthy, but I also love snacks… who doesn’t? I’ve always been conscious of what I eat but I think people don’t realize that they NEED calories, they NEED fats. If I’m going to indulge, I’m not grabbing for the sugar-free BS, the low fat sour cream on my extra cheesy tacos, etc. The way I see it, if I’m only indulging in these once in a while, I might as go all out with the full-fat, full-sugar!

    I have a smoothie everyday with tons of greens and any fruit that is seasonal. To make it more filling, I add half a roasted sweet potato so I feel fuller longer. It’s extra calories, but I don’t get caught up in that. It tastes awesome and is PACKED with nutrients. Definitely recommend the sweet potato trick!

    • Okay, not to over comment here — I have a green smoothie every morning too! To fill me up I add a plant based protein, allegedly it helps absorb all the other nutrients. Currently it’s hemp seed. Bonus points cause it’s a super food.

      I’ll have to try sweet potato. Love them.

  • Quinn Halman

    I was talking about this with my friend’s mom and we both made the observation that teenage bodies are so different now, than they were 20, 30, and 40 years ago due to all the hormones that are in our food. A few weeks before going to India, I decided to go veggie to adjust to not having any meat for a while and it’s stuck. I all of a sudden got this mentality and have just been eating stuff from mother earth. And baby food because it’s basically a smoothie on the go in a pouch.

    • Kate

      I’ve been veg for over 5 years! Mainly because the idea of eating flesh makes me wanna die… and the meat industry is NAST.

    • Kate Barnett

      ha! still have to try the baby food smoothie. i never really considered becoming a vegetarian, but our eggs come from next door (still lobbying the boyfriend to start keeping chickens of our own) and i try to get the best meat possible. i was always really turned off from sport hunting, but we have friends who try to get one elk per season and then have great meat for the rest of the year. it’s the first time i’ve actually realized some people hunt for meat, or known people who do.

      • Rebeka Osborne

        I always surprise people when I tell them I hunt. I try to get a deer every year so that I have lots of good quality, lean meat to eat when I choose to eat meat. I hate the idea of hunting for “sport” but hunting for meat is totally different and totally acceptable in my book. Also, all the organic veggies! Everything in moderation, etc. I really enjoyed this post.

        • Kate Barnett

          that’s amazing! yeah, it’s an aspect of food i never really thought about, but seeing that it can be done with respect and subsequently provide families with such good nutrition has piqued my interest. i love animals and seem to keep adopting strays, but we just ‘processed’ our first rooster this year, who i’d hatched and loved and named Cecil, but who was way too aggressive for the hens. i was horrified by the idea but figured if i’m going to eat chicken, and if i actually want to keep them for eggs, i needed to experience that part of it. i definitely don’t think everyone who eats chicken should have to experience that, but it was good for me. and while i don’t want to do it more than i have to, it ended up being kind of beautiful in a way.

  • Food. Funny thing, really.
    I mostly grew up on home made and home grown stuff and that wasn’t really glamorous, but the alternatives weren’t many and not that good – in bad old Yugoslavia. At 18 I moved to the new Slovenian capital and was on my own, so the first thing I did was I went vegetarian gradually. Yeah, even before the first fast food restaurant made it to Slovenia (it was a Dairy Queen), which means I have never eaten a hamburger in my life. Still: being vegetarian and mostly preparing healthy food at home seems to have no influence on my weight at all: the only two times I was really thin were after a strenuous, calorie counting diet (after which I yo-yoed and promised myself never to do that shit again) and after having finished my studies and working/worrying a tad too much about it all. On the whole, I tend to keep my distance from the upper BMI bracket by a sliver or two and that suits me well enough: I don’t think about it too much. I also don’t eat low fat or low sugar or similar food, because that stuff has its tricks, too. During these 22 years of predominant non-eating of meat, I have developed a serious passion for lettuce and raw veggies and my sugar lust is not worth talking about (sorry, no information on my salt lust, because my insurance company might be reading this :-))
    Now, becoming vegetarian in 1992 in Slovenia was quite a difficult process: my eastern provinces weren’t ready for me and would defend their meat heavy diet quite … strongly and loudly, shall we say. Nowadays, vegetarians are just bad vegans and shouldn’t eat gluten anyway, so that was that. Yes, things have changed.

    One of the best things about blogs is discovering how many great food-related ideas people out there may have and share – they have made my life much more interesting and still promise to do so (yesterday’s proof: mix 2 old, brownish bananas you were not going to eat anymore with some chopped almonds and some oatmeal to get a soft dough. Form little bits with a teaspoon, use some baking paper and bake them at (pre-heated) 170 °C for 15 minutes – don’t eat them all while they are piping hot! You can adapt the quantity of almonds and oats next time – there will be next time :-))

    There may have never been so many eating trends co-existing as they do now (by trends, I don’t mean health issues, I mean preferences) and while too many people can be terribly religious about them, I am convinced we cannot all of us thrive on one and the same diet and need to find out the one that suits us. It seems my weight loosing diet should contain too many worries and normal food, so I am not going to undertake it. I don’t like worries 🙂

    • Kate Barnett

      now i really wish i had old bananas. 🙂 i definitely depend on blogs as well for inspiration. i’m right on the brink of perfecting crackers using almond pulp leftover from making almond milk. and i definitely agree that there’s not one right way to eat that’s optimal for everyone. it takes some time figuring all that out.

  • L

    “I don’t think we’re that far off from a time when girls are less worried about their weight and more aware of their waning energy post-candy bar.”

    SO ON POINT. When I started changing over to healthy eating people were concerned I was trying to get skinny, but really I just wanted to feel better. Thank you for acknowledging that real wellness is the goal, not extreme weight loss.

  • Sara

    Nice post. It is very simple: eat fresh and unprocessed food instead of processed food. Avoid fast food and all soft (artificial) drinks. Exercise from time to time, or just walk. That’s it. From time to time you can still eat a hamburger if you want. As long as it not a habit, everything is okay. It is not about being skinny. It is about you and feeling well in your own body.

  • Rachel Medlock

    For every girl I know who runs around trying the latest craze (“OMG raspberry ketones can make you lose 2930483924 lbs in a week?!”), I also know an individual who focuses on truly nourishing their body and eating to encourage optimal health. Predictably, the person eating for health usually ends up happier with the changes in their body.

    I’m not sure if it’s a cultural change, or if I’m just gravitating towards people who share this mindset. I hope more people adopt (or at least investigate) plant-based diets, though. Samuel L. Jackson did, so you know it’s legit.


    Anything Goes

  • Maura

    ever since I learned to cook I stopped eating to excess and subsequently lost weight pretty easily. Lately however, I’ve been learning more about how toxic sugar is to our systems and have been actively trying to figure out ways to eliminate it from my diet. It’s made me a little obsessed.

  • I think eating healthy (in terms of bodily health, not weight loss) is very much a regional thing in terms of the culture that surrounds it. Growing up, it was everywhere, especially since Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse restaurant was a mere block or two away from my front porch. She really did and is trying to revolutionize the way in which nutrition and accessibility is seen in both schools and at home. So, the whole Edible Schoolyard thing and eating locally and wholly was very much a part of the last decade or two.

    Saying that, I definitely think that some of Ms. Waters’ proclamation on nutrition and eating healthier are too simple. Eating well is a luxury afforded by the ability to pay for higher quality foods. Thus, the I don’t think the socioeconomic divide will be able to become entirely void of lesser food options. When wanting to be full is concerned and money is tight, the act of sourcing, gardening, and selecting produce and alternative options simply becomes a distant, romantic notion. I’ve always been one of the lucky ones that got to eat well, but experiencing first hand the way in which some of my classmates viewed with skepticism the sourcing of the garden when they had to watch their siblings while their parents worked several jobs, it made me realize that there is no simple, happy solution in trying to get everyone on a wholesome diet. There needs to somehow be a major reform in the availability of better options for cheaper, but that will undeniably be a long process.

    We try to eat as locally as we can, because I think a major factor of eating well is eating with sustainability in mind. If we expect to keep receiving these good, clean foods from this earth, then we must treat this earth correctly. That whole aspect of the transportation of foods is necessary but not without its adverse affects. There is of course CO2 emissions that contribute to the warming of the planet,that contribute to unpredictable weather patterns such as droughts, and consequent sporadic growing seasons. It’s scary, really, how much our options are like puzzle pieces, tugging on multiple linked pieces.

    • Kate Barnett

      there’s no question that the less time you have, the more expensive eating well becomes. my cousin’s done a lot of work around making whole foods more accessible, both through free education and cooking classes for quick, whole meals that are cost efficient, etc. but there’s not an easy solution. i’ll have to check out edible schoolyard — thanks for sending!

      also, i didn’t realize you’re from berkeley! i definitely see a difference in the cultural approach to food when i travel through the US. one of the things i LOVED about living in brooklyn was access to the co-op. the prices there are basically wholesale and i got completely spoiled with the quality and cost of produce.

      • Hey Kate!
        Yes, I am originally from Berkeley although a few years ago we moved to Southern California for a parents’ job, etc etc. Loved living and love being from there though….so many great movements and co-ops. I love buying things in bulk because it’s typically cheaper (like you said), and I can forgo all of that unnecessary plastic wrapping that is like a helicopter parent on the food. Lil baby packages aren’t even cute. Definitely a huge, reusable mason jar kinda girl.

        I feel like there’s also something to be said for the social culture that surrounds co-ops, no?

  • Aubrey Green

    Processed food is the worst, if you stick to the outside aisles of the supermarket, especially the produce section you’re better off.

    I’m 31 and I am healthier and look hotter (not because I’m skinnier, I’m generally the same size) than I did when I was 21, because at that time I was obsessed with not eating certain foods, too much fat, etc, no ‘bad’ food during the week, only on the weekend, I worked out 6 days a week. I am now just mindful of what I am putting into my body and workout, maybe 3-4 times a week and yes, I will have that piece of cake when I want it, thank you very much. I am much happier and healthier and have a TON more energy.

    It’s all about moderation and we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of chocolate, or other sweets, it only makes you crave it that much more.

  • 15storeys

    I have lost 40 pounds in the last year by switching to a healthy diet. At first I felt deprived and the weight came off slowly, but the great reason behind slow changes to the diet is that they become second nature. I no longer have to count calories and think of my dress size as my whole relationship with food has changed. I now know what is good for me and what isn’t. I treat myself but don’t over indulge and I actually enjoy my food more than I ever did when I denied myself nothing.

  • Food is joy… period. I agree 100% that our relationship to food (as a nation) is drastically changing for the better. People are looking at WHAT and HOW they purchase and consume food and I love it. I have candida and numerous food “sensitivities” (I’m a sensitive betsy what can I say) and when I started going gluten free 5 years ago my options were next to zero or tasted like cardboard… no seriously. Thankfully I love to cook and began to find ways to work around my limitations, creating healthy AND delicious versions of old “normal” favorites. Now, I am able to eat clean and still treat myself to sweet or decadent goodies that wont destroy my insides (which is amazing). People are becoming more and more aware of how food affects them physically, yes, but also emotionally. It can change your skin, your hair, your energy levels, and mood. I am constantly inspired by the stories of people who have been able to find healing in their diet. After all, Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine.”
    (As I read back over that I realize how much I sound like a cracked out hippie… but fuck it! It’s the truth).

    • Kate Barnett

      ‘fuck it! It’s the truth’ just became my new mantra.

  • c

    As someone whose tried to eat raw:
    Those people either have superhuman digestive tracks or they need to warn everyone to stay far away from them and their farts

    • Kirsten

      Haha that’s because of the drastic influx of fibre in the diet. If you’re going to increase your fibre intake you have to do it gradually otherwise you’ll produce a lot of gas and experience abdominal discomfort / cramps. I think we’ve all experienced those time when you’ve over done it on the fruit and have those problems! Haha

  • I think food always carries a certain negative connotation because it can be ‘abused’ easily. The shift to natural, healthy and sustainable type foods that are really good for you is going to last way past all the fad diets and carbs/no carbs/gluten free etc crap out there.

  • Anna

    Why wrote this?

  • shelly

    for me it’s finally a healthy, sustainable life-change. it took some time to find the balance. but it’s the best way, i’ve found, to eat and live.

  • Maciel

    Thank you for this post. Eating healthier has way better benefits than eating to stay thin. And your skin and hair (and bowel movements) will thank you.

    I work as an engineer in a construction company and it was really interesting to me to see the labors eat better than the people in my office. They bring everything homemade and eat organic (I was a little surprised) – though they drink a lot!. People at my office call my food weird and gourmet, but what they don’t realize is that processed foods have more weird stuff in them that we can’t pronounce. I have noticed the criticism and reluctance to try something new is because change is not always well received and offering a different perspective can put people on the defense.

    There is a mentality that healthier natural foods have a higher price tag but if you really do the comparison calorie per calorie, you realize that is not the case. It’s only a matter of time before Real Food becomes more mainstream.

    Since I don’t follow any strict, limiting set of eating rules, I am still figuring out some things and what works best for my body. Fruit smoothies in the morning make me crash even if they have protein and fat. So I am happy to read in the comments something about food combining which I am going to google right now 🙂

  • Celine

    I decided to become vegeterian after going day without meat and feeling really awesome: my whole body just felt really light and relaxed, without a weight in my stomach. I realised that I want to feel like that everyday, and whilst before i didn’t eat enough fruit and veg, I know focus on those, having to find an alternative to a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch.
    BUT (and there is always a but), I call myself a cheating vegetarian, because if I’m out for dinner and there’s only meat, I’ll eat it, mostly because moderation is key, people! Especially when you have cuban grandparents: ropa vieja is too good to resist!

  • Olivia

    I’ve started a ‘diet’ called body ecology.. I started it to clear my up my skin and also my constipation. I’ve always ate ‘healthy’ but after doing this ‘diet’ I’ve its now my way of life. To eat when I’m hungry and not stuff my self full hurting my liver, to combined my meals properly and eat most only vegetables and get the most minerals out of the food I eat. I used to never eat lunch because I would get too tired but now I am. Though I’m still not very hungry in the middle of the day, I do it for energy now. Its difficult because cultural wise people eat as an activity rather than eat for nutritional purposes of need. Indulging in food that is toxic to your body is something that I dont do anymore. Eating for medicinal purposes rather than take loads of medications and go to so many doctors and have them either say well that happens its normal is over which i’m beyond thankful.
    The body ecology can seem extreme but I initially started it awhile ago and little by little introduced more of it in my lifestyle. Its basis is about something called candidas. Candidas diets are the ‘most healthy’ best for your internal body, your health. And yes you do lose weight but you have energy because your body (from the foods you eat) begins to have the ability to ‘store energy’, not needing a coffee throughout the day. Its quite amazing, how food can affect everything. Make you have a healthy liver which makes you have clean blood and pure complexion, and never a feeling of dirty or getting the chills after you eat or being so beyond uncomfortable in the heat(summertime).. not having bad breath in the morning! yes it is possible.
    Its approach is to eat probiotic rich food, making it very good for you because its constant cleansing which is something we all need to do(not a constant juice cleanse, half the time your body isn’t ready to do that so its more harmful and you are drinking too high in sugar drinks which then ferment in your body leaving a harmful and toxic environment). But days of juicing the right things, or eating stemmed vegetables or fermented vegetables and having coconut kerfir ext every so often to give your digestive system, liver, ect. a rest.

  • Fine

    I am from Germany and I can totally agree that there has been a change conerning the attitude towards Food, where you get it from etc., which I think is great. What is really big over here is eating seasonal and regional, meaning getting you veggies and fruits from local farmers markets, meat from the local butcher etc.. My personal Revelation was 1. living in Istanbul for a year where they have the most amazing farmers markets, produce places and People just hardly eat produced meals but everything is made from fresh ingredients, and 2. this amazing blog, which totally changed my attitude and has been a huge Inspiration since I started reading it :

  • Whitney Feezor

    I just got back from vacation (where I read and loved your book!) and am catching up on old posts. I couldn’t agree more with this topic… As I was eating lunch today and declining the bread, I laughed thinking about how growing up the “big part of the food pyramid” was grains… something like 6-11 servings of bread/pasta/cereal/etc., and now we are told gluten free/ancient grains is the way to go. It really is all so confusing… but with the movement focusing on whole, REAL foods, I can’t but deny that I feel better both physically but mentally (plus clear skin wasn’t hurtin’ the cause either). Calorie counting really has you focusing on a negative all day long and that doesn’t help body image either. Now that I’m focusing on giving my body the nutrients it needs (and not depriving it on a caloric level)… life is GOOD!

  • Wow; LOVE this post! Thank you for writing this. I was chronically ill for a decade (while working in fashion at RL and Vogue, ha) and healed myself with whole, organic food and now it’s my passion. Love your work and so happy to see this post. Thank you!! Enjoy your summer.

  • Hashtagieatout

    you cannot calorie count everything you eat! its impossible and not to mention miserable way of living your life. Just be sensible about food, don’t over do it, don’t have that extra serving, feel your plate with veggies so it gives you the idea of a bigger meal but I guess easier said than done non?