What the turkey might teach us
With Thanksgiving Day dinner in mind, consider what challenges might be aided if we had a real national nutrition policy
The traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner is good for you. The way Americans usually eat is not. (Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash)
No, the world didn’t change on Thanksgiving Day, even if things felt better for a while. As a lot of us were enjoying a feast at home, a war raged on in Ukraine, gun violence took more innocent lives in our country and Arctic glaciers continued calving into the sea, underscoring the quickening pace of lethal climate change.
But there are some takeaways from Thanksgiving Day 2022 that we shouldn’t fail to note as we return to the worries of the day or get involved in planning the next holiday. Consider, to begin, the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner.
Lay aside for a moment the origin story of Thanksgiving — that mostly mythical image of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags blissfully sharing a feast in the fall of 1621. A shared meal did happen, in fact, though it was a brief respite before centuries of brutal conflict between European settlers and the indigenous people of the Americas. These days people of conscience more honestly acknowledge the tragic consequences of European migration to these shores. It’s a reality that makes us cringe.
Still, those of us lucky enough to spend a work-free day with loved ones around a traditional Thanksgiving table shouldn’t be reluctant to reflect on the grace that the day brings to our lives. In fact, there are both psychological and biological reasons that we feel good about such days, and they’re worth weighing at the outset of what becomes, for many Americans, a season of gustatory indulgence: After the turkey and pie, after all, we can look forward to holiday cookies and eggnog and maybe, even, another turkey.
But to start with Thanksgiving: Research psychologists tell us that gratitude is good for us. That is, studies confirm the strong link between happiness and giving thanks, which the holiday encourages.
But biologists also have a clear message on this topic. There’s a reason that we feel good after a dinner of turkey and its trimmings — that is, assuming we haven’t eaten so much as to make ourselves sick. It has to do with the brain chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter that elevates our moods and encourages happiness. Serotonin is so associated with happiness that most anti-depressant drugs nowadays act by increasing the amount of serotonin available to the brain cells.
But only 5 percent of the body’s serotonin is actually manufactured in the brain. The rest is in our gut. No wonder pie makes me happy: I’m getting a jolt of serotonin with every bite. As Dr. Uma Naidoo, who is both a Harvard University nutritional psychiatrist and a chef, told The New York Times recently, food is “a very powerful lever in terms of our mental health.”
A summary of 16 research studies three years ago concluded that “dietary intervention” could improve mental health across the American population. That is, if people were more thoughtful about what they eat, or simply were able to eat better, they might be happier.
The problem is that for all the wealth in this nation, Americans don’t eat well. Almost half of U.S. adults have what scientists consider a poor diet, with too much salt, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats. Kids are doing even worse: 56 percent eat unhealthily.
According to cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, a nutritional health expert at Tufts University, most of us eat too little high-quality food: Only 9% of the calories we consume are from higher-nutritional-quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, legumes and non-starchy vegetables. And the average American eats too much processed meat — hot dogs, lunch meats and bacon — which can cause stroke, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Fast-food restaurants are the worst source of nutrition, researchers say; people eat better if their food comes from grocery stores.
Think of how pleased we are by a good meal, and then consider how many of our problems are rooted in unhappiness. It’s not that happy people don’t engage in criminal activity or violence, or experience anxiety, or suffer from economic inequity; it’s that unhappiness helps give rise to those problems, and exacerbates them. So it’s not too far a leap to conclude that changing our nutritional intake might improve the nation’s mental health, and thus help solve many of the issues that confound us.
This isn’t a new concept. In 1980, research published by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded: “Like alcohol or drugs, ordinary foods or the lack of them can alter the mind and unleash criminal behavior. Sugar starvation, vitamin deficiencies, lead pollution, food additives, and food allergies can convert a normal brain into a criminal mind.” It embraced the notion that “disturbed biochemical functioning” caused by poor diet was a cause of psychological problems, substance abuse and disciplinary problems in children.
Yet while the United States pours billions of dollars into efforts to solve such challenges, it has virtually no comprehensive nutrition policy — which could take aim at the cause of the problems. Have you heard of the National Institute of Nutrition? Unlikely, because it is an agency of the government of India, not of the United States. Medical education pays scant attention to food as medicine, while embracing drugs that seek to offset the effects of poor nutrition. Diet-related diseases are the biggest cause of preventable health-care spending, yet our approach is to tinker with the health insurance system rather than the nutrition ecosystem that contributes to the crisis.
We came close to dealing with this issue a half-century ago: President Richard Nixon convened a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in 1969, hoping to capitalize on progress made during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. A lot of good came of it: enhanced school lunch programs, a food aid program for women, infants and children (WIC) and better food labeling. But the action never translated into broader public understanding of how nutrition affects our mental and physical health. So two months ago, the Biden administration finally convened a second White House conference on the topic, with the goal of setting an agenda for change so that Americans will eat more healthily by the end of this decade.
Unfortunately, in these hyper-partisan times, the event drew little support across the political divide, and it was obscured from public view by the campaign season that was then underway. It was a start, but more effort is needed from ordinary citizens across the country.
A comprehensive nutrition policy would begin at the problem’s root: an agricultural sector that has rewarded size at the expense of quality. Imagine the impact on rural America of a federal commitment to small-scale organic food production, which could encourage healthy cultivation of the land and stimulate economic development in depressed regions across the country. Think of the rural-urban political coalition that could emerge from that sort of a sector-busting approach. Consider how many initiatives valuable to the nation we might fund if we could redirect public resources that are now spent treating diet-related diseases like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
Some of us who sat down to a Thanksgiving Day dinner knew how lucky we were: Turkey is packed with lean protein and vitamins; sweet potatoes are a great source of fiber; cranberries have among the highest levels of antioxidants of any fruit, meaning they can reduce the risk of some cancers and encourage heart health; pumpkin provides nutrients that can reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.That sort of healthy diet ought not to be out of reach of any American.
All this talk of food can make a guy hungry, of course, which is not something I thought I would be again as I moved away from the table on Thanksgiving Day. I’m grateful for so much of that day’s experience, and the memories of Thanksgivings past — the connections to loved ones, the comfort of home, the opportunity to reflect on life’s blessings. And I was grateful for the good health that comes to me as a consumer of mostly organic, healthful foods. To share more of that abundance and blessing with our neighbors, though, we need to embrace a national commitment to nutritional health.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Gilbert, Iowa (Ames Tribune, amestrib.com)
Lakeville, Mass. (Standard-Times, southcoasttoday.com)
Spartanburg, S.C. (Spartanburg Herald-Journal, goupstate.com)
Eugene, Ore. (Register-Guard, registerguard.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Prompted by suicides, high school students take on mental health
After two classmates committed suicide in less than a year, some students at Gilbert High School have taken matters into their own hands and formed a group aimed at supporting each other. Phillip Sitter reports in the Ames Tribune that the group, known as Coming Together, hopes to do more for fellow students’ mental health — to let kids know that they are loved, and that they can reach out to someone if they feel troubled. Across America, the suicide rate in 2020 was 30 percent higher than it was in 2000.
Mom arrested, says she was testing school security
A woman who got into two schools after providing a false name will face trespassing charges, the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District says, but the woman claims she did it just to expose the lax security in the schools. According to reporting by Matthew Ferreira in the Standard-Times, the woman entered both an elementary school and a high school, and tried to get into another elementary school, and walked through the buildings. The 28-year-old mom said she had talked with one of her children about the Uvalde school massacre, and that she was concerned that the recent tightening of school security at her children’s school was insufficient. Parent response on social media has been. mixed, according to the Standard-Times coverage.
College files civil rights complaint over traffic stop
In the Herald-Journal, Chalmers Rogland reports on a federal civil rights complaint that has been filed, based on these facts: In early October, a bus carrying 18 students and two staffers from Shaw University, in Raleigh, N.C., was stopped on Interstate 85 in Spartanburg County, S.C. The officers quickly began a search for drugs; video reveals the release of a dog in the luggage compartment and hand searches of every piece of luggage. When no drugs were found, the driver was cited for changing lanes without a signal. Take note: Shaw University is a Baptist-affiliated historically Black university; the students were headed toward the Center for Financial Advancement Conference. "This situation is a stark reminder that the fight for civil rights is still an ongoing necessity,” said the university president, Paulette Dillard. The student body president, Mariah Williams, added: "Situations like this one can change how we see ourselves, how we see each other, and how we see the world. These situations have the ability to erode public trust in established institutions that are supposed to protect and serve everyone equally."
Debate over proposal to ban carbon-based fuel in homes
Citizens are divided over a proposal in Eugene that would ban the use of natural gas and some other fossil fuels in the construction of new homes, according to a story in the Register-Guard by Megan Banta. At a hearing that drew more than 100 people, those in support framed their arguments around health and the community, Banta notes, while people opposing the ordinance focused on energy choice, security and pragmatism.
Come on, then, winter — let me have it
I was 8 years old when we moved to South Dakota’s Black Hills. During our first winter there, a March blizzard dumped so much snow on our home that we were trapped inside by drifts, unable to push the doors open. My dad was at a meeting in Chicago. So my mother pushed me out a second-floor window, and dropped a snow shovel down to me. Welcome to the West!
It may come as no surprise to you, then, that when I turned 17, I headed off to college in South Texas, vowing to never again live through a northern winter.
Ha ha ha. Let us now chuckle over the limited foresight of youth.
I have lived in Upstate New York since 1987 — the second half of my life, that is — and I have come to love the winter. I appreciate the quiet of late night, the golden light at dawn high in ice-encrusted trees, the crunch of snow underfoot as my dog and I wander out before daybreak. I love the clean air outdoors and the feeling of snuggling beneath a blanket inside when it is cold. I like the idea of a season of dormancy, preparing for the burst of life in spring. I like the different clothes I get to wear — flannel shirts, woolen sweaters. I like steamy stews and scalding coffee.
So let’s have it, Upstate. Where is our winter? We had a glorious autumn, with rich colors none of us had quite expected. Now we’re waiting for real winter to come, stuck in that spot between seasons, impatient for the season that is part of our region’s identity.
Meanwhile, let’s honor the fact that we have the opportunity for variety. Seasons change, and so do I. I’ve learned to celebrate and embrace it.
THANK YOU for joining me on this journey through some thoughts from the Upstates of *our shared ground, this America.