My friend Ran Prieur, one of my favorite philosophers, has a new essay called “How to Eat Better” that pretty much sums up what I’d consider my own “Ideal State” dietary plan. Essentially, it’s Eat Local, Listen to Your Body, Don’t Eat Processed Crap, etc.– a lot of the same stuff Michael Pollan says, but in less space for us lazy folk. Some nuggets:

Fruit juice is better than sugar water, but it is not a health food. Ideally you should eat whole fruits. There is no consensus on agave syrup, brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, real maple syrup, or honey, but they’re all certainly better than white sugar. High fructose corn syrup is probably worse. “Unrefined” sugar, including turbinado and demerara, is missing only the last step of refinement….

Look at Ingredients Lists. And look critically. The companies that make these products are out to deceive you, or they are in competition with other companies that are out to deceive you. If the honest product says “white flour” and “white sugar”, while the deceptive product says “wheat flour” and “evaporated cane juice”, which one will sell for more money? Some other tricks: “Yeast extract” is basically the same as MSG. “Wheat bread” is usually white bread with a bit of whole wheat flour and some brown food coloring. Almost any ingredient that ends in “-ose” should be read as sugar. “Natural” means almost nothing. Being sold in a food co-op guarantees nothing. Many products, like chips and granola, are made with only their most visible ingredient organic. Any farmed ingredient that doesn’t say organic isn’t. I once saw a non-organic product with the brand name Oganic….

Make Food a Higher Financial Priority. In the 1930’s, Americans spent more than 20% of their income on food. Now it’s down under 10% (graph). Of course, to spend more on food, you have to spend less on other stuff: haircuts, new clothing, the latest technology, having a nice view. I wear socks that I collected from an abandoned shed that I once tried to squat, and I’m drafting this on a computer that I bought used for $200 in 2006, but I just ate eggs that cost $4.70 a dozen, because I don’t think there’s anything better to spend money on than the quality of stuff that goes into my body.

Expand Your Concept of Food. Humans are dietary generalists. Our ancestors ate tens of thousands of species of plants and animals and fungi and insects, most of which modern people no longer recognize as edible, even though they’re better for us than processed corn and soy, and often free. Some of the most common garden “weeds”, including lamb’s quarters, dandelion, and purslane, are more nutritious than greens grown intentionally. Small animals like squirrels and raccoons are not hard to hunt and typically unregulated. All birds are edible, although most are not worth the trouble. Insect larvae are a great source of fat and protein, and taste surprisingly good….

(Needless to say, as a vegetarian, E’s a little less open to the idea of eating insects than I am– as in, no thank you never never never.)

The point about making food a higher financial priority is especially valuable, and will become more of an issue as the economy gets worse and worse. The fact is, buying processed food because it’s cheaper at the moment will likely cost you more in medical bills down the road. Buying organic costs a little more, but is absolutely worth it. J’s rule number one for eating well: never skimp on food. It’s a matter of budgeting, but it can be done.

I might make an additional point, which is that vegetables grown out-of-season carry a higher cost than those in-season. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a farmer’s market (we have quite a few in Seattle) and you buy stuff that’s in-season at the grocery store, you’ll find it *far* more cost-effective than buying conventional, out-of-season veggies. Asparagus is a spring/fall veggie. Buying asparagus in December might give you a needed ingredient in a recipe, but it’ll be very costly and likely about 3/4 unusable/woody.

Another point I might include is that when cooking anything, consider each ingredient a bison: try to think of all of the possible uses for your ingredients. For instance, buy beets with the greens still attached and you can use the beets *and* the greens. Toss the scraps from veggies with ‘discardable’ parts, like onions with skins, carrot tops and greens, potato peels, eggshells, etc, into a freezer bag and when you’ve collected enough, use them to start a simple veggie stock. Drain the scraps, add some spinach, beans and noodles, and you have soup! The same goes for meat trimmings, bones, after-dinner scraps, etc.

Another note: I call Ran’s list “Ideal State” because although theoretically most of us are in the position to eat this way at all times, it can be difficult from a practical standpoint, especially for those who might not be used to eating this way.

In addition, if, like me and E, you enjoy eating out, unless you can perform a detailed kitchen tour before each meal, or restrict yourself to a very small number of restaurants, you can’t guarantee that you’ll be getting local, sustainable ingredients in each meal. You have to choose your battles. Still, being educated about this kind of thing will at least improve your chances and give you better opportunities to make smart decisions. To use an example from above, try not to order the asparagus dish in December.