September 11, 2008

Nutrition for the Body / Nutrition for the Soul

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Three long, short years ago, standing awkwardly on North Campus amidst an onslaught of “what’s your major” inquiries, I had less of an answer to that question than to what was in the cup of “Class of ’09” flavored ice cream in my hand. The same question has surfaced so many times in so many different places the past couple years. And though my awkwardness has endured, the answer has transformed and blossomed into a thing of beauty. Since I’ve spent so much energy figuring it all out and gotten so much joy out of having it figured out, I feel like sharing.
Coming to Cornell undecided, taking a year of human development classes, and coming out of freshman year undecided again helped me realize that memorizing eight different “famous” opinions on the appropriate age for babbling was not exactly satisfying. I think my money would be better spent on fluff that I could actually eat.
So to make the most of my spare change, I enrolled in some bio, orgo and nutrition classes. The semester was both brutal and wonderfully enlightening, and I finally found what I was meant to find. I discovered the hilarity of the homo sapien. The way the human body works is incredibly amusing, and there is something even more entertaining about the way people treat and react to their bodies.
I do not find fascinating non-preventable diseases or scary maladies. Therefore, I found the nearest exit off the pre-med highway. Nutrition, which has a comfortingly controllable impact on health, seemed to be that perfect avenue. I declared myself a nutrition major and put my feet up, ready with my final answer to the “major” question.
Beware that even when you’ve finally decided on your major (or minor or concentration or whatever term you use to defend the classes you’re taking) it’s still too vague a plan. I found that the question acquired a follow-up: “So you want to be a nutritionist?” It’s a little overwhelming to finally figure out what you want to learn and then have to take the next leap and decide how to use the knowledge. It is also a little disheartening that most people assume only one possible use for a bachelor’s in nutritional science: nutritionist.
I am pretty close, after 21 years, to giving up the dream that my awkwardness will exorcise from me in time. Sitting down with strangers everyday is not an appealing task for me. Lacking any persuasiveness, I’m not up to convincing people that replacing the deliciousness of a warm pile of chocolatey goop from Insomnia for a handful of carrot sticks is worth the sacrifice. And I, even with the little knowledge I’ve retained at Cornell about saturated fats and cholesterol, would rarely make the sacrifice. I would just eat both. Based on a small sample, the idea of being a nutritionist is not even entertained by the majority of those that spend our days in Savage Hall.
The other question I get so often as a nutrition major is one that I particularly enjoy answering, since it has been debated since mankind started asking it. “What should I eat?” is this most superfluous of questions. And ever since we started wondering, we haven’t done the right thing. The late, great journalist Michael Pollan has emerged as a voice of reason amidst a whirlwind of irrational attempts to figure out what to munch. He has answered repeatedly in his books with the famous advice, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Could it be more simple?
Yet for some reason — maybe because we won’t be satisfied until someone proves to us that we function best on hamburgers and fries — we keep wasting exorbitant amounts of time and money trying to figure out what to eat. Fads like the Atkins diet only contribute to the confusion. I figure if you can’t pick it, pull it out of the ground, or chase and kill it, it’s probably not meant to go in your body. Cows, for example, do not need to be chased. You probably shouldn’t eat them.
That’s about as much as I’ve got figured out. The culmination of my three years at Cornell can be summarized with the necessary answer to an unnecessary question: to eat what you, as a human, have evolved to eat. As far as where I’ll be a year from now, I am answerless.