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Interview: Real Foods Advocate Bert Jackson

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The following interview was conducted recently with Lifestyle Coach Bert Jackson (http://www.bertjackson.com/). Bert is an advocate of sustainable living, a whole foods expert and a macrobiotic chef. His background includes owning and operating his own vegetarian restaurant, The Sweet Life Cafe in the Virgin Islands. Unlike some life practitioners we have known, Bert has a uniquely accessible and tolerant approach to living a more healthy lifestyle. Here are some excerpts from our interview:

Tell us about the concept of primary and secondary foods. It is an intriguing idea that we feed ourselves in ways other than through our mouths, like say, by way of how we choose to interact with others on an emotional or spiritual level.

The concept of Primary Food is not new, it is intuitive that a life that is fulfilling and close to our true nature will more truly nourish our soul. Joshua Rosenthal, founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in NYC, coined the term “Primary Food”. I think it is a critical part to maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. So maybe when we eat “secondary food” (the stuff we put in our mouth) we are trying to satisfy a need for Primary Food.

What is your own personal experience with living via holistic food versus living via more prepared processed food?

I have lived both sides of the fence, and have hopped back and forth a few times. I grew up chubby, eating a nutritionally-ignorant diet. Not many vegetables, lots of beef, chicken and pork, potatoes of various kinds, frozen pizza, mac and cheese. When I was in my early twenties I discovered macrobiotics and spent much of my twenties living and promoting that way of life. When I was 32 I moved, changed careers and lost a bit of that youthful idealism as I dealt with the “realities” of making a living. While never being totally in the grip of the “Standard American Diet” (SAD) I was certainly having illicit affairs with it, as well as eating unconsciously.

I’ve made attempts over the years to rekindle my passion for a more holistic approach to food. What has really helped me recently is the work done by people such as Michael Pollan who have been exposing the connection of global sustainability to food. This clicked with me and gave me some new toeholds with which to reignite my interest. I have replaced the idealism of youth with a more experiential, comprehensive philosophy of connectedness.

And I found I needed to teach. So I am spending more time writing, consulting and demonstrating the concepts of sustainable holistic food practices.

You made a comment recently about, “eating for nutrition versus eating for entertainment”, tell us more.

Food is a huge part of our social structure. It is also strong source of comfort. Many times we’ll eat unconsciously. For example, attending a party and hors d’oeuvres are passed about. Right in mid-sentence of a conversation, we’ll take a morsel from the tray and pop it in our mouth. If asked a few minutes later what we ate, we may not even remember. Part of the social, entertainment process.

Dessert is all about entertainment, and dessert can either be consumed unconsciously in a social situation, or savored bite by bite, enrapturing us with each mouthful.

So, eating for entertainment is not necessarily a bad thing. The key is to be aware of when you are eating for nutrition or eating for entertainment. And if the latter, that it be conscious. Be aware of what it is and how it fits into your overall vision of your relationship with food.

Sustainability: How does a sense of local sustainability link with the global sustainability movement?

This is huge. The industrial food producers use large amounts of fossil fuels (to not only transport food and run farm equipment, but to create commercial fertilizers and pesticides). Michael Pollan recently said that it takes 28 ounces of crude oil to make one Big Mac hamburger sandwich. In addition, the nitrogen in these synthetic fertilizers are not all absorbed in the soil, so they run off into the water table, making water not safe for drinking.

A large Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation (CAFO) can contain 100,000 cattle, and produce as much waste as Chicago. Human waste must be treated under the Clean Water Act. Animal waste is exempt so it sits in vast lagoons and runs untreated into water tables (and on to other farms growing vegetables, increasing risk of eColi).

There are labor considerations, transportation considerations, bio-diversity considerations. We really can vote with our forks on a number of non-food issues.

How realistic is it for a family of 4 in Massachusetts to make the commitment to eat only locally grown foods? Is it even possible?

I have what I call “The Sliding Scale of Goodness”. When making food choices there is usually another step one can take towards more organic, more local, more sustainable. I don’t think it is practical for a typical family to be at the extreme (good) end of that scale. This would involve growing your own produce, raising your own animals and fishing your own seafood. Not practical for most.

Everyone needs to find their own balance with this. Education is important, the more you learn about options available, as well as the consequences of where food is sourced, the more you can plan according to your own personal food policies.

During growing season farmers markets are a great source of local food (as well as learning about food, farmers love to chat!). Beyond that, local produce markets will likely have more local or regional produce that a large chain supermarket (even Whole Foods now uses a national distribution system, so much of their produce, while it may be organic, is centrally distributed).

When buying staples, for example, I would buy brown rice from California over something similar grown in Japan, or something exotic grown in China. That said, there is nothing wrong with having the occasional exotic food item.

What would a weekly shopping list for 2 people look like if they were to eat macrobiotically, versus to eat traditionally, purchasing from a local shopping chain?

To be clear, I have a very broad view of macrobiotics, which is more a philosophy of balance, simplicity and quality, rather than a set list of “do and don’t” foods. That said, a shopping list would include some whole grains, like brown rice, barley, etc.; protein sources such as beans, tofu, tempeh and occasional fish or free-range chicken; a variety of vegetables, root (carrots, onions), ground (squashes) and air (greens, broccoli). There would be cold-pressed organic oils, like olive, sesame and canola. Some tamari and sea salt, spices. Depending on how broad your particular diet, there may be some free range eggs and chicken, fish, baked goods (with whole grains and few other ingredients), and even some grass-fed beef on occassion.

There are 2 issues, eating locally grown food and eating whole foods. Define whole foods, and define “locally grown”. How local is local? Are organic hot house tomatoes from Western Mass. “Local”? Which is more important would you say, sacrificing organic for local or local for organic?

Organic is very important to me, as it means I am not getting potentially hazardous chemicals in my food. It should be noted that some local farmers follow organic practices, but have not been certified organic (it can take years). One advantage to buying locally and knowing your farmer is that you can ask how the food is grown and what their process is like.

Local is relative, and I’ll refer back to my Sliding Scale of Goodness above. Growing organically yourself is best, buying from a local organic farmer is next, then produce grown regionally, then within the country, then organically outside the country. As a rule, I would not buy something out of season that was flown from Argentina, say, even if it were organic. I’d simply forgo that.

What is “whole food”? I think the term, along with “natural” and “organic” has been diluted and overused. But to me, whole food (I have been using “real food” lately) is food that is very close to how it came from nature. It is minimally processed, if at all (I have my own personal distinction between “prepared” and “processed”, the former is what we typically do in a home kitchen, the latter requires a mill or a factory). Whole grains have not had the nutritious bran removed, for example. Meals are prepared with things that came from a farm, vegetables, grains, fruits, meats, rather than a factory, like mashed potato mix.

Tell us about refined sugar versus alternatives.

Refined sugar is a very intense food and something that we can rarely get in nature. Honey is about the closest thing. And you can imagine the effort required and price paid by a primitive man to extract honey from its natural place in the wild.

There are different kinds of sugars that occur in nature: simple sugars are absorbed into our systems quickly, while complex sugars take longer to absorb, and give us a more sustained energy level. White and brown sugar, honey and maple syrup are all simple sugars, and for the most part should be used very little if at all. Barley malt and brown rice syrup are sources of complex sugars, and can be used as sweeteners in recipes.

There have been many studies about coffee (quick example: http://men.webmd.com/features/coffee-new-health-food) including an article recently in the Wall Street Journal: (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703278604574624032849271284.html). What is your take on coffee?

Ah, coffee is the great drug of our time. And like many drugs, there are positive and negative aspects to it. It stimulates the brain (and digestive system for many), there are lists of supposed long-term benefits. But there are strong negative aspects to it as well, such as increased blood pressure, osteoporosis, pregnancy issues, insomnia and so on. Also, many people add sugar and cream to their coffee, both of which have their own sets of serious consequences. If you are coffee drinker, try going without for a couple of weeks. The first few days may be, uh, challenging, for you and those around you (and should we really be consuming something on a regular basis that we get physical withdrawal symptoms from when we stop??). Observe how you feel. Sleep better? Less feelings of stress? Better gut function? Nature always gives us feedback, and coffee (and its absence) is no exception.

Tell us about your work wherein you approach your clients lifestyle and overall wellness before tackling diet specific issues. Which comes first in your experience, the chicken or the egg? Meaning, in order to bring myself into balance, my food affects my lifestyle and my lifestyle affects my food. How do you work with your clients on this loop?

I start with the “Three Pillars of Success”, education, self-awareness and strategy. For me this is the loop. We need to have a process (strategy) by which we continue to educate ourselves about the dynamics of food, where it comes from and how it impacts our health. We need to be aware of our relationship with food, including behavior in various situations and ingrained habits we have developed. And we need strategies to succeed with new policies we establish for ourselves around food.

In getting started it is important to look at what is motivating an individual to start asking questions in the first place. It may be for health, spiritual, moral or other reasons. There are many paths up the mountain, and once the journey is begun aspects of the other paths become more apparent. So in coaching an individual on their journey, we focus on their own particular path.

[full disclosure: Bert Jackson is the technical adviser and webmaster for Healing Wheel]