Perhaps you’ve heard the ancient idea of food as medicine – or heard people talk about food as fuel. Well this week, with the beginning of a new school year upon us, we invite you to consider this: food as education. This kind of education is available to all ages, and we all have the opportunity multiple times a day to be part of it. Here are three valuable ways that food teaches us by the simple act of what and how we choose to eat…

Food educates our palates

Anyone who raises children or has ever tried to reduce their sugar intake knows the beautiful truth behind the often challenging task of eating well: our palates can change. Taste buds are the students of our eating choices, and the more we habituate them to the right kinds of foods and flavors, the more they grow in appreciating and desiring the most nourishing things. Have you ever given up artificial or refined sugar for a period of time? Didn’t you notice that after awhile some foods that you did not previously consider very sweet, like fruits, gradually seemed much sweeter and tastier? And highly sugared or processed foods became almost distastefully sweet? There you have proof that food plays an active role in educating our taste buds! This is one reason that we strive to keep the added sugar content low in our flavored yogurts and chocolate milk; in addition to sugar’s detrimental impact on health, we believe the natural tang of cultured dairy and natural sweetness of fruits educate our palates toward health better than super sweet foods.

Are your daily food choices educating your taste buds toward health or away from it? It’s never too late to start the re-education, for you and your family!

Food educates our body

The food we eat is not simply energy to keep our body alive and moving. It is information that communicates with our cells, organs, brains, and resident microorganisms like gut bacteria. Eating an imbalanced diet without adequate good fats or micronutrients from plants, for example, sends a message to your brain and that says, “Hey, we aren’t getting enough of what we need here!” which tells your nervous system to go into stress mode, and the message continues to be passed along to other systems as well. Too many foods that promote inflammation, like sugar, trans fats, and industrial oils, can also communicate with our brains to send us into stress mode. Eventually, our bodies learn that they are in a state of chronic stress and start to make significant changes in order to compensate. For example, for women, who have quite finely tuned hormonal systems in order to support pregnancy, these changes can affect hormone levels, fertility, and mood.

Studies have also shown that we can actually change the kinds and counts of bacteria in our guts, shifting from fat-and-sickness-producing bacterial species to health-producing species. How do we teach our guts to encourage the right kinds of microbe populations? By what we feed them! Fermented foods and fiber are just some of the kinds of foods that send the right “information” to our amazingly intelligent gut and brain. They don’t call brilliant insights a “gut feeling” for nothing, you know!

Food educates our convictions and commitments

Wendell Berry famously said “Eating is an agricultural act,” to which Michael Pollan added “it follows that eating is a political act, too.” It is also, inescapably, an ethical act. Since most of us are not farmers or raising all our own food, what and how we eat is defined by a set of relationships and transactions, which are part of the web that constitutes modern life.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but food is in some way connected to the environment, the economy, animal welfare, human welfare, social justice, policy and politics, and, at the highest level, what it means to be humans in this world. We can try and remain blind to this fact, or we can use our food as an opportunity to ask questions and learn. Questions like, “What is the actual cost of a gallon of milk, if you consider transportation, environmental harm, long-term health impact, etc?”
Or “To what extent am I responsible for the impact my food choices have on the workers who raised and produced this food?
Or “What kind of life did this animal have, and what, if anything, do I owe it?

Asking these questions and honestly considering the answers become an education to shape our principles and how we take action in light of them. If you have children in your life, each meal or shopping trip can be an opportunity to help them consider the big life questions that are an important part of learning and maturing. Suddenly, a simple bite of a BLT is a teaching moment!

Both eating and education are lifelong endeavors – and some of the best parts of being alive in this world. Enjoy letting food teach you, and be sure to share what you are learning!