Be mindful and grateful this Thanksgiving

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Instead of belaboring the painful debates about pilgrims, natives and Thanksgiving, let’s jump right into its reality: Thanksgiving is a feast accompanied by televised football games.

The rituals associated with this feast bring together the best America offers: abundance without guilt. As we experience the bounty of the land or supermarket, we collectively over-indulge, sampling generously from every available dish.

What thoughts cross our minds when we eat?

This semester I have had the good fortune of teaching a seminar on Food For Thought with 14 students. Along the way we discovered the intimate, common sense, connection between the food we consume and our health. As the Supreme Court is about to hear arguments about the Obama Administration’s health care program next June, perhaps we should urge a public discussion about food and diets in relation to these health costs. Arguing about mandatory coverage for diabetes without talking about the causes and remedies for obesity makes no sense.

Here are some topics that should interest consumers and voters before June 2012. First, what about the scientific underpinnings of the food we eat? Are genetically modified foods healthy? What are the side effects carried from corn to cow to the hamburger we find in fast-food chains? Has the turkey we are all admiring been “modified”? If yes, should we worry?

It’s not that evolution hasn’t modified nature; it’s not that we haven’t bred certain animals; but is this the same as injecting mice genes into corn?

Second, when we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, what family traditions are we preserving? Are all of them, such as white bread or mashed potatoes out of a boxed-mix, really that sacred? Can’t they be substituted without desecration with whole-wheat bread and locally grown potatoes? Are marshmallows really necessary? The recipes of WWII may find exciting updates, honoring grandma’s cooking, which was about love and not about food as an energy source. If Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday, then it can and should withstand minor revisions to reflect new realities.

Third, as we celebrate the gathering of family and friends, we should be mindful of the economic conditions under which food is produced, distributed, and consumed. More than $1 billion will be spent on food in one day (with some leftovers), including about 20 percent of turkeys eaten annually. This is less than $3 per citizen. The main reason for this is that home-cooked meals are much cheaper than those bought at fast-food chains. The New York Times reported that while a family of four spends on average $27.89 at McDonald’s, the same four could eat at home reasonably for $13.78 or as little as $9.26 with better nutritional values. Thanksgiving should be appreciated for its frugal bounty.

Fourth, as we prepare the meal, set the table, or make our first toast, let’s think of the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration: shouldn’t we be thankful that someone watches over food safety? Does it mandate useful labeling? Or is it caving to yet another powerful lobby regardless of the dangers to consumers? The recent Listeria outbreak from contaminated cantaloupes cost so far 29 lives, according the Center for Disease Control. Some oversight is life-saving.

Fifth, as we learn about the intimate connection between health and diet, we need not only read or watch “Food Inc.” or “Fast Food Nation” or “Supersize Me” to realize that some oils are worse than others, that too much saturated fat will kill you, and that over-eating is bad for you because your body can metabolize only so much sugar (glucose) in one day. Malnutrition is about over- and under-eating. It’s about not maintaining a balance between your energy consumption and intake.

You don’t need the USOC’s nutritional expert, Dr. Nanna Meyer, to tell you that. Just remember your grandma making sure you don’t make yourself sick or encouraging you to play outside, no matter how cold it is.

Sixth, since food isn’t produced in factories but in nature, and since population growth has to be balanced with the growth of food production (a problem that plagued Thomas Malthus already in 1798), sustainability has become the watchword of concerned citizens: how much meat should we eat weekly, how “local” is our food source, and what food is seasonally grown? Pumpkins, as we know, are grown in the fall, and so are many other roots vegetables, such as potatoes.

Yes, the pilgrims observed sustainability the way Moliere observed prose: it comes naturally.

Dr. Meyer reminds us it’s all common sense. Make explicit what you implicitly know to be true. Pay attention to your body and nature alike, they are the temples in which your soul and the community reside.

When we transform Thanksgiving into Thanks-eating, let us be mindful — and grateful.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com