Sunday, July 20, 2008

In Defense of Food

As mentioned in my previous post, I just finished reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. The premise, oversimplified, is right on the cover of the book: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. It sounds simple, but when Pollan challenges you to consider how many "edible food-like substances" have made their way into grocery stores, you get an idea of how a Western diet gets in the way of your ability to "Eat food."

The first section of the book delves into the process by which our food has lost much of its integrity, how constantly shifting opinions of scientists have unintentionally divorced us from more simple traditional, healthy cooking and eating habits; food manufacturers jumped at opportunities to engineer cheaper, more artificial and addictive foods; and food marketers have thrown unimaginable amounts of money into pulling shoppers towards the middle of American grocery stores, towards brightly colored packages touting the health benefits of all of the additives inserted into foods that had been stripped of them from constant engineering. American food culture has been changing: more than once per generation, and not for the better.

At some point and for whatever reason, we stopped looking at whole foods and trusting in their innate complexities, and we started focusing on nutrients. Pollan cites the 1977 case where the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs issued guidelines meant to address the rise in diet-related chronic diseases. Their recommendation to reduce consumption of meat and dairy was met with so much criticism from red meat and dairy industries, that the Senator heading the committee quickly replaced their original recommendation to "choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake." Never mind that the recommendation about dairy was dropped; note that they suddenly single out a nutrient, proclaim it bad, and do not single out a food group. And the Senator was later voted out of office. Do you think any government official will stick his neck out for that subject again? (Skinny Bitch had a chapter recommending the eater "trust no one." Sounds familiar.)

So now we talk about food parts: fiber and vitamins and fats (good and bad). And science constantly shifts the winds of favor for one versus the other. Remember when margarine was supposed to be better for you than butter? Or baby formula just as good as breast milk? Just wait until science discovers another nutrient that formula has gone without for so many years. In the meantime, they are busy genetically engineering peaches to produce more and be more disease resistant, likely at the cost of taste and nutrition. Coca-Cola will probably end up with an organic, vitamin-added soda. THIS DOES NOT MAKE IT HEALTH FOOD!!

The second section is about the specific ills of the Western diet as compared to traditional diets in other parts of the world. The problem? Other parts of the world are adopting a more Western diet, and Western diseases are following. I wish there were a brake I can pull to stop it. Just a week or so ago, the New York Times had an article about the rise of the hamburger in Paris. NO!! How are we going to turn this around if other countries are following our bad lead?

Frankly, some of the above-mentioned reading is laborious (and considering my recent predilection for food-related books, repetitive), so while I do recommend this book, I will say that the third part is the must-read: getting over "Nutritionism" and escape from the Western diet. In the interest in not rewriting the book, I'll paraphrase the author's suggested rules of thumb:
  • Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Take Twinkies... they are a cake that is incapable of rotting. EW!
  • Avoid products that contain ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more that five in number, or are high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid products that make health claims. Potato chips that claim to be heart-healthy probably aren't as healthy as the carrots in the corner, which are sitting around without packaging.
  • Shop out the grocery stores when you can, and in the perimeter as much as possible. Yes, my local produce guy uses Miracle Grow. But I'm eating food that was produced less than a mile from my house, and I KNOW that it's in season.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • You are what "what you eat" eats, too. That is why I buy less meat, but invest in that which is "formerly happy."
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer. Buy good stuff in bulk and freeze it.
  • Eat like an omnivore. Diversity on your plate is a good thing.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.
  • Eat wild food when you can.
  • Eat more like the French/Italians/Japanese/Indians/Greeks... not just what they eat, but how they eat it.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
  • Don't look for the magical bullet in the traditional diet. Think of cumulative goodness.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner. You don't have to tell me twice. Bring on the red!
  • Pay more, eat less. Go for quality, eat slower, stop eating when you are full, not when your plate is empty.
  • Eat meals. Three of them, and not in your car. It's a great way to civilize your kids.
  • Do all of your eating at a table.
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
I love that the listing of what others bought include The Art of Simple Food (which I am slowly savoring) and that he thanked Alice Waters in his acknowledgements. I'm seeing a lot of her name in my reading, as well as Barbara Kingsolver's (I loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle).

So there you have it, long and short. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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