June 8, 2009

In Defense Of Food

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

These terse sentences open up Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. These simple words should be enough; no need for an entire book. They could have been written on a Chinese fortune cookie.

Pollan shares his theories as to what is wrong with the Western Diet and how it leads the world in cases of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. He delivers fascinating insights to how the Western diet is influenced by scientists, nutritionists, and government. And none of these entities really know what they are talking about. Eggs are bad for you, now they're good. Oat bran is good for you, now it's not. Eat butter, don't eat butter, eat it again. Avocados are horribly fatty, but that kind of fat is now ok. Sound familiar?

Scientists and nutritionists are barely on the cusp of understanding how the human body needs and utilizes food. Everything they say is very narrow-viewed and must be taken with a grain of salt (but not too much; remember your blood pressure). And Government guidelines regarding food can't be trusted at all since they are largely controlled by the powerful beef, dairy, and sugar lobbies.

Pollan goes on and on about how nutrionalism is way off base because it is trying to find that single magic bullet that will make us healthy, adding supplements here and anti-oxidants there. Nutritionists tend to reduce food down to single nutrients and chemicals and try to isolate what it is that makes it healthy (or unhealthy). Pollan's point is that you cannot dissect food into parts. It is whole food in its entirety that make it healthy, not any one compound contained therein.

An idea that Pollan drives hard is the notion that nutritionalism is not only bad science, it is dangerous science. He points out how nutritionists rose to power over the Western diet by saying that margarine was healthier than butter. Feeling smug, nutritionism continued to lay down the law of healthy eating, only to contradict and recant most of what they say months or years later. For example, the margarine advice turned out to be very bad advice indeed.

All in all, I think Pollan is a bit unfair to the nutritionists. Nutritionists are not doctors and they are not chemists; yet everything they publish is treated as gospel by millions of gullible people. It is these ignorant masses who have developed a "unhealthy obsession about eating healthy." The nutritionists are just feeding their obsession.

Another issue that Pollan kept harping on is that we should go back to the traditional diet of our culture and ancestors. Basically, he says we should go back to eating what our grandmothers and great grandmothers used to eat. But I have German, Irish, and Scottish roots. Do I start eating German potato salad crammed into a sheep's stomach?

Pollan lost me a little in this section of the book. I don't think we should trap our diets in time, forced to eat boiled rump roast and goose liver for an eternity. There is no reason why our palates cannot evolve. What I think he really wanted to say is to remove the modern processing that is going on with today's food, processing that did not happen in your grandmother's time.

Another point I believe he was trying to make is to eat a diet that has been time-tested by the various cultures throughout the world. Take the vegetarian Hindus, for example. Over the centuries, they have perfected a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, and beans. And Orientals have found ways to eat soy (tofu and tempeh) that is both nutritious and removes the problems inherent with soybeans. So what Pollan is really asking is, why mess up a good thing? Which is exactly what the Western diet has done with its chemical tinkering.

To me the advice is simply this: Mother Nature already produces the best food possible. Processing food beyond basic preparation is not natural. Adding chemicals, anywhere in the food chain, is not natural. High fructose corn syrup is not natural. Wonder Bread is not natural. Cows forced to lactate via hormones is not natural. Genetically modified grains are not natural. Anything that is not natural is not good for you. I think this theory is pretty easy to digest (sorry about the pun).

In the end, here is what Pollan advises: eat more whole foods, cut back on quantity, stop snacking, savor your food, cook your own food, and grow more of your own food. Or to go back to the very beginning: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

All in all I found Defense a good read. Although nothing he said will change my diet much, because I am already following most of his ideas, he does provide an interesting history on how we got to where we are. I do have an issue with his tone at times, but as a journalist, I think he uses this style to force readers to think. If he were too subtle, we might miss his point, and missing the point could mean the difference between a healthy life and one riddled with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

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