Monday, May 19, 2008

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan

Could you stand to lose a few pounds? Perhaps just concerned with eating right for health reasons? Have you ever noticed that it seems just about everyday there is a new 'breakthrough scientific study' that claims to have found the holy grail of nutrition? Perhaps it is a low-fat diet...or low-carb...more antioxidants...maybe we just need more omega-3s? Does it seem like a lot of this information tends to contradict previous findings, which in turn, is contradicted again? I found this book to be an eye-opening look into why this has been occurring for over the last century. The author examines the origins of 'Nutritionism'...the phenomenon of applying science and technology to essentially replace our ancestor's food chain with The Western Diet.

Beginning in the early 19th century, scientists discovered the basic building blocks of food: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat. A little while longer they discovered a few basic nutrients (vitamins) and proclaimed they had solved animal and human nutrition. Soon after, the first baby formula was created (consisting of cow's milk, flour and potassium bicarbonate). Nutritionism was on its way. Unfortunately, doctors began to notice that babies fed exclusively on this diet did not fare especially well...undeterred, the food scientists forged ahead, looking for the magic formula for human nutrition. The author continues to explore the Age of Nutritionism, from the advent of processed grains to the low-fat phenomenon of the late 50s-present to the low-carb craze of the turn of this century. He highlights that current scientists, in some respects, are just like the early ones. There are just far too many things that we just do not know about how the human body utilizes food.

Out of The Age of Nutritionism was born The Western Diet. Highly processed foods, shelf stable and able to be transported around the globe. A plethora of foods sources were distilled into about 4 monoculture grains (corn, soy, wheat, rice) and 3 protein sources (beef, pork and chicken). These staples were then bred for maximum production at low cost (a worthy goal when there are poor, starving people), however this came at a cost of nutritive value and flavor. The author then describes the after affects of the adoption of The Western Diet. After industrialization, native peoples quickly began to contract 'western' diseases (hypertension, diabetes, cancer, etc.) when previously they had very low rates. Pollan describes a study of modern aboriginals who had a wide range of maladies simply disappear after returning to a bush diet for several weeks; foraging for plants, grubs and wild game.

As you may know, the U.S. has very high rates of obesity, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease. Much of the increases in life expectancy have come from preventing infant mortality, not actually extending life spans. In the near future, we may actually see a decrease in life expectancy. Much of this, Pollan argues, is due to our diet. Food scientists can break food down into parts, but it has a harder time putting it back together. And even if they could, do we really know the optimal configuration? Perhaps someday we will...but until then?

What can we do? Must we return to a hunter/gatherer existence to save ourselves? Fortunately, no. The author suggests only simple, basic guidelines: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. Out of these basic guidelines, there are some sub-bullets I would like to highlight.

  1. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food
  2. Avoid food products that make health claims
  3. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket, avoid the center aisles
  4. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  5. Don't look for the magic bullet in traditional diets
  6. Eat meals, at a table
  7. Cook...and plant a garden
I highly recommend this book. It has really affected the way I think about food. I have always subconsciously been in the nutritionist frame of mind...the body is a machine and food is its fuel. This book sheds light on a counter-claim; that food is actually a relationship between many things, both living and not. I invite you to investigate this yourself.

I would caution that while our diets constitute one portion of our health, it is not the only determinant. Our ancestors also had much different activity levels than we in modern societies do today. I am a strong believer in the power of exercise, which is not in the scope of this book; but in my view, cannot be left out of any discussion of health. I also am an optimist in regards to science. While our scientists may not currently hold the keys to the universe...does that mean we should not implore them to keep looking?

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