Back to basics

Michael Pollan makes the world safe for food again

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If you could eat only one food for a whole year, plus water, which food would be best for your health? Pick one: bananas, corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, milk chocolate.

If, like me, you chose bananas, you'd be with 42 percent of the population (all that potassium). Next most popular: spinach. Only 7 percent of participants chose the true best answers: milk chocolate or hot dogs.

Reading about this survey in Michael Pollan's best-selling In Defense of Food, I was reminded of Sleeper, the 1973 Woody Allen movie in which our hero, a health food fanatic, wakes up 200 years in the future. Listening to his dearly held beliefs about algae and sprouts, the scientists of the future ask wonderingly, "Had they no hot fudge sundaes?"

Pollan's convincing claim is that 30 years of "nutritionism" have made Americans fat-phobic, ill-informed and prone to bouts of orthorexia — an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. But worse: "Thirty years of nutritional advice," he says, "have left us fatter, sicker and more poorly nourished."

Nutritionism is the ideology that Pollan is out to expose as a fraud. It involves the assumption that foods should be viewed as essentially the sum of their nutrient parts — vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc. If that assumption sounds like common sense to you, read on.

Scientists look at nutrients in isolation, one at a time, because that's how they can hope to determine whether the presence or absence of a nutrient makes any difference to health. So a particular substance, such as omega-3 fatty acids, is studied outside the context of the foods that contain it. And if a particular food, such as olive oil, is studied, it's usually outside the context of the person's whole diet; diet, likewise, is looked at outside the context of lifestyle.

As Pollan explains the problems with "reductionist science," "even the simplest food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. "Add to that the fact that foods are eaten together with other foods — think of the complexity of a ham-and-cheese sandwich with lettuce and mayo — and you've got more going on than can possibly be isolated to "that's the problem!"

Now, because nutrients are invisible, and pretty incomprehensible to those who haven't studied chemistry and physiology, the nutritionist ideology tells us that we need experts to tell us what to eat. Again, familiar, yes? But Pollan reminds us that historically, people have eaten food for a great many more reasons than simply survival, or even health. He lists pleasure, community, family, spirituality, relationship to the natural world, expressing our identity — in other words, our culture.

These days, it's part of our culture to worry about what we eat. Pollan cites another poll: Americans' top association to the words "chocolate cake" was "guilt." For the French: "celebration."

All this worry and guilt might be worth it if it worked. But it doesn't. Pollan makes the claim that, despite our obsessions, we suffer from more diet-related health problems than any other nation on earth. (Here he forgets the 35,615 people who actually starve to death in the world each day. Oops.)

Pollan takes us through the shifting winds of expert advice over the years: Animal fat is bad — eat margarine, not butter. Oops, trans fat is bad (found in margarine); don't touch it. Carbs are bad, even in plants (Atkins). No, it's anti-oxidants that are the key.

The good news, for most of the world's people, is that a vast array of very different traditional diets have proven healthy for those who eat them, with far less heart disease, cancer, bone problems or tooth decay than Americans suffer from. The Inuit do well on blubber, with seldom a green plant. The Greeks get 40 percent of their calories from fat and live longer than we do. A group of Australian aborigines were cured of their obesity and diabetes when they left the cities and went back to the bush to hunt and gather fish, insect larvae, kangaroos, turtles, birds, yams and figs. (It should be noted, however, that people eating these traditional diets also tend to be more physically active than modern Americans — an example of the need to avoid isolating diet from lifestyle.)

The one diet that is not healthy is what has come to be known as the "Western diet." People who survive on it suffer higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than people who eat a traditional diet. When immigrants move to the United States and start eating Big Macs and Pop-Tarts, they contract those diseases too, often in more virulent forms than people born here.

What's the Western diet? It's characterized by refined foods instead of whole, foods based on seeds (corn oil, corn syrup, for example) rather than leaves, and quantity rather than quality. Another survey: The French are asked when they know to stop eating. They answer, "When I am full." Americans: "When I run out."

Here Pollan tends toward a bout of reductionist nutritionism himself when he explains the many deficiencies and excesses of the Western diet. Some researchers, he says, believe omega-3's—found in leaves and fish — are the key to health. They could be why the Japanese, who smoke like fiends and have high blood pressure, suffer little cardiovascular disease — they eat a lot of fish. Same for the Greenland Eskimos.

He gets back on track, though, when he says that it's not necessary for us to know why the Western diet is killing us in order to find a solution to our diet-related pandemics. The solution is to stop eating the Western diet.

Instead — and here the reader, who's been impatiently waiting for this year's version of expert advice, is finally gratified — follow these guidelines: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Eat food. Don't eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize. Avoid food-like substances containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or more than five in number or that include high-fructose corn syrup. All of these are markers, Pollan says, that an item has "crossed over from food to food product."

He gives the example of Sara Lee's oxymoronic Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. How does the manufacturer (the term is used advisedly) achieve both the whole-grain-ness desired by the nutritionism-influenced mother and the snow-white sponginess supposedly desired by her kids? By using albino wheat, high-fructose corn syrup, and "dough conditioners" — a total of 41 ingredients, including chemicals and "natural flavor" — the chemists at Sara Lee manage to avoid any characteristics you'd usually associate with a whole-grain loaf and achieve a product remarkably like Wonder Bread.

Avoid food products that make health claims. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle. Better yet, get out of the supermarket, and don't eat anything found in a gas station. Eat from the farmer's market instead, or sign up for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box.

Not too much. Eat meals, not a day-long series of snacks. (Americans remind me of giant babies, their bottles always in hand, needing a near-constant stream of oral gratification.) Take a break from eating, and make eating a break. Don't eat alone, or standing up, or at a desk, or in your car. Do all your eating at a table. Take time out to enjoy a meal with other people; make it a social as well as a nutritional occasion.

And take a cue from the Okinawans, some of the healthiest people in the world. Their principle is to eat till they're 80 percent full. Most of us are so unaccustomed to paying attention to our internal cues that we have no idea what that would feel like. In studies with rigged-up bottomless soup bowls, people ate 73 percent more than those eating from a regular bowl, indicating that our cues are visual rather than from the gut.

Mostly plants. In countries where people eat a pound or more of fruits or vegetables a day, the cancer rate is half what it is here. We don't yet know all the micro-reasons why plants are so good for us, but so what? Eat leaves more than seeds, eat plants from healthy soils, drink a glass of wine with dinner.

There's no health reason to avoid healthy meat (not packed with growth hormones and other chemicals), but given how industrialized our food chain is, the 200 pounds per year that most of us eat is probably not doing us any good — especially if it pushes out plants. Studies show (those magic words) that "flexitarians," who eat a serving or less of meat per day, are as healthy as vegetarians. I'd thought it was Jane Brody who first recommended that we treat meat as a condiment, not a main course, but according to Pollan it was Thomas Jefferson!

Don't look for the magic bullet in a traditional diet — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — but do try to eat more like the French, or the Greeks, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Italians. Scientists have devoted years of research to understanding why the French, with their butter, croissants and wine, are so much healthier than we are. Pollan hypothesizes that it's because they seldom snack, eat small portions with no seconds, linger over shared meals — and therefore eat fewer calories than Americans while enjoying them more.

The good and bad news is that following Pollan's advice means we'll have to Spend more time and money on food. That CSA box costs more than supermarket produce. Planting a garden and cooking the results takes more time than the drive-through.

Pollan acknowledges that not everyone has more time and money to devote to eating — think of a single mother working two minimum-wage jobs. But he wants us to remember that for much of human history, a large part of our energy went into procuring, preparing and eating food. It was only when food became industrialized, fast, and cheap that it became a reason we're unhealthy rather than the basis of our health.

I heartily endorse this book. The rules I've extracted, like micronutrients, are less than the sum of the parts — you have to read Pollan's whole fascinating history, written in a friendly and neighborly tone, to really get it. I adopted the startling idea of not eating when I wasn't hungry and lost two pounds in two weeks.

Jane Slaughter is a food writer for Metro Times. Send comments to her at [email protected]

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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