Friday, February 15, 2008
February Book Review: In Defense of Food
In Defense of Food
"I don't eat carbs after 3pm."
"I only drink skim milk because its fat-free."
"I drink Kiwi Snapple because I heard kiwis have lots of antioxidants."
"I eat pine nuts because they have the 'good fats.'"
I've been hearing comments like these for years. While it seems my clients are expecting some sort of praise for their culinary deprivation and/or will power in the name of health and weight loss, I often find myself growing inwardly incredulous with them for these practices. I eat carbs at 9pm sometimes and I drink whole milk and I think Kiwi Snapple is disgusting and I eat pine nuts because they are good and WHO PUT ALL THESE CRAZY IDEAS IN YOUR HEAD ABOUT FOOD?! And how can I possibly shed light on what anyone should eat without writing a whole book about it?!
Thanks to Michael Pollan, I don't have to.
Throughout In Defense of Food, Pollan blames our confused notions about what to eat on "Nutritionism," the reigning American ideology that the nutrient components of food (i.e. fat, carbs, antioxidants...) are more important than food itself. Fueled by the powers of nutrition science, journalism, and the mighty billion-dollar food industry, we have been made to believe we need expert advice in deciding what to eat in order to consume the perfect array of nutrients. And since we can't see nutrients (only scientists can do that), we've become dependent on the experts to tell us what foods to eat so that we can stay healthy. If you don't see a problem with this, you should.
All of the aforementioned industries stand to benefit financially from your confusion: nutrition science in the continued funding of research to find the perfect nutrient(s) to support health, journalism to use that breaking research for headlines, and the food industry to sell you food by making health claims according to the latest find in food science. The scariest part is, this research is often biased, the methods flawed, and the findings essentially meaningless. How can any researcher - no matter how good - study one food out of the context of its diet?
So here we are...uninterested in whether a food will taste good or bad, fooled into eating "edible foodlike substances," processed foods pumped full of nutrients intended to make us healthy. And yet for all of our obsessing about diet, nutrition, and their effects on health, Americans are overweight and unhealthy.
Pollan argues that the answer to the question, "What should I eat?" may not lie in reconfiguring the Western diet of overprocessed foods, of fortified cereals and pastas, of Vitamin waters and fat-free yogurts. "Nutritionism prefers to tinker with the Western diet, adjusting the various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place." Pollan questions their value throughout the entire book and offers suggestions on what and how to eat that are far more culturally intellectual than an Eat-this-food-for-this-Vitamin Nutritionism philosophy. He admits that 5 people could read his rules and come up with completely different menus, but their meals would likely all be healthier, and bring much more pleasure, than eating a menu of processed foods out of the car. I've pulled a few of my favorites (below) but I urge you not to substitute them for reading this book!
Shop the Supermarket Periphery (Stay Out of the Middle): The middle of the supermarket contains all the processed foods. The perimeter contains the perishable items that should comprise most of what we eat: produce, meats, fish, dairy, freshly baked breads, etc.
Avoid Products that Make a Health Claim: Pollan makes the point that a food has to have a wrapper to make a claim, meaning it has already been processed. Remember that big food companies have more money than farmers when it comes to advertising. The carrots in the produce section don't get a label that says, "High in Beta-Carotene!" but that doesn't mean drinking a Vitamin-fortified water is on par with eating a carrot where your health is concerned.
Avoid Products Containing Ingredients that are a)unfamiliar b)unpronounceable c)more than 5 in number or that include d)high fructose corn syrup: Pollan analyzes the label of Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, a product containing over 40 ingredients, including mysterious names like azodicarbonamide and ethoxylated monoglycerides. Isn't bread supposed to be made of water, flour and yeast?!
Pay More, Eat Less: This is my favorite. I have to share an excerpt here: "While it is true that many people simply can't afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, just in the last decade or two we've somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on the internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week - and eat a little less of it."
Do All Your Eating At a Table: Pollan doesn't go into detail here (just to remind us that a desk is not a table) but I would imagine for many readers it is normal to eat breakfast in the car, lunch at a desk, and dinner in front of the TV, settings that don't make for very mindful food consumption.