Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Defense of Food

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Those are the seven words that Michael Pollan uses to boil down the contents of his "eating manifesto," In Defense of Food, which is kind of a sequel to The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The Omnivore's Dilemma had a profound effect on my life, and after reading it I joined the local co-op and started cooking more, using more organic local ingredients.

I'm pretty sure In Defense of Food will continue this life-changing trend. What I like about the book is not so much the practical advice of what to eat, but the emphasis on changing our relationship to food and eating.

Pollan draws a clear line between "nutritionism,"-- breaking food down into its nutrient parts-- and, well, eating.

Eating is about culture, not nutrition. And back when people looked at food as a way of life-- rather than a delivery system for protein and vitamins and amino acids and saturated fats and antioxidants and Omega 3 fatty acids-- they were healthier. When we obsess about all those nutrient parts, we lose site of the big picture, which is food.

Food: how many ingredients are listed on these packages? Oh, right, there are no packages!

This idea of nutritionism reminds me of those old science fiction visions of the future where people would eat whole meals from a pill. Is that where we are headed? Do we want to be?

Pill on a plate: looks delicious!

The advice to "eat food" may sound silly, but Pollan considers most of what you buy at the supermarket today not food, but "food-like products."

Not food

We process food, which removes their nutrients, and then artificially stuff them with the nutrients they lost. This doesn't work. Despite our fixation on nutrition, this "Western diet" has proven again and again that it's not healthy for our bodies. Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity. There are a slew of ailments that skyrocket in a population once they start eating such a diet.

Pollan contrasts the American disease of nutritionism with the French diet. They eat a lot of stuff that, by our standards, should be bad for you. Meats, cheeses, wine. So why are the French healthier, on the whole, than Americans? They have a different attitude toward food. They eat real food, in moderation, and as an event. Eating is not simply a delivery system to getting energy (nutrients) into the body. It's a social and cultural experience.

There are a lot of other great points Pollan makes in the book, so I highly recommend you read it yourself. It's not a perfect book. In some parts he falls into the trap of nutritionism himself, for example when he argues why we need more Omega 3 fats in our diet. (In the next chapter he acknowledges this inconsistency.)

The main question I had was this: Yes, of course, eating whole foods is better than processed, but since our population is mostly urban, don't we need all of this processing of whole food to keep billions of humans fed? Is it even possible to go back to a more natural diet? I don't know the answer. But if we're going to feed those billions of people, it's the system that needs to change, and not just a few hippie liberal granolas growing food/plants in their yard.

Until then I'll continue to tweak my diet to include more food, and less food-like products.

Who left all the milk, cheese, meat and fish(!) out? That stuff's going to spoil! Ironically, this picture was probably made with plastic substitutes. They photograph better.

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