Monday, September 14, 2009

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollen

I recently finished a most fabulous book: Michael Pollen's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. I heartily recommend it, and I do so with the note that it will probably make you re-evaluate not only what you eat but also how you eat it. Pollen says so much and says it so well that, rather than try to summarize, I will simply quote liberally from the book:
"The trend toward simplification of our food continues up the chain. As we've seen, processing [foods] depletes them of many nutrients, a few of which are then added back...Fortifying processed foods with missing nutrients is surely better than leaving them out, but food science can add back only the small handful of nutrients that food science recognizes as important today. What is it overlooking? [S]cience doesn't know nearly enough to compensate for everything that processing does to whole foods. We know how to break down a kernel of corn or grain of wheat into its chemical parts, but we have no idea how to put it back together again. Destroying complexity is a lot easier than creating it." (115-6)
After describing the findings of several people who studied indigenous peoples from all over the world (and found that all the people were healthy on these natural diets, even though the diets themselves varied greatly) Pollen comments that “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western Diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.” (100)
He discusses the history of nutrition in the western world--seeking for foods that would be cheap, give lots of energy, and be quick and easy to prepare and eat. I appreciated that Pollen doesn't criticize the motives or the people involved so much as explaining why the results have been (and are) problematic. He goes into the nutritive and metabolic differences between white and whole wheat flour, and spends most of a chapter on what we have recently learned--but long ignorantly overlooked--about the differences between Omega 3s and Omega 6s. He takes on the matter of organic vs conventionally grown crops, and concludes that "very simply, we have been breeding crops for yield, not nutritional quality, and when you breed for one thing, you invariably sacrifice another." (121) (If you have ever smelled one of those huge fancy hybrid tea roses you probably know that they smell like nothing. On the other hand the wilder roses with the little blossoms are euphoric!) Pollen continues "Halweil cites several studies demonstrating that when older crop varieties are grown side by side with modern cultivars, the older ones typically have lower yields but substantially higher nutrient levels. USDA researchers recently found that breeding to 'improve' wheat varieties over the past 130 years (a period during which yields of grain per acre tripled) had reduced levels of iron by 28 percent and zinc and selenium by roughly a third." (121)

Finally, Pollen concludes the book with a list of guidelines, or as he describes them "eating algorithms, mental devices for thinking through our food choices." They are summarized right on the cover of the book: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Within the book of course he expounds upon each point. I have not copied all of his guidelines here, but this list is representative, and makes a good jumping off point for improving your diet--and your health. ☺

"The more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such food will become." (14)

  • Don't eat anything that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
  • Don't eat anything incapable of rotting.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar B) unpronounceable C) more than five in number or D) that include high fructose corn syrup. (He adds that none of these things alone is evil per se, but that they are all indications of a highly processed food, and therefore an undesirable one.)
  • Avoid food products that make health claims. ("For a food product to make health claims on it's package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it's more likely to be a processed than a whole food." Futhermore going to the trouble to secure those official health claims from the FDA involves time and money, and typically only the big food companies have that.)
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible (try farmer's markets or, what a notion, growing your own garden!)
  • Shake the hand that feeds you (I love that one!)

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves (because different parts of plants have different nutrients, and as the western diet has become more and more seed-based we have become less and less healthy).
  • You are what you eat eats too (in other words, "the diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself.")
  • Eat like an omnivore (eat a variety of foods!)
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils (this more or less means organic, but certification is expensive and many smaller farms have the good foods in spite of not having the sticker).
  • Eat wild foods when you can.
  • Seek a more traditional diet, and regard nontraditional foods with skepticism. ("I'm inclined to think any traditional diet will do; if it wasn't a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn't still be around.")
  • Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet (health comes from an overall pattern of good eating, not from ingesting large doses of one specific nutrient).
"A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species." (122)
  • Pay more, eat less (Spend more money for the higher-quality foods, spend more time in preparing them, don't overeat)
  • Eat meals (not just snacks. Interact with your family/fellow eaters as you sit together.)
  • Do all your eating at a table (Don't eat in the car or in front of the television.)
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does ☺
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Eat slowly (eat deliberately and mindfully. Also, it takes around 20 minutes for your brain to get the message that the stomach is full, so if you finish a meal in less than that time you're obviously not listening to your gut.)
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden ("To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that food is a product of industry not nature; that food is fuel, and not a form of communion...")
"I no longer think it's possible to separate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or the environment in which we eat or, for that matter, from the the health of our general outlook about food (and health). If my exploration of the food chain have taught me anything, it's that all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind." (144)


Christa said...

I have this book on hold at the library...I hope that I get it soon!

Elizabeth said...

that sounds like a really interesting book. I'll have to find it sometime. we have finally done a big garden two years now since moving to PA (we did not have sunlight or the slugs mowed it down!) and it's incredible how good things taste! I love it!

Katrina said...

I loved this book also--enough to post about it on my blog back when I read it, too!

rnmr said...

I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma and started to look at how pervasive corn is in our ‘natural’ bath and body products.

My company makes castile soap and I have created a video called ” Are You Washing With Corn”- view

People have to make choices as to what they buy, as that will drive the market, their health and the planet's overall sustainability.

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