Friday, July 4, 2008

In Defense of Food

I have just finished reading In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. Published in 2008, it has 244 pages that help us omnivores navigate the nutritional minefield that's come to typify our food culture. The main quote that stands out in the book is the short answer to what we should eat in order to stay healthy:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Mr. Pollan asks a very tough question: where is the food in our food? In Defense of Food gives a series of great answers that help us learn what to put in our shopping carts. I've learned - from direct observation and the info in this book - that grocery stores are stocking more foods that are meant to replace nutrients. There are more and more boxed and processed foods, less and less whole foods and fresh veggies.

I've learned that meat is an okay food source, but it should be a side dish, not a main part of the meal. I've learned that refined processed foods increase shelf life and makes them easier to digest because most of the fiber is removed. I've learned that fructose is rare in the natural world, but per capita, fructose consumption has increased over 25% in the past 30 years.

Agricultural simplification has lead our society to a simplification of our diet. 50years ago, farmers were growing at least a dozen plant and animal crops on their large farms: corn, apples, oats, potatoes, cattle, cherries, wheat, pears, etc. Now, in the 21st century, large farmers are only growing corn and soybeans. After World War II, heart disease among Americans began to increase because we allowed the simple foods of our forefathers to be replaced by refined, processed foods.

Our nation, as a whole, has gotten fatter and fatter while trying to follow a low-fat diet. Most of the higher fat foods have been changed to foods with a high fructose corn syrup in order to decrease the fat content. Obesity started to become an epidemic when our society started bingeing on carbs to avoid the evils of fats.

Lessons Mr. Pollan has taught me:
-- High-fructose corn syrup is bad! Do yourself a favor and remove it from your diet. After reading this book, I am trying to wean myself from a Coca-Cola addiction I have had since childhood.

-- Avoid any food product that makes health claims, because they are probably not real foods.

-- In the grocery store, don't shop in the center aisles. Avoid anything that can't spoil and anything with an ingredient you can't pronounce.

-- Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.

-- You are what you eat. Most cattle are raised on loads of corn instead of free-range and they are pumped full of antibiotics.

-- Eat natural food, the kind your granny served (and not because she was so wise, but because the food industry had not yet learned that the big money was in processing, not harvesting). Use meat as a side dish and fill your plate with greens, the leafier and more varied the better.

One study in this book that really brought the point home for me was the Aborigines of Western Australia. In 1982 a study was started that involved 10 middle-aged, over weight and diabetic Aborigines that had become "westernized" by processed foods since they had moved away from the bush. These 10 people agreed to move back to their traditional homeland which had no access to store food or beverages. For 7 weeks they ate seafood, birds, plants, insects, yams, figs and bush honey - prior to this they had been eating flour, sugar, rice, soda, and fatty meats. After 7 weeks, blood work showed a striking improvement! All had lost weight, the blood pressure was down, the triglycerides were down, blood sugars were down and their omega-3 fatty acids were increased. Just seeing this info in black and white was enough to convince me that I need to change my eating habits.

If you are seriously interested in learning how to change your eating habits and learning to live a healthy lifestyle, then In Defense of Food is a great starting point. I have been recommending it to all my family and friends.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

This was a really nice write up, thanks for doing it.

I'm mostly a big fan of Michael Pollan. I haven't read this book, because honestly he's preaching to the choir and I suspect it's pretty similar to some of the earlier things he's written anyway. I really enjoyed Omnivore's Dilemma when I read it a year or so ago, as well as some of his articles in the New York Times.

The one big problem I have with Michael Pollan is he puts too much emphasis on how to spend your money to change things, and in my opinion what's far more important are the things you don't spend money on.

Rather than going to the supermarket and buying the right things, I think you are far better off taking responsibility for more of your own food yourself. It's only recently that he's mentioned growing your own vegetables at all, and he's never said anything as far as I know about the value of heirloom/heritage varieties, seed saving and the importance of biodiversity in your garden and diet.