Thursday, April 24, 2008

Eating like a Luddite

In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan lays out the following premise at the outset:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

He then spends the rest of the book explaining and defending that premise, and how it relates to all the myriad of health problems brought on by the "Western Diet" (high in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and animal protein). It all starts with a rather brutal take down of "nutritionism", or the ideology that focuses on looking at food as a sum of its nutrients. A "nutrionist" in Pollan's view, is someone who believes that all you need to know about something you eat is the nutritional label on the back. Pollan effectively argues that this is a misguided approach that has actually caused health problems instead of solving them. The primary example of this is the idea that consuming a lot of dietary fat gives you heart disease, which was pushed on all Americans 30 years ago despite being backed up by very little data. Pollan cites two major unintended consequences of this strategy, 1) People ate a lower percentage of fat, but ate more carbohydrates and thus obesity went up 2) Trans-fats replaced saturated fats in "low fat" items like margarine, only to be proven vastly more deleterious to cardiovascular health. Now of course, trans fats are getting banned all over the place, and it doesn't seem like eating a low fat diet does anything at all. However, Pollan's target isn't the "Lipid Hypothesis" (unlike fellow science writer Gary Taubes), so he goes on to discuss the perils of the "Western Diet" in general... everything about how the industrialization of food has been so bad for us and how nutritionism become complicit in that. The real money to be made, after all, is in processing and packaging of foods... in increasing yields at the expense of nutrition... or adding a new health fad micronutrient to your Cheetos so that you can slap a label on about how healthy they are now. It certainly seems like something has gone wrong when Fruity Pebbles and Doritos are screaming out all of their health benefits and the fruits and vegetables are sitting all alone in the corner. He goes into a fair amount of detail about the particulars of refined carbohydrates and the issues of feeding the animals we eat the same our own awful diet(double whammy!), that is all very convincing.

In the end, his discussion of nutrition is mainly to argue that attempts to cure the Western Diet of it's numerous deleterious health affects via changes in ratios of macro- and micronutrients has not been effective(probably the opposite, in fact) and may never be, no matter how many more studies we do. He doesn't explicitly state that nutrition science is a waste of time, but you certainly get the sense that he feels that way... and even if he doesn't, it seems likely he wouldn't be impressed if they ever did break down all the essential nutrients and put them into pill form or whatever. His point is that no matter the mechanism, which nutritionists can ponder as long as they like, the incontrovertible fact is that the Western Diet is very very bad for you. So don't eat it. This doesn't help someone interested in public health figure out how to make Americans less obese, but it can be extremely useful and essentially foolproof for an individual interested in a healthy diet. This is where the Luddite, sort of anti-modern, concept of Pollan's manifesto is the most apparent. He's seems to clearly feel that if all just went back to living like our Great Grandparents, then we and the world would be in much better shape. Now, I think anyone who has looked at the problems we face in the environment and public health knows that we are never going to be able to put the genie back into the bottle and go back to some sort of fantasy pastoral wonderland... which is what a fair number of Pollan's critics focus on. However, I don't think he would deny that his approach is not going to save the world, and I don't think he really cares. If nutrition science and government agencies can save our planet and make everyone healthy, then good for them... but I think he'd still advise people to approach food from a Luddite, old skool, traditionalist viewpoint, because he sees more to be gained from a such a relationship with food than nutrition. And really, why not eat the best way we can while we wait for the nutrition scientists to save us... we might even end up as happier people in the bargain.

To this end, the latter third of the book is focused on simple rules to help one avoid the perils of the Western Diet, in the context of the original proclamation that started the book... such as "Eat Food"... by which he means actual whole foods, not "food like substances" that your Great Grandmother wouldn't even recognize as edible. Generally, he advises us to stay away from the middle isles where the "New! Improved! Healthy!" Cheetos hang out and just focus on fresh vegetables, frutis, meat, and dairy... and making sure anything processed that we do buy, like bread, only has a handful of ingredients that we can easily recognize and pronounce. One of the easiest ways to comport to this rule is to stick to one of the numerous traditional diets that have existed for hundreds and thousands of years. Pollan reasons, pretty solidly, that if they were as bad as the Western Diet (only a hundred years old or less) then they wouldn't still exist. The "Not too much" rule is mainly about making food culture changes, such as: spending more time preparing our meals and at the table, not eating alone, not going back for seconds like the French, etc. Our culture's need for a better relationship with food and return to family dinners is certainly an idea that I think few would argue with. The harder part is agreeing to the point where you are willing to spend much much more time getting, preparing, and eating your food than we currently do... but he makes a compelling case for trying. The final rule, "Mostly Plants" is more than just eating fruits and vegetables. He encourages viewing animal protein more of as a side dish to the green leafy veggies, instead of the main attraction. In addition, he makes an issue of getting away from fruits and vegetables produced through industrial farming, and getting your produce (and meat) from local farms; all of this based on the very strong arguments he made against the industrialization of our food he made earlier in the book.

All in all, a very enjoyable book that is worth the read, though you'd probably be better served picking it up from the library, since I don't think it is something you need to come back and refer to constantly. It is, however, a good book to lend out to others (my boss has my copy right now) since it is a short read and very well written. I was actually already familiar with most of the arguments in the book, and was already planning to make the move towards more local foods and more fruits and veggies... so it wasn't exactly earth changing for me, but for someone who is really focused on nutritional labels at the expense of enjoying food, this could really make an impact, as it is the best written presentation of these kinds of ideas I've yet seen.