Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eating Sustainably != Eating Healthy

James McWilliams makes what should be an obvious point, but one that I fear is routinely glossed over:
The culinary domain where I really see the rhetoric of sustainability obscuring heroic amounts of fat, cholesterol, and salt is gourmet dining. One can hardly enter an upscale restaurant these days without being lectured about the locally sourced, sustainably raised, and eco-friendly items on the menu.

But how much do these virtuous environmental decisions matter when you savor an appetizer of foie gras, a mere bite which has 85 percent of your daily cholesterol allowance? Does your body care that the chef personally bought the sweetbreads from a local farmer when it's absorbing 30 grams of fat per serving? Or what about that free-range pork tenderloin, a serving of which—although butchered in-house—has 90 percent of your daily cholesterol and 40 percent of your saturated fat? These foods might be produced in a way that's better for the environment or (with the exception of foie gras) better for the animal, but that doesn't mean that, eaten with any sort of regularity, they're not going to make your next physical a nightmare.
This a little bit of a strawman, since I doubt there are any people watching what they eat (for whatever reason), who think that eating tons of calories is "O.K.", simply because it was at a fancy restaurant with a "farm to fork" philosophy... but there is an element of Michael Pollan's argument that says you can basically ignore nutrition... and any macronutrient that is currently in (or out of) favor... as long as you stick to "real food" and mimic the diet of cultures of people who are still as skinny and healthy as they have been for centuries (i.e. French people). While being ultimately accurate in my opinion, it's a little problematic because it so conveniently congratulates the foodie elites for their choices. As long as you appropriately sneer at McDonald's and processed foods your diet is perfect! Of course, that completely ignores that portion sizes are overall meat consumption are so much higher in our country... so simply taking French (or Mediterranean or whatever) dishes over here... and not paying attention to any other aspect of their food culture... is not going to solve any obesity/nutrition problems. This, of course, is completely separate from any "sustainability" argument... which should be completely obvious... a pound of cheese from a farmer down the street isn't any better for my arteries than a pound flown in from England (but one is clearly better from an environmental perspective).

So, yeah, if you think that they key to alleviating obesity is to get people to eat at fancier restaurants then... you're wrong... but hopefully nobody actually thinks that.

EDIT: Whoops, Sustainability also != Sustainably