Food on the Defensive

There are many dilemmas to the Western* way of life and mindset, and to me, a primary problem is the desire to neatly break-down and categorize things that are interconnected.  Another issue of the “Western way,” if you will, is the desire for quick and easy fixes – instant gratification. For example, if someone is struggling with depression, often they will be prescribed an anti-depressant rather than addressing the issue from a holistic approach that examines mind, body, and spirit.

Therefore, I value Michael Pollan’s integrated approach to food. He offers no quick fixes or outrageous promises (“Lose 15lbs in 15 days!”) but he does make a strong case against the Western diet and the food industry and so-called science that supports it.  And, thankfully, he offers an alternative to the Western diet other than subsisting off hunting and gathering.

Pollan emphasizes the need to not only examine what nutrients (vitamins, minerals, calories, grams of fat, sugar, etc) one consumes, but also in what form they are consumed (whole foods, processed foods, canned, peeled, etc), how they are consumed (three main meals, small samplings throughout the day, what order, what speed, etc) and even who they are consumed with (alone, friends, the TV). Then, of course, to examine one’s health we must also take into account their levels of physical activity, role in a community, mental state, spirituality and heredity.

So it’s easy to see why issues of food and health become difficult to study. There are countless variables. Pollan argues that the reductionist scientific method (a prime example of Western modernity) used by many nutritionists have come to erroneous conclusions because of their focus on only one aspect of something as complex as food and health.

Even if the numerous other variable are accounted for, it turns out food is much more complex than one might imagine. Despite the brilliant technology of today, including the ability to map out the genes of a seed and genetically modify it, there is still much we do not know about the whole foods we eat. For example, studies have shown that eating whole foods is more beneficial that eating supplements that contain all the known vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that that same whole food contains. Pollan concludes, “food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts.”
That research highlights the problems that arise due to the West’s vast consumption of processed food – or “food-like substances,” as Pollan would call it.  Pollan only gives the title of “food” to unprocessed, whole foods — foods our grandmothers (or great-great grandmothers) would recognize. And it is those whole foods that need defending.

In the West something as basic as eating is now dependent on the lastest research or a government guideline. Pollan addresses the shift from people relying on culture (a.k.a. their mothers) to “experts” as one of determent. But how could backwards, traditional cultures trump modern science and machine?  Perhaps because different cultures spent thousands of years developing their eating habits, while Western eaters are now participating in an experiment with processed foods that have yet to withstand the test of time.  And many–including baby formula, margarine and partly hydrogenated oils–have been uncovered as health failures, rather than the health miracles they were purported to be, in only a short time frame.

Even the so-called “healthy” processed foods that have been enriched with vitamins and minerals or feature whole grains (Whole Grain Lucky Charms, perhaps?) usually contain many chemicals, preservatives, artificial ingredients and large quantities of soy and corn (but that’s another story).  But more importantly, we do not yet know all the beneficial macro and micro-nutrients that make up a whole food such as a carrot, so as “enriched” as a processed food may be, it will lack something…  One also must take into consideration the fact that many of the nutrients that are now considered “essential” (soon to be Omega 3?) were not even discovered until recently.

Another example of faulty reductionist thinking is how various nutritionist and dietitians  have tried to find “the secret ingredient” to communities that are known to have good health and low rates of “Western diseases.” However one aspect alone cannot account for the health of these communities. But Pollan does see a pattern of health emerge from a diet of whole foods, rich in fruit and vegetables.

In the end of his book, Pollan paradoxically takes a quite Western approach to help his readers free themselves from a western diet – he gives them rules. And while the control freak in me may crave the stability of a rulebook on eating, overall the mere idea rubs me the wrong way.  Anyhow, most of the rules can be summed up by this guiding principal:  “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”

And so we’ve come full circle (a rather Eastern thing) because this principal is the same one that you will find on the cover of Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food.  So, even if you haven’t bothered to read the book for yourself, you now know his action plan for health.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”

But to unpack those three statements, you’re going to have to read it!
*Disclaimer: My definition of Western in these musings refers, not so much to a geographical location, as to the Post-Enlightenment worldview that values rationality, individualism and industrialization (among other things!) and sees progress as a linear progression.

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