Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Defense of Food: Michael Pollan

It is preposterous, is what it is. The idea that 'food' needs any defense at all. Why, who is opposed to food? What are they in favor of, exactly? The dinner-in-a-pill?

Very soon though, Michael Pollan converts you. Early in In Defense of Food, he thunders against the nutritionism industry's stranglehold on the American plate -

... [The] ideology of nutritionism, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food, but the "nutrient"; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health. [F]ood in this view is foremost a matter of biology.
The argument that Pollan starts to build is this - Americans are now more obsessed about their health and eating habits than they have ever been in history. Paradoxically, they are also the least healthy they have ever been. The so called 'diseases of civilization' - obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer - are reaching epic proportions in the country. A case is often made that this is merely because life expectancy is much higher in America and these are what can be called 'diseases of old age'. But new research keeps coming up that debunks this theory. Among the more interesting anecdotes in this regard, the so called French Paradox.

This is, after all, the implicit lesson of the French paradox, so called not by the French but by American nutritionists, who can't fathom how a people who enjoy their food as much as the French do, and blithely eat so many nutrients deemed toxic by nutritionists, could have substantially lower rates of heart disease than we do on our elaborately engineered low-fat diets. Maybe it's time we confronted the American paradox: a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily.
Along the way, when describing the problem, Pollan serves up a nifty turn of phrase to describe the state of American health and diet - he calls Americans 'well fed and under-nourished'. Neat!

So how is American eating today any different from what it used to be historically? Pollan identifies five mega-trends - The move from whole foods to refined foods; from complex foods to simple foods; from quality to quantity; from leaves to seeds; and from food culture to food science. Some of these mega-trends come up with some stunning statistics. For instance -

Since 1980, Americans are have increased their calorie intake by about 300 more calories a day (I find that a huge statistic in itself). Of these calories, 25% are coming through more sugar, 25% through more fat, and 46% through refined grains. A grand total of 4% of these additional calories come from increase in intake of fruits and vegetables! Or sample this -

Of the daily intake of the average American, 811 calories come from exactly two sources - corn and soy! Add wheat (768 calories) and rice (91), and there is almost no room for anything else!

There are many more where these came from (there is one about the reduced diversity of the human diet that you have to read to believe).

So, what's the recommendation Doc? Well, seven words - Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.

Pollan walks through each of these three edicts in some detail. And no, the first one ('Eat Food') is not as obvious as it sounds. I don't want to give the whole book away, but some of the simple rules of thumb that Pollan arms you with are impossible to forget. I found myself in the supermarket yesterday and I was applying all of his simple rules, much to the wife's frustration. Pollan also offers strong support for the vegetarian diet (more on that in a later, gloating, post).

There are books that you look at and wonder whether their subject has enough scope for a full book. That is how I felt when I picked up In Defense of Food. Here is what I will say now - Michael Pollan might have written a book that will have a more direct impact on my life that most other books I have read. You could say I devoured the book!

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