"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Monday, April 26, 2010

The "Simple" Act of Eating: A Discussion of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (Penguin, 2008)

Spoiler alert: In Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, the author “give[s] the game away” right on page one. In fact, the revelation he’s referring to is right on the cover, written across a bunch of lettuce: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Okay, Pollan isn’t completely serious, though it’s true—that simple three-part imperative really is the essence of the book. Yet the situation Americans eaters finds themselves in today is anything but simple. Hence the 200 additional pages that Pollan takes to present “An Eater’s Manifesto” (the book’s subtitle).

In case you’re wondering what “situation” I’m talking about, here are some broad brush strokes: A 32 billion dollar food marketing business relies on the protean possibilities of American food fads—in large part trends of what’s “healthy” (at least for the next six months). And speaking of what’s healthy, nutrition science has left many Americans with a What’s the point? feeling as they hear seemingly contradictory information from one year to the next. And where are they hearing it from? The myriad media sources that help us, um, make sense of this whole what-to-eat problem.

But there shouldn’t be a problem we need to make sense of. As Pollan reminds us, when it comes to the question of what to eat, “for most of human history, humans have navigated the question without expert advice. To guide us we had, instead, Culture, which…is really just a fancy word for your mother.”

But things have changed. Power and influence over what we eat has increasingly gone, as Pollan explains, “to scientists and food marketers (often an unhealthy alliance of the two) and, to a lesser extent, to the government, with its ever-shifting dietary guidelines, food-labeling rules, and perplexing pyramids.”

In Defense of Food is a book that helps explain how we got into this situation (part 1), the many reasons why the situation needs to change (part 2), and how we as individual eaters can take important though manageable steps to remedy the predicament that never should have been (part 3).

As American eaters, I think we can acknowledge that on occasion we may be the dupes of subtle and not-so-subtle marketing ploys by the food industry. We’re perhaps even savvy enough in today’s 24-hour news cycle culture to understand how the media craves—and in some cases—creates “a story” from some vexing new health related study. But what about the nutrition science itself, arguably the lynchpin in all of this?

Enter nutritionism, a concept that plays a central role in Pollan’s book. Note the –ism, which suggests an ideology. And if you accept that one of the key aspects of any ideology is that it is based largely on unexamined assumptions, then you’ll find this particular one intriguing. Here’s the pivotal unexamined assumption in question for nutritionism as Pollan explains it: “the key to understanding food is…the nutrient. Put another way: Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts.”

He then masterfully illuminates the implications of nutritionism with this analogy:
Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.
But, hey, maybe this is a good ideology and we should just leave well enough alone. We don’t need to over-analyze everything, do we? Especially if it seems to work. Whoops — here’s where the ideology’s paradoxical and downright bizarre consequences really grab you. And why's that? Because “most of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half century,” Pollan points out, “…has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.” And furthermore, “no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans do—and no people suffer as many diet-related health problems.”

Confusing? Yes. Unlikely? Not when you stop to look around. But I got ahead of myself. Take a step back: Why is the book called In Defense of Food in the first place? Why does food need defending, and while we’re at it, what in the world does “Eat food” mean? If we chew it, swallow it, and digest it, it’s food, right? Not quite.

The food production phenomenon that began in post-World War II America and that has only swelled over the decades in its control over what goes into our bodies comes down to this: Thanks to the marriage of food science and the food industry, mass production (usually with federal government subsidies) primarily of corn, soy, and to a lesser extent wheat and rice, has given us an abundance of relatively cheap “edible foodlike substances,” as Pollan calls the thousands of products that fill most of the shelves in our grocery stores.

With this abundance, there has been a cost. Well, there have been many costs. Here are just a few: Industrial fertilizers oversimplify the biochemistry of soil, which leads to plants with reduced nutrients. Study after study has shown a reduction in major food crops’ nutrient levels over time. But that’s not a problem says the agribusiness-food industry axis. We’ll “fortify” the depleted nutrients. Better than nothing, sure, but the fortification only reflects what the current science deems as crucial. And, Pollan writes, “science doesn’t know enough to compensate for everything that processing does to whole foods.” And we still have the systematic use of chemical fertilizers and, let’s not forget, harsh pesticides, which are necessary because the monoculture growing strategies have left these plants less resistant to pests and diseases (and therefore lower in antioxidants as well).

And we’re still leaving out the fact that the edible foodlike substances crowd out crucial foods. As a country, we are eating nowhere near the level of vegetables and fruit we—not should—but need to eat. Pollan reports that a colleague of his at UC-Berkeley, biochemist Bruce Ames, is “convinced that our high-calorie, low-nutrient diet is responsible for many chronic diseases, including cancer.” Ames has “found ‘…deficiency of vitamins C, E, B12, B6, niacin, folic acid, iron or zinc appear to mimic radiation by causing single- and double-strand DNA breaks, oxidative lesions, or both—precursors to cancer.”

Sure, “eat your vegetables” is hardly a new suggestion. Why it often falls on deaf ears perhaps has many reasons, but here is one you might overlook: Cheap calories are king. And they usually come in a form that bears little resemblance to anything green and leafy. Consider this: “Since 1980,” Pollan points out, “the price of sweeteners and added fats (most of them derived, respectively, from subsidized corn and subsidized soybeans) dropped 20 percent, while the price of fresh fruits and vegetables increased by 40 percent.”

The food production-eating dynamic that has become the norm today clearly is having a range of deleterious effects, from environmental to biological to social. But perhaps it hits home the most when we think of what, say, a 12-year-old American child today can become under this scenario: “the human being who manages to be overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species.”

This is just a glimpse into a system of dysfunctional interdependent standard operating procedures and consequences that, finally, significant numbers of people—from a range of socio-political perspectives—are saying No more! to.

And this then is the thrust of Pollan’s final third of the book—how to say no more. More specifically, how to do this: “Stop eating a Western diet.”

This doesn’t mean adapting “foreign” cuisines, though that certainly could be part of a new approach. What he really means is that we need to eat real food as much as possible. Down this aisle of real food possibilities (in many cases not a literal aisle in a supermarket), he points to better approaches to buying and even growing your own food.

He concludes with suggestions on how to eat, not only in terms of portion sizing but in the deeper sense—the overall “eating experience.” (Here’s a hint on that: The eating experience he’s talking about doesn’t happen in your car. Nor on the couch in front of the TV.)

Pollan packs a lot away in 200 pages. In addition to topics touched on above, he addresses areas such as meat eating, the benefits of food quality over quantity, the rise in diabetes, the shortcomings of health studies, the French “paradox,” and various food fads of the last twenty years.

Ultimately, what you come away with is empowerment—you can make informed, healthier choices of what you put in your body. And you realize that eating healthfully is part of a dynamic that cannot be restricted to biology. Healthful eating is really about eating consciously. From this flows the realization that, as Pollan says, “Food is about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.”

Too much to swallow? You just want to eat your sandwich, drink your soda, and get back to work. Well, you can. Just think of this though: We leave staggering portions of our lives unexamined. But when it comes to eating, shouldn’t we pause and examine the one act that connects us most to the ground we stand on?


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was an eye opener. Signed up for a CSA share the next week and am doing everything I can to make sure most of what I eat is actually food.

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