Monday, January 29, 2007

What to eat

Michael Pollan (of Berkeley and the book that I so want to read, The Omnivore's Dilemma) had a great article in the NYT around "real food." Which breaks down into: green leafies, whole grains, less meat, less refined crap, etc., etc. It was very affirming. He even mentions flexitarians (come to find out, even just cutting down to meat on the rare occasion has the same health benefits as going all out veggie). Anyway, it's an intriguing look at major trends in food fads. Which I'm interested in this week because of reading Henry James's In the Cage alongside Jennifer L. Fleissner's article on James's "Art of Eating." Apparently James was a devotee of this movement dubbed "Fletcherism," which preached the need to slowly, meticulously, and continuously chew each bite of food. It sounds kind of disgusting: can you imagine chewing something a hundred times? But this apparently resonated with James.

Anyway, back to Michael Pollan. I excerpted some highlights:

Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Na├»vely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”


A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called “saturated fat.”


And herein lies the tragedy of government-issued food guidelines and pyramids when said government bows to every lobby and industry rather than paying attention to health. We will never be told to eat less meat, even though that's a big part of the answer to both our health problems and our environment problems.

How did that happen? I would submit that the ideology of nutritionism deserves as much of the blame as the carbohydrates themselves do — that and human nature. By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did. We’re always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something (with the possible exception of oat bran), and one of the things nutritionism reliably gives us is some such dispensation: low-fat cookies then, low-carb beer now. It’s hard to imagine the low-fat craze taking off as it did if McGovern’s original food-based recommendations had stood: eat fewer meat and dairy products. For how do you get from that stark counsel to the idea that another case of Snackwell’s is just what the doctor ordered?


And then Pollan gets into some simple guidelines for eating healthier, which I've parsed out:

From Whole Foods to Refined. The case of corn points up one of the key features of the modern diet: a shift toward increasingly refined foods, especially carbohydrates. Call it applied reductionism. Humans have been refining grains since at least the Industrial Revolution, favoring white flour (and white rice) even at the price of lost nutrients. Refining grains extends their shelf life (precisely because it renders them less nutritious to pests) and makes them easier to digest, by removing the fiber that ordinarily slows the release of their sugars. Much industrial food production involves an extension and intensification of this practice, as food processors find ways to deliver glucose — the brain’s preferred fuel — ever more swiftly and efficiently. Sometimes this is precisely the point, as when corn is refined into corn syrup; other times it is an unfortunate byproduct of food processing, as when freezing food destroys the fiber that would slow sugar absorption.

From Complexity to Simplicity. If there is one word that covers nearly all the changes industrialization has made to the food chain, it would be simplification. Chemical fertilizers simplify the chemistry of the soil, which in turn appears to simplify the chemistry of the food grown in that soil. Since the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the 1950s, the nutritional quality of produce in America has, according to U.S.D.A. figures, declined significantly. Some researchers blame the quality of the soil for the decline; others cite the tendency of modern plant breeding to select for industrial qualities like yield rather than nutritional quality. Whichever it is, the trend toward simplification of our food continues on up the chain. Processing foods depletes them of many nutrients, a few of which are then added back in through “fortification”: folic acid in refined flour, vitamins and minerals in breakfast cereal. But food scientists can add back only the nutrients food scientists recognize as important. What are they overlooking?

Simplification has occurred at the level of species diversity, too. The astounding variety of foods on offer in the modern supermarket obscures the fact that the actual number of species in the modern diet is shrinking. For reasons of economics, the food industry prefers to tease its myriad processed offerings from a tiny group of plant species, corn and soybeans chief among them. Today, a mere four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, and that 3,000 of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the food web. Why should this matter? Because humans are omnivores, requiring somewhere between 50 and 100 different chemical compounds and elements to be healthy. It’s hard to believe that we can get everything we need from a diet consisting largely of processed corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.

From Leaves to Seeds. It’s no coincidence that most of the plants we have come to rely on are grains; these crops are exceptionally efficient at transforming sunlight into macronutrients — carbs, fats and proteins. These macronutrients in turn can be profitably transformed into animal protein (by feeding them to animals) and processed foods of every description. Also, the fact that grains are durable seeds that can be stored for long periods means they can function as commodities as well as food, making these plants particularly well suited to the needs of industrial capitalism.

The needs of the human eater are another matter. An oversupply of macronutrients, as we now have, itself represents a serious threat to our health, as evidenced by soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. But the undersupply of micronutrients may constitute a threat just as serious. Put in the simplest terms, we’re eating a lot more seeds and a lot fewer leaves, a tectonic dietary shift the full implications of which we are just beginning to glimpse. If I may borrow the nutritionist’s reductionist vocabulary for a moment, there are a host of critical micronutrients that are harder to get from a diet of refined seeds than from a diet of leaves. There are the antioxidants and all the other newly discovered phytochemicals (remember that sprig of thyme?); there is the fiber, and then there are the healthy omega-3 fats found in leafy green plants, which may turn out to be most important benefit of all.



From Food Culture to Food Science. The last important change wrought by the Western diet is not, strictly speaking, ecological. But the industrialization of our food that we call the Western diet is systematically destroying traditional food cultures. Before the modern food era — and before nutritionism — people relied for guidance about what to eat on their national or ethnic or regional cultures. We think of culture as a set of beliefs and practices to help mediate our relationship to other people, but of course culture (at least before the rise of science) has also played a critical role in helping mediate people’s relationship to nature.



It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, we’d have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. That’s not what we’re doing. Rather, we’re turning to the health-care industry to help us “adapt.” Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. It’s gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it’s working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, surely the cost to society — estimated at more than $200 billion a year in diet-related health-care costs — is unsustainable.



1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.


And now I'm hungry.

Seriously, read Pollan. He makes me want to bike to the farmer's market.

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