Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Food for Thought: In Defense of Food

Not only did I eat an absurd amount of food during the holidays, but I also read about food. My old roommate D recommended In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. He is also the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which The Gastronomer also read.

Michael Pollan opens the book with 3 sentences to help eat healthy “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Then he sheds light on nutritionism in a way I had never thought about. As a society we’re so used to discussing nutrients, such as vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids, that we do not realize nutrients have replaced food itself.

I’m not too good at book report writing, so I’m just going to list a few points that really struck me from the book.

  • The food industry has a lot of power and can really affect the way we eat. In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs “issued a set of dietary guidelines, calling on Americans to cut down on their consumption of read meat and dairy products.” After criticism from the red meat and dairy industries, it was reworded as “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” This means that dietary recommendations must be framed nutrient by nutrient, rather than food by food, so as not to offend any industry. For example, even though it was discovered that groups with higher cancer rates consumed specifically more animal foods, it was summarized as more fats in general is linked to cancer.
  • When Americans started to focus on eating right, i.e. low-fat, is when Americans started to get fatter. Most Americans only decreased their fat intake, as a percentage of total calories by taking in more calories. I thought it is interesting that most people (including me) would never eat fat on a piece of meat; however, in Vietnam, meat is comprised mainly of fat and most people there are skinny. Fat is not that evil!
  • The food industry makes more money by (over-) processing food. There is not a large margin on selling food, such as produce, as is.
  • Different native populations’ diets were studied and all were found to be healthier than the Western diet (if you’re wondering what the Western diet is: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains). It was also observed that Western diseases (such as type II diabetes) follow the arrival of Western diets. I noticed in Vietnam that the more affluent class allows their kids to eat fast food (which is more expensive) and the kids are much more chubby than their counterparts.
  • I liked the story of Weston Price (and not just because he’s Canadian), a dentist in the 1930’s who studied different diets. He found that “isolated populations eating a wide variety of traditional diets had no need of dentists.” He also found that these diets were 10 times higher in vitamins A & D than the Western diets. Processing and transportations robs food of nutrients and vitamins.
  • The book ends with specific food suggestions such as “avoid food products that make health claims” and “you are what you eat eats too”. These really made me pause and think of what I was eating and where it came from.
  • Finally, eating healthy goes hand in hand with eating ethically. Eating well is also good for the environment. Eating healthy usually comes from farming and ranching practices that improve the health of the land and water. The only exception to this is wild fish, with many species being endangered. I’m glad I didn’t go for the Chilean sea bass at New Year’s then and this is why I feel strongly about not encouraging shark fin soup.

I definitely did not mean for this to be an exhaustive list. It was also very interesting to read about how soil affect foods, and how fertilizers have been simplified to 3 chemical elements. You just have to read the book! I just find that I’m not shopping for food like I used to. I had previously thought of signing up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box and I think I will do it this summer, if finances allow it. This book was literally food for thought and it made me really think about my food choices and its effect on myself and the environment.


Anonymous said...

I definitely need to read this book--I must request it at the local library.

Living in Vietnam for a year seriously changed the way I eat. I used to be so careful about fat and fiber, these days, I just eat whatever I feel like. Quite liberating, I say.

Miss.Adventure said...

I got this book at the library and am #52 on the waiting list for The Omnivore's Dilemma...!

I found I lost weight in Vietnam while not trying and I'm gaining weight here while trying! It doesn't make sense!

Anonymous said...

You should try eating in a more laid-back style like in Vietnam. I think it could do the trick ;-) I have noticed that a lot of your recipes are low-fat/healthy. Maybe just eat what you like in moderation and everything will work itself out. Try it for a month :-)