Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Defense of Food: My first taste of Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto was my first taste of Michael Pollan. Pollan asserts that Americans are "orthorexics," or people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Having lived in Japan and traveled frequently to the UK, I can agree with this assertion. I remember years ago when England finally got some decent coffee shops (serving real coffee), and I asked for skim milk. The barista looked at me as if I had two heads! (Things have changed since then, thanks to Starbucks.)

Pollan gives us a slew of information about the science of "nutrition," and the ways that government and the food industry have created and endorsed a series of "frankenfoods" over the years, depending on the slant of the latest health study and the deep pockets of the food and farmers' lobbies. He talks about how Americans had early interest in scientific eating, reflecting their discomfort for "immigrant food," which was viewed as weird, smelly, and mixed up. Americans have always been drawn to scientific data, and we are a nation obsessed with the pursuit of perfect bodies...we jump on any bandwagon, as long as it is telling us it will help us get skinnier. As Pollan illustrates, nutritionists, the USDA, and the food industry have led down all sorts of various paths over the years, none of which has helped Americans get fitter or healthier.

Reading Michael Pollan makes me feel suspicious of my nonfat milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese. How about the calcium-enriched orange juice we give to the children? Is it all bad?

What I liked most about the book was the final third, in which he gives clear advice about what we should eat, and why:
Eat foods. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Okay, easy enough, right?

Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.This makes total sense when considering Yoplait Gogurt, full of high-fructose corn syrup, modified corn starch, natural and artificial flavors, etc. But what about Stonyfield Farms' organic YoKids squeezers, containing organic strawberries, colored with beets, and not containing any artificial ingredients? Yes, it does have sugar. But the reality is it's healthier than Gogurt. And in a busy family, it is nice to have reasonably healthy food that can be eaten on the run.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup. Good suggestions, although the guidance to avoid anything with more than five ingredients I will take with a grain of salt. For example, for the sake of convenience, I will continue to eat my organic boxed or canned soups, which have more than five ingredients.

Avoid food products that make health claims. Pollan attacks the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association for agreeing to approve or endorse products that make dubious health claims. He cites an example of the FDA approving a health claim made by the corn oil industry, along with the American Heart Association's stamp of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix Cereals.

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. Some of the healthy food is in the middle of the store (for example, whole grains), and some of the unhealthy foods (like at the meat counter and dairy case) is on the periphery. In general, this is a good rule but should be applied with flexibility.

Get out of the supermarket when possible. Great advice. Pollan endorses shopping at the farmers' market, buying food in season, and trying out unfamiliar foods (as happens when you subscribe to a Community-Supported Agriculture [CSA] share. "Shake the hand that feeds you, and accountability becomes a matter of relationships instead of regulations or labeling or legal liability."

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. For years food scientists have tried to extract the beneficial nutrients out of plants so that Americans don't need to eat so many plants. But the bottom line is that eating the plants themselves, instead of trying to get the nutrients in other ways, is the best choice. Period.

You are what you eat eats too. If you choose to eat meat or fish, choose wisely. "The diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself." Pollan recommends seeking out meat from animals that have been fed on grass rather than seeds.

If you have the space, buy a freezer. It will allow you to buy pastured meat in bulk and stock up at the farmers market when produce is in in season.

Eat like an omnivore. Spice up your diet a little--try new foods. Don't stick to the same things at all times. Our diets, like our farming practices, need biodiversity to thrive.

Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. It doesn't necessarily have to be organic, says Pollan. Many local farmers grow food in highly sustainable ways. Ideally, eat food that hasn't been transported miles across the country--eat organic and local.

Eat wild foods when you can. Wild fish and animals are healthier than their farm-fed cousins.

Be the kind of person who takes supplements. Pollan is conflicted about advising people to take a multi-vitamin. First he says that we should "be the kind of person who would take supplements (because they tend to be healthier), and then save your money." However, he does acknowledge the need for aging bodies to benefit from vitamins from fish oil.

Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks. Traditional ethnic diets are more than the food itself--they also contain a cultural dimension, or how the food is eaten (for example, the French eat vastly smaller proportions than Americans do). But "regard nontraditional foods with skepticism" (such as soy products enhanced with "soy protein isolate," "soy isoflavones," and "textured vegetable protein." Apparently Americans now eat more soy than the Japanese or Chinese do--because the food industry injects soy into so many products. Also, "don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet." it might not necessarily be one ingredient that helps those cultures be healthier--it might be the combination of foods, or other factors.

Have a glass of wine with dinner. Alcohol appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, but red wine especially appears to have unique protective properties. Drinking a little every day is better than drinking a lot on the weekends, and drinking with food is better than drinking without it. Experts recommend no more than two drinks a day for men, and one for women (otherwise you could increase your risk of cancer or other illnesses).

Pay more, eat less. The cheaper the food, often the less healthy it is. Also, if you pay more, you're more likely to eat less of it. Pollan realizes that not everyone has the resources of paying more for their food...but many of us do. Especially if people examine how much they are paying for broadband, cable, and cell phones for everyone in the family.

Eat meals. Sitting down together as a family. Eating the same things. Enough said? Pollan also advises doing all your eating at a table, and a desk does not count. I will take this with a grain of salt, because I eat my lunch at my desk at work. It's healthier for me to do so than to eat out every day.

Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does. Gas stations sell processed, unhealthy foods. Don't buy them.

Try not to eat alone. This is easy for me to do (except when I'm eating alone at my desk at lunch time), but not as easy for single people. I see his point, however. "When we eat mindlessly and alone, we eat more."

Consult your gut. Stop eating when you are full. Or before you become full.

Eat slowly. Eat with pleasure.

Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. Since Mike and I embarked on implementing healthier eating habits for our family at the beginning of this year, we have eaten out less. It's much easier to eat more healthfully when you know what is going into your dishes. In particular, it's easier to feed our children healthy kids when we stay away from kids meals, which are often loaded with saturated fat and sugar, even in healthy restaurants.

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