Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gimme good food

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. These three statements represent what Michael Pollan advises us to do in his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Now why would a person tell us to "eat food" since haven't we all been eating this stuff since the day we were born? Pollan argues that what we've been eating lately couldn't be categorized a food. Edible stuff that contains unpronounceable ingredients, preservatives, and flavoring designed to imitate natural flavor can not be called food.

Just think about it. When was the last time you had a meal that did not have any artificial flavorings, had not undergone any processing whatsoever, and did not include refined flour, refined sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup? According to Pollan, these additives constitute what he calls the Western diet, a way of eating that has negative consequences on our health and the environment. Alarmingly, more and more people across the world are starting to follow this diet, foregoing their healthier traditional eating habits in favor of fast, high-calorie, and nutritionally deficient meals.

Pollan studies where have people, Americans in particular, have started to get it all wrong in terms of their diet. For a people who are obsessed with staying young and being healthy, Americans have high rates of heart diseases, diabetes, and obesity. If you stroll along the aisles of American supermarkets, labels scream "low fat," "cholesterol free," "fortified with vitamins and minerals," and "approved by the American Heart Association." So what exactly is the culprit to the increasing predisposition of people to chronic diseases? Pollan argues that it has something to do with the changes on how we look at the stuff we put in our mouths.

The culprit, according to Pollan, is nutritionism, an ideology wherein people pay more attention to the nutrients found in food than in the whole food itself. There's just too many things we don't know about the stuff that makes up food. Take, for instance, the whole brouhaha about fats. Before, margarine was promoted as a healthier alternative to butter because the fat in margarine comes from plants. But since plant fat is usually liquid at room temperature, people have hydrogenated the fat so that it becomes solid, resulting in margarine. But now we know that this hydrogenation process is so unhealthy because it converts plant fat to saturated fat.

In the early part of the 20th century, fat was deemed as the culprit. Lately, however, scientific studies have shown that fat, whether animal or plant fat, in diets does not equate to having heart diseases. In fact, scientists are slowly coming to accept the fact that they might have been wrong about fat in the first place. Humans are omnivores, and we're biologically programmed to consume fat. (Our cells have membranes with large fat components; cells in our brain are covered with fat.)

Perhaps it was wrong to reduce food into its component nutrients and study these separately. We can't just fortify foods with these nutrients because their effects vary when they're taken out of their natural source. It is this reason why supplements don't seem to have any effects. It is way better to get your dose of vitamin C by eating fruits and vegetables than taking a pill. There may be certain compounds in these natural food that allow our body to absorb and use vitamin C more efficiently.

We've become part of a culture that view eating as simply a necessity, not as an integral part of the day wherein we also get to catch up with our family and friends during dinnertime conversations. We take our lunches on our desks and while we're driving, as if eating has become a hindrance to our productivity at work. Food has become cheap that we consume large servings of it. All these must change, Pollan says. We have to remember the time when food was part of our culture, a celebration of the gustatory pleasures that food brings.

And why should we eat more plants? Because plants have a variety of nutrients that's good for us; it's as simple as that. They have loads of antioxidants, whose effects may not be as powerful if they're taken as supplements. In some cases, these antioxidants when taken in pill form, do more harm than good; they become oxidants. I'm reminded of my biology professor's argument in favor of going vegetarian. The lower you are in the food chain, the less food you have to consume to get all the nutrients and calories that you need.

In Defense of Food is an eye opener. It shows us that there's so much to find out about food and that what we do know about it is limited and, at times, can be so wrong. It will make you assess your eating habits and will provide suggestions on what you can do about these unhealthy habits practices.

Read this book if:
  1. You're clueless about what you're putting in your mouth.
  2. You want to know what's all the fuss about omega-3.
  3. You want one good reason for liking butter.


Anonymous said...

So what you are saying with your number 3 reason for reading this book is that everyone should read it?! I need to read books like this a few times a year to encourage good eating habits. I am currently eating homemade bean soup for lunch, so that's good right?
Adding this to my list.

Peter S. said...

Hi Stacy! Yes, everyone should read it!

Michael said...

Hi Peter, along with this one, there is the 100-Mile Diet, which urges reconsideration of how we look at eating. I received the "100-Mile Diet" a couple of years after my wife and I started growing a small garden in our backyard (50'x25') to supplement our vegetables, and I agree with much of what's in there. The fact remains, though, that my wife and I are exceptionally lucky as far as what we have and where we are, and that plays a huge role as far as being slightly more self-sufficient, as well as having the wherewithal to choose healthier items at the Farmer's Market and grocery store. And I'd be willing to bet that there is a distinct mapping of where this ideology is strongest in North America, and where it is weakest.

line of flight said...

food should be looked at in complex, whole terms, not in constituent chemicals. chopping is fine, like pinakbet. we aren't science experiments after all, we're human!

Peter S. said...

@Michael: You're one of the lucky ones to have that way of thinking about food especially on how and where we get it. The book actually urges people to shift from buying their food from groceries and supermarkets to food sold in farmer's markets where there isn't any processing involved/

@line of flight: Exactly! Food is way too complex for people to study its component nutrients. The ironic thing is that as more and more people study these components, the less healthy people have become. Cultures who don't follow the Western diet are actually healthier. Also, our grandparents knew even less about omega-3s and good and bad cholesterol, but they managed quite fine.

Of course, one may argue that people live longer these days. However, food isn't the one responsible for that; it's the improvements in medicine/treatment that made that happen.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading these books. I have a couple I refer to often on my shelf, 100 Top Foods is excellent and talks all about omega 3, oxidants, etc...
Eat This, Not That is another one I use as a reference where it helps with choosing the best fruits and vegies, to the better brands.

Peter S. said...

Hello, bookjourney! I also am a fan of Eat This, Not That. That book is very practical.

Diane said...

I liked Eat This Not That, and In Defense of Food. thanks for your review.

Peter S. said...

Hi Diane! You're very much welcome! Thanks for dropping by!