In Defense of Food

Grocery lines at the local Meijer can be quite long and what can you do while waiting in line? One, read the pulp magazines on the rack, or two, talk on the phone. My preferred way to pass the time is to look into other people's carts - it tells you a lot. How much soda-pop? microwave-ready food? fruits? fresh veggies or boxed? You can make a pretty decent guess about their health, wealth, and lifestyle. You can even tell if they are single or married without looking for the ring finger. Try it!

One day while eating Michael Pollan felt like asking, "What is it that I am eating? Where does it come from? He traced the story of four different kinds of meals - fast-food, organic, foraged, and hunted. Those simple questions lead him to discover some shocking and rather unpleasant facts and write the Omnivore's Dilemma. Most people think that they know what they eat, and where their food comes from, but they don't. For example, try looking at the package your bread comes in. How many of those ingredients do you recognize? Are you surprised to find some stuff you weren't expecting was in the bread you eat? If you are perplexed then grab hold of the book, or listen to this - NPR interview.

That book was the description, his latest book - In Defense of Food - is the prescription and it's bafflingly simple:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

There isn't anything more to it. How many books have you read whose first line IS the punchline?

Eat food
What food? you ask. Any food that is really food, says Michael Pollan. Much of what we eat is not food, but a 'product' of food science. Simple rules of thumb:

1)Anything with more than five ingredients is probably not food
2)Especially something that needs to advertise itself - low-fat, multi-grain, vitamin-fortified.
3)Something your grandmother(great-grandmother, if you are American!) wouldn't recognize

What you are left with after applying those three rules is very likely going to be food, whole food. I tried it this week and what you realize you are not left with much. As Pollan says, "The yam, sitting there silently in the produce section doesn't scream it health benefits" and I found, much to my shock, that my low-fat healthy yogurt contains high-fructose corn syrup. There is actually very little real food in the supermarket.

Mostly plants
I am what you call a 'flexitarian' - one who will eat meat if nothing else is available. People give different reasons for giving up meat or animal products - religious, ethical and health. I've discovered another, in my opinion, more compelling one - ecological. The entire livestock of the world emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry. I also ought to let you know that herbivores are being fed meat (mostly ground beef) for juicier steaks and cows drugged up with hormones. So, that bumper sticker you say is right - "Drink beer, not milk!"

Not too much
We all know this right? But, it's hard to follow it when the food is piled sky-high on your plate and you feel compelled to finish it. Okinawans who are known for their longevity as a community believe in hara hachi bu: Eat till you are 80 percent full. Again, hard to do since most meals are not consumed at dinner table, but are eaten in the car, in front of the TV and are eaten far too quickly or absent-mindedly that we cannot or don't respond to satiety cues. The French paradox is well-known. How do the French eat the most 'unhealthy' food and still manage to be so lean? First, they emphasize quality over quantity, second they don't take second helpings, and eat slowly and enjoy their meals.

Pollan says that - low-fat, low-carb, Omega-3, multi-grain, organic, etc. - are fads and not nutrition, but nutritionism in action. We have been eating food for centuries, and there is much evidence to suggest that most cultural practices are often healthier than the seemingly more healthy array of products of today. Food, real food, needs defending because it is rapidly disappearing from the marketplace.

So what's on your plate? - Make sure it's food, mostly plants, and not too much.


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Ashutosh said...

Excellent points. Pollan's writings are compelling and a breath of fresh of air. This nation is addicted to corn. Thank god the allure of ethanol from corn is slowly fading.

Ashutosh said...

Forgot to mention that, as much a meat lover as I am, the GHG argument in favour of vegetarianism is exceedingly compelling. Converting to vegetarianism will make a very positive impact on global warming prevention.