“In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan.
Warning! This book will make you re-assess all the foods in your life… How & where they are grown. Was this cow fed grass or corn? What kind of soil was this spinach grown in? It’s even making me re-assess the dog food I feed Bailey. Seriously.
“The idea that you would need to write a book telling people where their food comes from is just a sign of how far removed we’ve become.” ~Michael Pollan
The book explains how we (Westerners) became such a processed-foods eating nation, what it has done to our bodies and how to reverse the effects and get back to eating whole foods.
Something to think about… eye-opening points from the book
- Nutritionism… There is a movement called “nutritionism” that focuses more on the nutrients in food than the food as a whole. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle” (Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist). This is why eating “clean” stresses eating whole foods.
- The low-fat mystery… Foods that have been modified to be “low-fat” aren’t necessarily good for your health… In this case, the nutrition scientists have isolated the fats and taken the “bad” fats out of the food (and sometimes add in carbohydrates). But who’s to say what fats are good and which ones are bad? In 2006, the results of a low-fat diet study in women made the front page of the New York Times: “Low-fat diet does not cut health risks, study finds.” Why is this? Maybe the answer to your health problems isn’t to modify the fat level in your favorite foods, maybe it’s too add other foods into your repertoire. Most people that are told to lower their fat intake simply reach for the low-fat version. Since that has been proved to have no significant benefits, this book proposes that adding more whole foods (i.e. vegetables, fruits & whole grains) and lowering the meat intake (to a reasonable portion) will yield more healthful results. Example: I was purchasing cream cheese at the grocery store and I immediately reach for the no-fat version. However, after reading this book I question my choice. So I reached for the “regular” and the ingredient list was cut in half. Guess which one I purchased?
- Fat is a nutrient… “Most people believe that a diet absolutely free of fat – a nutrient, lest you forget, essential to our survival – would be better for us than a diet containing even just ‘a pinch’ of it.” A scenario was posed to a group of Americans recently about survival. “Assume you are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick the food that you think would be best for your health. The choices were corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, bananas, and milk chocolate.” (Don’t peak… which one do you think would be best?) Bananas were the first choice, followed by spinach, corn, alfalfa sprouts, peaches, hot dogs, then milk chocolate. Which one could you actually survive on?… hot dogs or milk chocolate. Why? Fat. We need fat to survive.
- The main features of the Western diet… “lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”
- The proof is in the native populations… Many researchers have traveled all around the world studying the native populations. “All of the researchers compiled lists, many of which appeared in medical journals, of the common diseases they’d been hard pressed to find in the native populations they had treated or studied: little to no heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, hypertension, or stroke; no appendicitis, diverticulitis, malformed dental arches, or tooth decay; no varicose veins, ulcers, or hemorrhoids.” Why is this? They do not eat the “store food” we westerners have grown to love. The only thing the industrialization of the U.S. has done for us is make us fatter.
- What does processing do to our food?… “By the 1930s, it was already understood that the processing of foods typically robs them of nutrients, vitamins especially. Store food is food designed to be stored and transported over long distances, and the surest way to make food more stable and less vulnerable to pests is to remove the nutrients from it. Modern civilization had sacrificed much of the quality of its food in the interests of quantity and shelf life.” Doesn’t this bit of information make you want to head straight to the farmer’s market??
- Flour used to be yellow… “Refined flour is the first fast food.” The history of refining whole foods has been a history of figuring out ways not just to make them more durable and portable, but also how to concentrate their energy, and, in a sense, speed them up. Rollers were introduced in 1870 for grinding grain (as opposed to stone-ground). This is the only way to get white flour so white. Stone grinding removed the bran from the wheat kernel but couldn’t remove the germ, which contains volatile oils that are rich in nutrients (thus making it yellow). This yellowish-gray flour had a short shelf life because of the oil, once it was exposed to the air it soon oxidized. People didn’t like the color or smell but what they didn’t know was that the smell (germ) contributed some of the most valuable nutrients to the flour, including much of its protein, folic acid, and other B vitamins; carotenes and other antioxidants; and omega-3 fatty acids. Guess what happened next? After turning the flour a nice, pretty, white color epidemics of pallagra and beriberi soon followed. Both are diseases caused by deficiencies in the B vitamins that the germ had contributed to the diet. In the 1930s, with the discovery of vitamins, scientists figured out what had happened, and the millers began fortifying refined grain with B vitamins. This took care of the most obvious deficiency diseases. More recently, scientists recognized that many of us also had a deficiency of folic acid in our diet, and in 1996 public health authorities ordered millers to start adding folic acid to flour as well. Wouldn’t it just be easier not to refine the grain?? Studies have shown that subjects getting the same amounts of these nutrients from other sources were not as healthy as the whole-grain eaters.
- Why?… If it’s so bad for our health, why is all of this done in the first place? “The big money has always been in processing foods, not selling them whole.” Put simply, greed. Greed is why we are the fattest nation in the world.
- Orthorexia… An eating disorder not yet recognized by the DSM-IV, but some psychologists have recently suggested that it’s time it was. They’re seeing more and more patients suffering from “an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.”
- Americans on snacking… “American gas stations now make more money selling food (and cigarettes) than gasoline.” And we wonder why we’re fat. Think of what kind of food gas stations sell… highly processed nonperishable snack foods and extravagantly sweetened soft drinks in hefty twenty-ounce bottles. There is a healthy way to snack, but this is definitely not it.
- Eat food… Well, duh. What else am I going to eat? One of the points I liked most about this book was that it labels processed foods as food-like substitutes, not food. The foods you consume should have no more than 5 ingredients. For example, bread. Bread was traditionally made with 4 ingredients: flour, yeast, water, and a pinch of salt. Go look at the bread in your kitchen, go ahead, count the ingredients. All ingredients should be familiar and pronounceable (and not include corn of any fashion).
- Eat in season… “When you eat from the farmer’s market, you automatically eat food that is in season, which is usually when it is most nutritious. Eating in season also tends to diversify your diet – because you can’t buy strawberries or broccoli or potatoes twelve months of the year, you’ll find yourself experimenting with other foods when they come into the market.” Find your local farmers market (and farms, CSA, healthy restaurants, etc.) with this great website: www.localharvest.org
- Eat well-grown food from healthy soils… Yes, this also means organic. But there are also exceptional farmers in America that are not certified organic and the food they grow is just as “organic” as the ones labeled that way. “Also, the supermarket is brimming with processed organic food products that are a little better, at least from standpoint of health, than their conventional counterparts. But Organic Oreos are not a health food… Many consumers automatically assume that the word “organic” is synonymous with health, but it makes no difference to your insulin metabolism if the high-fructose corn syrup in your soda is organic.”
- You are what you eat eats too… “That is, the diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.” The quest of the industrial food chain has “changed the diet of most our food animals from plants to seeds, because animals grow faster and produce more milk and eggs on a high-energy diet of grain. But some of our food animals, such as cows and sheep, are ruminants that evolved to eat grass; if they eat too many seeds they become sick, which is why grain-fed cattle have to be given antibiotics… For most of our food animals, a diet of grass means much healthier fats in their meat, milk, and eggs, as well as appreciably higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants… It’s worth looking for pastured animal foods in the market and paying the premium they typically command.”
- Not too much… Quality over quantity. “The American food system has for more than a century devoted its energies to quantity and price rather than to quality. Turning out vast quantities of so-so food sold in tremendous packages at a terrific price is what we do well.” If we compare ourselves to the French (as nutrition scientist have for decades) who eat their meals slowly and even sensually, we fall far behind in calorie consumption, time spent preparing and eating food, and time spent enjoying our food. The French eat less food and take more time to do it. Why? How? When they eat slowly they give their bodies time to feel full. And not to mention, they enjoy the company they keep much more. “Americans pay much more attention to external than to internal cues about satiety.” That is, we eat “until our plate is clean” instead of when we feel full. “Calorie restriction has repeatedly been shown to slow aging and prolong lifespan in animals, and some researchers believe that it is the single strongest link between a change in the diet and the prevention of cancer.”
- Mostly plants… “In countries where people eat a pound or more of fruits and vegetables a day, the rate of cancer is half what it is in the United States. We also know that vegetarians are less susceptible to most of the Western diseases, and as a consequence live longer than the rest of us.”
In addition to many books, Michael Pollan also consulted for a movie named Food, Inc. (And so my eyes have been opened to food documentaries…) This movie will make you a) cry, b) never eat meat again OR find a local humane meat farmer, and c) never visit the grocery store again (I’m headed to the farmer’s market…). Watch at your own risk. Although, I do highly recommend it. This movie is available as a play-it-now on Netflix, and/or you can purchase it here.
“We have allowed ourselves to become so disconnected and ignorant about something that is as intimate as the food that we eat.” ~Joel (Polyface farms)
This documentary was also recommended to me and it looks very inspiring… Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.