Friday, May 29, 2009

"Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants."

As I try to educate myself about natural lifestyle choices, from food to cleaning products to remedies for illness, I often resonate with Solomon's declaration that "the more knowledge, the more grief." Sometimes it really does seem like ignorance was bliss! And so it was for this reason that I avoided Michael Pollan for a good long while, despite hearing over and over how great his books were.

I finally picked up In Defense of Food a couple of months ago, and to my surprise, I found it to be a compelling, enjoyable read. The book has been a frequent topic of discussion in our house ever since. In fact, I read so many passages aloud to Steve that I've heard him quoting it to others in conversation! Incredibly enlightening, it was also simple enough to make me feel like I could DO this. It was time to stop making excuses, stop burying my head in the sand, and start taking intentional baby steps toward a healthier diet.

Pollan begins with the premise that "nutritionism" has become a pervasive ideology in our culture--a way of "organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions." For nutritionism, the underlying assumption is that foods are just the sum of their nutrient parts. The nutrient is the key. And so we view milk merely as a calcium source, carrots as Vitamin A, and so on.

The problem is, scientists have barely begun to understand food. Like with many other things, the more we know, the more we know we don't know. We're pretty sure certain foods are really good for you, but we have no idea *why* they're so powerful. Is it this nutrient that helps fight cancer, or that one? Or is it something about how the different components work together? And have you ever noticed how the advice is constantly changing? First fat was the enemy, then carbs. Margarine was far healthier than butter, until we discovered trans fat. On and on it goes.

The more you read about nutritionism, the more it becomes clear that we need to question the prevailing wisdom of the day. It seems that food is far more than just the sum of its parts. Pollan takes a refreshingly common sense approach--except that over the last several decades, the sense he advocates has become anything but common.

The bottom line is that the way Americans eat simply is not conducive to long term good health. Countless cultures around the world have far fewer health problems than Americans, thriving on vastly different diets. So there's not one simple answer; it seems that the human body can be healthy on a lot of different diets--but the Standard American Diet is most definitely NOT one of them. We don't need a magic weight-loss bullet; we need to escape the Standard American Diet altogether.

It only makes sense to me, as a Christian, that it would be best to eat foods as close as possible to the way God created them. Wouldn't something He designed naturally be far superior to an imitation engineered by man? Shouldn't we be extremely skeptic of any packaged, processed food product that advertises itself as "nutritious" but which our ancestors would not even recognize as food?

Along these lines, Pollan's advice is threefold, and memorably basic: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

"Eat food?" you ask. "What else would I eat?" Well, Pollan asserts that much of what we eat is not food, but "edible food-like substances." He offers the familiar suggestion to shop the periphery of the supermarket, as well as other tips like "Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number" and "Avoid food products that make health claims."

"Mostly plants" doesn't mean you have to become a vegetarian. (That would never fly in our house!) But it does mean we have some changes to make. It means looking critically at how *much* meat you eat, and shifting your attitude away from viewing meat as the main event. It also means thinking about what your meat is eating (hint: commercially grown cows and chickens are NOT eating what God designed them to thrive on...and thus, their meat is sorely lacking in value). And it means eating a broader variety of plants. (The bewildering variety of products available at the grocery store is pretty deceptive; most are abundant in two ingredients: corn and soy. Hardly the basis for a balanced, diverse, healthful diet.)

"Not too much" is both obvious and nuanced. We all know the portion sizes in America have gotten outrageous, and that's a good place to start. Pollan suggests eating slowly, always at a table. He also offers a rule that sounds counterintuitive to our "low prices, always" mindset: "Pay more, eat less." The truth is, modern Americans spend an unusually low percentage of our income on food--and we're not any healthier for it (quite the opposite). We can get lots of food, cheaply, but in this case "you get what you pay for" seems to be all too true. Some people, Pollan acknowledges unfortunately, cannot afford to spend more money on higher quality foods. But many of us can; it's simply a question of priority. And often dollars spent today on food will turn into dollars saved down the road in health care costs.

I found In Defense of Food to be thoughtful and persuasive, motivating without being overwhelming. I definitely recommend it. It made me want to implement changes, even if they're small ones. I can't change everything overnight, and some changes will be much more difficult to implement than others. But in the long run, I believe our bodies will thank us. So Steve and I have taken one big step (investing in a CSA) and several baby steps. However gradually, I want to work on using my time, money and energy to promote my family's health and enable us all to better glorify God with our bodies.


zo said...

You've made me really want to read this book. I can attest to feeling so much better for the past month eating more plants, less red meat, driving past and not thru fast food restaurants. Real food has staying power, unlike fake foods. It's worth every dime to me.

Ariana Rose said...

I found your blog yesterday, I think from Walk slowly live wildly, but I'm not sure. lol

I read that book last week. I LOOOOVED it so much I read it again the next day and have lots of little bookmarks in places I really liked.
We've been eating healthy for a while but eating more whole foods and organic foods, too, and to read Michael's book really had me nodding and more passionate about our food choices.

I'm glad you liked the book, too!

Anonymous said...

This is a book I've wanted to read for a while. We own "The Omnivore's Dilemma" but haven't started it yet. I should read it soon!