If We Are What We Eat…Redux

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Thus journalist Michael Pollan begins his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. And once he makes his case for returning to a diet without processed foods, you see that those three rules are truly as simple as they look.

But first, the complicated bits. Raj Patel recently demonstrated how the agro-industrial complex has almost taken over the world’s food supply, to the vast detriment of, well, everything. (Countries’ economies, small farms, food quality, people’s health etc.) His book, Stuffed and Starved, looked mostly at the macro level of the world’s food systems, from the viewpoint of a former World Bank employee.

Now Pollan delves into the same history, showing us more of the micro level: how the agro-capitalist takeover has undermined the health and well-being of millions of people, and how it’s getting worse very, very quickly.

It’s called the “Western diet.” And wherever it has spread, since the early twentieth century, observers have noted a drastic rise in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, alongside an astonishing increase in malnourishment. It consists of massive volumes of highly-processed foods (Pollan calls them “edible food-like substances”), marketed by corporations, prepared and eaten quickly, in large portions of non-nutritious, empty calories. (Even supposedly healthy fruits and vegetables now suffer from the same problem.)

And it goes hand-in-hand with what Gyorgy Scrinis labelled “nutritionism” – an almost religious belief in isolating “nutrients” in food, which then requires a scientific high priesthood to decree which nutrients can be processed out, and which must be processed back into our new, improved imitations of food.

The first problem, says Pollan, is that science can only talk about nutrients it’s discovered – and there are thousands it hasn’t isolated yet, even in simpler foods. And food scientists rarely examine how nutrients interact with each other (especially if they haven’t discovered them all), so it’s no wonder they’re always finding a new “essential nutrient” that becomes the latest rage. One year, it’s trans fats (look how that turned out!), another year it’s oat bran; this year it’s Vitamin D.

So nutrients don’t do what they’re supposed to, scientists study more, add other nutrients that don’t seem to work, study again, add other nutrients, and on it goes. You start wondering what logic justifies processing out the original nutrients if they’re just going to have to add them back in again, hoping they’ll work this time. (One guess: huge corporate profits!)

The engineering extends further, back to crops or animals, feeding them simplified, processed food, again ignoring the millions of nutrient reactions they need that science hasn’t discovered – and the original foods, too, become less nutritious despite all this “healthy” care.

As consumers of the “Western diet” have become more and more obsessed with nutrients and “healthy” eating, the more unhealthy they’ve become. Yet humanity ate the whole foods in traditional diets, and maintained excellent health (or they’d have stopped eating them!) for thousands of years before all this “help.” They didn’t know what nutrients the foods contained – they just ate them, and thrived.

Pollan carefully and convincingly traces the history of the “Western diet” and the eager (and profitable) marketing of “nutritionism” while correlating it with the rise in associated ailments. But if that was all he did, a reader might be tempted to despair. However, he suggests ways to return to a diet that produces real health.

Eat Food. Meaning whole, unprocessed food from growers and producers who don’t process their crops or animals. Try farmers’ markets. Or, if possible, food grown in your own garden.

Not too much. Consumers of the “Western diet” really consume– partly, Pollan suspects, because the body keeps trying to find enough nutrients among all those empty calories. He believes it’s easier to be sated if the body is nourished on whole foods without the nutrition processed out of them.

Mostly plants. We can obtain all the nutrition we need (even iron and protein) from a diversity of plants, supplemented if we want by fish and only occasional servings of meat.

Pollan’s book is well researched, clearly and understandably written – and full of dire information. Yet it does not feel dire at all, and Pollan remains cheerfully optimistic that people not only can reverse the effects of the “Western diet,” but gradually reclaim the world’s food production systems. His infectious optimism leaps from the pages of his book and makes you want to go out and find a farmer’s market immediately.


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