Monday, October 19, 2009

Thanks and thoughts on Pollan's "In Defense of Food"

creATE officially went public last week and I would like to thank everyone for their kind, thoughtful, and enthusiastic responses!  Some of you commented via emails to me, and I'd like to start off this entry sharing your resources with the larger group:

John: Yes! magazine  This is a magazine that supports people who build a just and sustainable world.  From their website:
  • We inspire people to say YES!
  • We support and connect individuals and communities working for a just and sustainable world.
  • We reframe issues, reflect diverse human-scale stories, and offer tools for people to use and to pass along.
Nathan: Hazon (, an organization that "works to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and a healthier and more sustainable world for all."

Joel: VegMichigan (, an organization "promoting awareness of the health, environmental and ethical benefits of a plant-based diet."  This group hosts events from cooking classes to lectures to potlucks.  The website has a variety of online resources as well.

Lisa: Orangette (blog)
Breadtopia: an online resource for making bread complete with demo videos
101 Cookbooks: 
The Jew and The Carrot:
Hope you all find these links insightful and useful, if you haven't seen them already.  I just joined VegMichigan and am hoping to bake a new bread this afternoon!

In the remainder of this post, I'd like to open a discussion on Michael Pollan's 2008 New York Times Bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.  In this book, Pollan attributes Americans' poor health to a focus on a focus on nutritents instead of food, the industrialization of farming, and, of course, poor lifestyle habits.  

In the first part of the book Pollan attributes the poor diets of Americans to a focus on nutrients rather than whole foods.  Walk into a typical American supermarket and its difficult not to be bombarded by food advertisements such as "whole grain," "low fat," "fat free," "low carb," and so many others, not to mention advertisements that eating particular foods can help you lose weight.  Where did this all come from?  According to Pollan, this bombardment came not from scientists and doctors, but lawyers, journalists, and food manufacturers.  And it turns out that guidelines for making a claim such as, "eating __ servings of __ promotes healthy body weight" or the like isn't too hard to do.

This focus, says to Pollan, has contributed to the "overnutrition" of Americans.  In other words we are encouraged to "eat more low fat foods," and we do just that.  However, in eating more low fat foods, we are (1) eating too many calories, (2) eating too many processed foods containing unhealthy additives and preservatives such as high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils that contribute to insulin resistance and heart disease, and (3) not eating a balanced diet complete with an adequate servings of fruits, vegetables, and other naturally healthy foods.

The second part of Pollan's book addresses the problems that have come with industrializing our agricultural industry.  Along with many issues, Pollan cites the moves from complex to refined grains, from complexity to simplicity of soil, from quality to quantity of food, from leaves to seeds, and from food culture to food science as contributors to the health problems associated with a Western diet.  Basically, refined grains--such as white flour and white rice--can be produced more cheaply and in far greater quantity than complex grains. The industrialization of farms (move from small family-owned and operated farms that produce a variety of foods to large, mass-producing farms that produce a high quantity of only a few types of foods) has caused our soil to lose micronutrients that make our fruits and vegetables--and consequently farm animals--more healthy and nutrient dense.

This section for me was the most interesting because I realized just how hard it can be to eat as healthy as we ate before the industrialization of American agriculture.  Even if we switch to eating only complex and non-refined grains, eat only natural sugars, we still have to face the issue that a tomato we buy at a supermarket is probably not as healthy as a tomato we could grow in our own backyards due to the lack of micronutrients in the supermarket tomato. 

Finally, in the last section of the book, Pollan outlines some practical advice for eating well, which I'm like to post below to hopefully inspire some discussion: 
  • "Avoid food products containing ingreadients that are (a) unfamiliar, (b) unpronounceable, (c) more than five in number, or that include (d) high-fructose corn syrup."
  • "Avoid foods that make health claims."
  • "Shop in the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle."  (In most supermarkets, processed foods comprise most of the center aisles, while dairy, produce, and meat line the outside walls)
  • "Get out of the supermarket whenever possible."  Go to the farmers' market or support a local farm through a CSA (community supported agriculture) group.
  • "Eat mostly plants, especially leaves."
  • "You are what what you eat eats too." Basically, if you eat a chicken breast/egg/milk/hamburger, you are also consuming whatever that chicken or cow ate.  If the animal isn't organic, you might be consuming antibiotics and seeds instead of the nutrients associated with grass-fed animals.
  • "If you have the space, buy a freezer." One thing I'm doing this year is bulk-buying in-season produce and making a variety of soups and sauces that I plan to use over the winter when I can't get as much local produce as I can get in the harvest season.  Freezing also preserves more nutrients than canning.
  • "Eat like an omnivore." Eat a wide variety of foods, even if you don't eat animal products.
  • "Eat well-grown food from healthy soils."  Even organic foods don't always guarantee this.
  • "Eat wild foods when you can."
  • "Be the kind of person who takes supplements." Studies have shown that people who take supplements "more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent."
  • "Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks." Traditional diets' stipulations on what and how to eat generally--in some way--bring consciousness to the act of eating.  Non-Western diets usually contain more whole foods, more plant foods, and less saturated fats than Western diets.
  • "Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism."
  • "Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet." One food won't make you healthy, but rather a variety of foods contribute to optimal health.
  • "Pay more. Eat less." In 1960 American spent over three times more on food than on health care.  Today we spend more on health care than on food.  Why not prevent the problems before the arise?
  • "Eat meals."
  • "Do all your eating at a table."
  • "Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does."
  • "Try not to eat alone."
  • "Eat slowly."
  • "Cook, and if you can, plant a garden."
These last suggestions are the most powerful for me, because they really focus on bringing consciousness to eating, rather than eating on the run.  Perhaps what we need to do is bring the community back into our diets and focus on what makes a "meal" from beginning to end: where all the food came from, how we cook it, and who we eat with.

I'd love to hear your comments on In Defense of Food, if you read it, or comments on the above issues in general.  Thanks and looking forward to hearing from you!

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