Escaping the Western diet: food journalist Michael Pollan offers a liberating solution to the way of eating that is ruining Americans' health.
For the last 30 years and more, something has been disappearing from the American diet. Its absence, according to Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma, has led to widespread obesity, diabetes, and ill health. In a new book, Pollan reveals what that missing ingredient is--food. Real food, that is, the kind that our great-grandmothers might be hard-put to find on a visit to a modern supermarket. Real food, Pollan believes, is the simple answer to our present, dire dietary state of health.
"Most of what we are consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all," Pollan explains in
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Even the food that has not been remanufactured by the food industry into some form of "food product" (generally identifiable by having more than five ingredients or ingredients that are unpronouncable) is likely to be lower in nutrition than it was in the past. Analyses show, he points out, that agricultural crops are somewhat lower in nutrient value than they were 30 or 50 years ago, thanks to the agriculture industry's bias for quantity over quality.
Pollan's main focus of concern, however, is not big agriculture but our nutritional science establishment, and media and government sponsorship of it. We are living in the "age of nutritionism," he writes, in which the dictates of nutrition scientists have taken over for our (as it turns out) wiser mothers and grandmothers from whom we traditionally learned what was good and bad to eat.
Pollan traces the beginnings of our present epidemic of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes to the late 1970s, when America bought into the lipid hypothesis, the theory that dietary fat is responsible for chronic disease. (Actually, by 2001, only one lipid had been shown to be positively associated with coronary heart disease: trans-fats, fats that are man-made.) What went wrong, Pollan suggests, is that consumers read the dictum to "eat less fat" as "eat more low-fat," which translates to eat more Snackwells. While replacing ribboned steaks with lower-fat chicken breasts, consumers continued loading up on low-fat, yet calorie-laden carbs. Thus, "thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished."
The nexus of the problem, Pollan argues, is nutritional reductionism, the attempt to identify specific dietary elements either as good or bad for our health. Such labeling can cause confusion and misunderstanding as well as put a damper on the joy of eating, which in itself can be health-promoting. More important than the nutrient components of what we eat (which has been the main focus of nutrition scientists) may be how, why, when, and how much we eat. In a word-association study, when psychologist Paul Rozin showed the words "chocolate cake" to Americans, their most common response was "guilt." When he showed the same words to French subjects, their top reply was "celebration."
Pollan's solution to that problem of dietary guilt is to circumvent the nutrient minefield altogether. His advice: "Eat food [real food not industrially altered]. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollan's writing is something to savor just as one would a delicious meal of real food. His compelling analysis of our dietary culture may help change the way we think about food and make the act of eating an enriching experience once again.
IN DEFENSE OF FOOD
One of the most momentous changes in the American diet since 1909 (when the USDA first began keeping track) has been the increase in the percentage of calories coming from sugars, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Add to that the percentage of calories coming from carbohydrates (roughly 40 percent, or ten servings, nine of which are refined) and Americans are consuming a diet that is at least half sugars in one form or another--calories providing virtually nothing but energy. The energy density of these refined carbohydrates contributes to obesity in two ways. First, we consume many more calories per unit of food; the fiber that's been removed from these foods is precisely what would have made use feel full and stop eating. Also, the flash flood of glucose causes insulin levels to spike and then, once the cells have taken all that glucose out of circulation, drop precipitously, making us think we need to eat again.
While the widespread acceleration of the Western diet has given us the instant gratification of sugar, in many people--especially those newly exposed to it--the speediness of this food overwhelms the ability of insulin to process it, leading to type 2 diabetes and all the other chronic diseases associated with metabolic syndrome. As one nutrition expert put it to me, "We're in the middle of a national experiment in the mainlining of glucose." And don't forget the flood of fructose, which may represent an even greater evolutionary novelty, and therefore challenge to the human metabolism, than all that glucose.