Eat food, Not too much, mostly plants
By Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan, bestselling author of four previous books, wrote this book to help people answer the complicated question about what healthy food is. This book is his newest #1 New York Times Bestseller of him, with the title "In Defense of Food". Not only does Pollan suggest on how to eat healthier, but he also questions the nutrition science he calls "nutritionism". This is a summary for the readers of this blog. I hope that reading it has an impact on how you buy and eat your food.
Humans are omnivores, which means they are creatures who eat almost everything. We have to eat a wide variety of food in order to stay healthy. Herbivores on the other side, cows for example, have a diet which consists exclusively of plants. Concluding, people should receive their nutrients, which can be described as the pieces of a puzzle of food, from many different sources. A problem nowadays is that even though many people believe to eat a grand variety foods, they do not really do so. According to Pollan, the reason for this is food processing. Before explaining why processed foods reduce our variable nutrient intake, I will provide some information about processed foods in the next paragraph.
The methods and techniques to transform raw products into food are called food processing. During food processing, nutrients can be added or subtracted, which changes the nutritional value of what one is consuming. Food is processed to make it better storable or transportable, different looking or different tasting, edible or allegedly more healthy. When Pollan talks about food processing, he means industrial food processing. Basically everything that happens between the farmer harvesting his produce on the field, and the customer buying food in a supermarket.
Nutritionism - Work in Progress
Due to the complexity of nutrition, scientists still come across major paradoxes and errors. A few examples from the book on how nutritionists believe that they understand food and its impact on the body.
William Prout proposes to classify food as a whole of three different parts: Carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Justus von Liebig declared that the big three (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) and minerals (his discovery) solves the mystery of the human diet. (Liebig's "Baby-Formula" failed due to missing vitamins etc.)
Casimir Funk called vital organic compounds "vitamins". The discovery of vitamins and the healing of illnesses like beriberi improved the image of nutritionists. For a long time, vitamins were believed to increase health in general.
The American Heart Association recommended a diet low in saturated fat (which is found in cheese, butter chocolate, coconut oil etc.) and cholesterol (found in eggs, sausages, dairy products - vital in certain amounts) from animal products. The meat and dairy industries opposed to a nationwide diet guideline for economical reasons.
A group of nutrition scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health wrote a paper: "Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A critical review. The authors disprove all the aspects of the recommendation of the American Heart Association, that had dominated Americas way of eating for the last 40 years.
Context of food
Pollan opposes the reductive science in nutrition science and receives confirmation by a New York University (NYU) nutritionist: "The problem with the nutrient by nutrient nutrition science is that we forget the context of the food, of the diet, of the lifestyle." Unfortunately, students at NYU and other universities learn nutrient by nutrient, which does not make a lot of sense, but fits the education system. Pollan provokes by saying that the government and the public health organizations are just too coward to admit that the idea of dietary fat was responsible for chronic diseases and has been an error. Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health wrote a "critical review" where they confirm Pollan saying that "it is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences."
There are three ways Pollan argues against the low-fat-illusion. One is the scientific way where he explains that without certain fats, our body is not able to subtract certain nutrients from plants. For example: Eating tomatoes with olive oil makes the lycopene they contain more available to the body. - The carbohydrates in a bagel are absorbed more slowly if the bagel is schmeared with peanut butter. The insulin response to the carbohydrates after eating that bagel is delayed because of the fiber, fat and protein in the peanut butter. That is why Pollan believes it is a good thing to eat dessert at the end of a meal rather than at the beginning.
The other approach is observing historical changes and trying to match dietary changes to increases of illnesses such as CHD (coronary heart disease) or other. These historical changes did not only introduce new products to the diet but also reduce foods people used to eat for a long time. For one there is the obvious replacement of vegetables by meat. Meat has become the main dish, whereas vegetables became a side dish. There is another example Pollan refers to several times in his book: The introduction of Margarine which started to replace butter. He calls Margarine the first important synthetic food appearing in our diet. Margarine was said to be healthier than butter, because "bad nutrients" such as cholesterol and saturated fats where eliminated whereas vitamins and polyunsaturated fats where added. Pollan explains that such a product can only be as smart as its creator. The scientists producing did not know at the time, that making vegetable oil solid by "blasting it with hydrogen, turned out to produce unhealthy trans fats which we now know are more dangerous than the saturated fats they were designed to replace."
Finally, there is a very easily understandable third way of arguing. Not only did we eat more meat during the last 60 years, but also did the big steak take a lot of space on our plate that used to be reserved for vegetables. So by eating more of something, people will eat less of something else.
From Quality to Quantity
The farming industry has to feed more and more people while keeping the costs as low as possible. People take cheap food for granted and there is only a small percentage of people who are able and willing to pay more for food than the bare minimum. Mass production of corn and soy was subsidized by the government which thereby defended the interests of the big food companies.
The problem of the mass production is not only the decrease of quality of the produce, but also the decrease of variety.
The nutrient content of 34 crops have declined. Examples are vitamin C (by 20%), iron (by 15%), riboflavin (by 38%), and calcium (by 16%). That means that in order to receive the amount of iron you would have gotten from a single apple in 1940, you would now have to eat 3 apples today. Our body still needs the same amount to stay healthy though. In order to get the nutrients our body needs, we have to eat a lot more than we ate 70 years ago. Could that be a reason for obesity?
Today's supermarkets are full with many different products, but some ingredients appear in almost every processed food: Corn and soy. These two crops grow very fast and contain a lot of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These macronutrients are very efficiently turned into meat and diary products or processed foods of any kind. As cows or chicken grow fast when fed with a corn or soy based diet, the meat contains these ingredients too. Imagine eating a steak with a corn salad - or a soy based meat replacement. You even have corn in your Coke - in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. That means that we eat too much corn and soy which undoubtedly changes our diet. Next time you are in the supermarket, check the ingredients of your groceries and see how many of them contain processed corn or soy. Post that as a comment in this blog!
It is funny how people think that they could still define what they are eating. Pollan writes about a product called "Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. Attentive readers of this blog might think that this is a contradiction in terms. Apparently not anymore. The list of ingredients has more then 40 items! Is this really bread? Your grandmother would probably deny that and say that in order to make bread, one simply needs flour, yeast, water, and a pinch of salt. Now, I trust my grandmothers cooking a lot more than I trust those company-sponsored nutrition scientists.
An Easy Helper
In order to chose the real products, one may need some help. Pollan created a list with some points that very easy to remember and help when grocery shopping. Here just a few:
1. Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
2. Don't eat anything incapable of rotting.
3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that
a) are unfamiliar
b) are unpronounceable
c) are more than five in number
d) include high-fructose corn syrup
4. Avoid food products that make health claims (Health claims are written on a box. In order to be in a box, any food needs to be processed)
5. Shop the peripheries of a supermarket and stay out of the middle (You will find cans and boxes in the middle and fruit, fish, and frozen foods on the outside.
6. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible and shake the hand that feeds you. (There is no high-fructose corn syrup in what you buy at the farmers market)
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what they eat. For everyone not particularly interested in a healthy diet, it is a must!