With the 4th of July, the celebration of our nation’s independence now behind us, I thought it was appropriate to discuss a modern day revolution in the works. It is the revolution against corporate America’s control over our food. For the foodies, environmentalists, etc. reading this article none of this will be new, but like the impending wide release of the film “Food Inc.” I am trying to reach a broader audience. Having completed Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food (see link at very bottom of page), this article may read more like a book review. Although much of the book did not provide a good deal of never before heard information, the author’s historical and sociological approach to explaining our past and how we got to today does a tremendous job in helping to understand the “why.” It is that understanding of “why” that I believe will inspire people to get off of the sideline and make the necessary changes to improve their overall health and well being through their food choices.
In his book, Michael Pollan explains that food production has changed more in the last 50 years than probably the last 10,000 years. One display of a nation’s superiority is its ability to feed its people. As a result, our government almost 50-years ago, began a mission to enable us to feed everyone and to do so cheaply. The result was a vast amount of highly processed, easily accessible, inexpensive food choices filled with hormones, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals. I’m sure you have all read or heard about how the cows are fed corn to fatten them up, and how the corn makes the cows sick because they aren’t supposed to eat corn. The sick cows are then given antibiotics. The cows then pass gas (methane) which some have argued is worse for the environment than car emissions. If you haven’t heard this and you’re eating some beef you may want to stop reading until you finish, but you get the picture? By the time the beef gets to our table from corn fed cows, we are basically eating sick animals filled with antibiotics. For those wondering, why corn? Corn is inexpensive and helps the corn industry. The end result is that we are less hungry but are also less healthy. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are all on the rise. This may be masked by the fact that medicine is improving and as a result we are able to fight disease and sustain life longer. However, we are getting “sicker” as a nation. The use of pesticides and hormones allows corporate farms to produce more food, more quickly, and more cheaply. As a result though the food has less nutritional value, potential harmful effects to us and to the environment, and therefore in the long run may actually be more costly. So the question is do you want to pay less for food now or more for healthcare later, or more for food now and less for healthcare later? I would rather pay more for food now.
A good chunk of Pollan’s book discusses the concept of “nutritionism.” Essentially “nutritionism” is the reductionist approach to discussing food in terms of its nutrients (macro and micro) as opposed to in terms of the whole food. So we now talk about proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals instead of poultry, broccoli, brown rice, and beef. This new approach to discussing food is complicated and therefore spawned a whole new profession…the nutritionist. Pollan suggests that if we simply ate a wide variety of whole foods, unprocessed grains, fruits and vegetables free from pesticides and hormones, grass fed animals, and fish, and if we ate less in general, most of us would never need a nutritionist. I think he has a point. Another point Pollan raises in the book concerns the inaccuracy of food science and the flaws in research. One-day eggs are bad for you, the next day they are fine. One-day, butter is off the table and margarine is on. The next day margarine is the new Satan. His solution again is to instead of trying to isolate the single property of a food, which is seemingly impossible anyway, and place it in a pill, let’s instead celebrate and enjoy whole foods that grow the way nature intended. The variety will take care of the single magic property we are looking for.
The one section of In Defense of Food that really drove it home for me was his discussion of the French and their relationship with food. When we initially think of French food we think fattening, yet most French people are thin. How do you explain that? The French eat better quality fresh food. They eat a wide variety of food at a meal but they eat less of it. They don’t eat in between meals, something I remember hearing when I was a child. They eat three meals though and don’t skip meals. They take their time when eating which allows your brain to get the message that you are full, preventing overeating. We have been conditioned to believe that fat in food is bad when the real enemy is the processing of food and our gluttonous consumption of food. We have also come to believe that food should be cheap and that a good deal is in the quantity of food versus the quality. We spend far less of our annual income on food than the French. I think the French understand that you pay more to get more…more quality that is. The irony is that we (Americans) hate the French, probably because they sleep more, eat better, love better, and overall live better. Maybe it’s time we take a page out of their playbook and invest more on our food in the front-end so we can save more on the back-end.
In, In Defense of Food, Pollan lays out a set of rules. In respect to him and his work I won’t reproduce them here, although some have been covered in the context of this article. I highly recommend purchasing the book. These rules are not impossible to implement. With the rise of organics and local produce in our supermarkets, supermarkets like Whole Foods dedicated entirely to this concept, and farmers markets it is now easier to eat better than in the recent past. By choosing to make these changes we not only help ourselves but we help the local farmers and our planet. Cost is a potential barrier, but if enough of us make the change then Industry will have to listen and so will the government. Isn’t this how all revolutions are started?
Just a side note, simply because something is organic or sold in a health food store doesn’t mean that it is good for you or that you can’t get fat from eating too much of it. However, that’s a discussion for another time. Also, one caveat to not eating between meals, I believe this rule does not apply to individuals that train hard and train often. Refueling after an intense workout is imperative to recovery and progress. However, this is a small segment of the general population. As always don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, ideas, or thoughts you’d like to share.