Eat food?

About a year ago, the NY Times published a great article by Michael Pollan entitled Unhappy Meals. It described how nutritionism had taken over the Western attitude towards diet, and the focus on nutrients rather than food meant we couldn’t see the dietetic wood for the nutritional trees.

The core message of the article was summarised in the tagline

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.                 

This basically boiled down to an argument in favour of eating whole foods where possible, avoiding processed foods, especially when they have a plethora of added ‘healthy’ nutrients, eating an appropriate amount for one’s lifestyle, and reducing the amount of animal products in one’s diet. Not really much to argue with there, you might think. This is exactly what a US Congressional committee thought too, when they tried to make this into official US policy back in the 1970s. The food industry rebelled, and the result was a political compromise: a focus on nutrients rather than food. Instead of looking at food, the result is a focus on levels of individual nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as though these can somehow be separated from the foods in which they naturally occur. Well, of course, they can be separated, if you eat processed foods, which suits the processed food industry just fine. Why waste time in the produce section of your supermarket, when you can browse the aisles for conveniently packaged foods with detailed labelling of healthy, nutritious additives, flavourings, sugar substitutes, omega oils, and the like?

Pollan has expanded this article into a book, In Defense of Food (An Eater’s Manifesto). While it covers much the same ground as the NY Times essay, it uses the extra space well, highlighting the oversimplifications, generalisations, and suspensions of disbelief inherent in the nutritionists’ thinking, and making a pretty compelling argument against the industrialisation of food, and in favour of eating real, whole foods where possible.

As if by magic, I opened today’s NY Times to find not one, but two articles supporting Pollan’s arguments:

Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler is a sharp reminder of what is involved in the meat industry. It’s difficult to think hard about what is involved in the meat processing industry and still want to eat farmed meat. For most of human history, eating meat has been something of a luxury. But today it has become something that we can eat at every meal, at least in the West (and increasingly elsewhere, as the meat industry globalises).

What’s Cholesterol Got to Do With It? echoes Pollan’s argument that by just focusing on one or two micro-nutrients or chemical processes (in this case the impact of cholesterol on heart disease), we are ignoring the extremely complex interactions between the vast array of  macro- and micro-nutrients in real foods, and their impact on the (still poorly understood) metabolic processes in our bodies. So instead of telling people to eat less processed food, to eat less in general, to eat more plant-based foods, to take more exercise, we embrace weak science with religious fervour, and put our faith in supplements, additives, and drugs (such as statins) that focus on just one aspect of our internal chemistry.

Food is not just fuel. Eating is a central part of what we are, and enriches us through culture, community, and pleasure. We need to reclaim food from the scientists and industrialists and make it our own again.

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One Response to “Eat food?”

  1. Chris Swan Says:

    This is one of those time when I wish I made better use of tagging (or that I could do a blog seach constrained against the blogs I actually read).

    Towards the end of last year I read a great piece outlining that the ‘health experts’ of the world had been sucked into a monoculture of promoting low fat diets based on the flimsiest ‘scientific’ evidence, which just happened to be great for propping up the US carbohydrate industry (grain). I’m just sorry that I don’t have a link to paste in here.

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