Jun 30 2009
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
That’s the verbatim summary of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food from the introduction. Before all the carnivores out there start rolling their eyes, let me say this book isn’t about promoting vegetarianism. While it’s true that I keep a mostly vegan diet, something I work and laugh at, this isn’t my attempt at convincing you to give up meat.
I will however share my take from his book, based on those three simple guidelines – not hard commandments – to eating. It’s time to move away from the unhealthy food obsessions that involve breaking down every meal into its components, counting carbs, following the diet fad du jour. Embracing this infatuation with nutritionalism for the past 30 years, we’ve abandoned thousands of years of eating cultures from all around the world that has proven to work. In the meanwhile, the Western diet, quickly spreading through globalization, has produced worse health and less satisfaction in eating. We should simply eat and enjoy real food. I won’t expound on not eating too much, something I hope you find obvious already. Instead let’s look at what constitutes real food and why mostly plants.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT EATS TOO – the biggest argument for avoiding meat from a health perspective. Putting ethical concerns aside for this argument, let’s examine eating meat from the purely selfish goal of health. It tastes great, provides protein, and satisfies the inner hunter – all things I completely relate to. But today’s meat from the supermarket isn’t the same meat my grandmother bought from her local street butcher. The entire meat production industry has changed so much, that today its sole purpose is to convert energy to protein in the most efficient manner, so efficient that it disregards concerns we should be wary of. Livestock are stuffed with grain, antibiotics, and growth hormones instead of their natural diet. Although these details are slowly gaining coverage through books and movies, they’re still relatively obscure to the public. I lament that, without our conscious knowing, the industry has sacrificed quality for quantity, cost over health over the decades. We now arrive at a point of getting inferior meat on both fronts of nourishment and taste. It’s telling that beef in Argentina or wild game taste better because of the importance of what the animals eat. If I want a hamburger nowadays not stuffed with crap or contaminated by E. coli, I have to go great lengths and costs to procure the meat and cook it myself. (This includes Californian hamburger stalwart In-n-Out too.) Even disregarding the low probability of getting sick from individual incidents, eating such mass produced meat several times a day, over a long period of time will inevitably lead to undesirable consequences down the road.
The industrial food complex has affected vegetables as well through a relentless maximization of crop yields using artificial fertilizers and genetic modification/selection. They follow the same formula of producing the most quantity by spending the least. Hence the push for eating well-grown food from healthy soils. (Pollan uses this description instead of organic because you can still obtain such food without the organic certification.) It’s been shown that vegetables grown in such soils without synthetic fertilizers contain significantly more vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients, which is the whole reason for eating more plants to begin with; these antioxidants help our bodies detoxify the poisons from the environment and our diets. This is a case where a carrot from the supermarket really isn’t the same as the carrot from your backyard or a local farmer. They look the same, but inside they’re vastly different. While many of us shy away from spending more for such commodities (when did you ever differentiate carrots from various sources the way you’d differentiate the makes of cars?), the bottom line is our health. By comparing the seemingly identical vegetables from vastly different sources and choosing correctly, we truly nourish ourselves beyond filling the belly.
My last piece of advice is to avoiding fake foods, especially items containing trans fat and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Trans fat, found in processed fats like margarine and almost every fast food chain, will kill you, plain and simple. This is common knowledge now that many product labels tout zero trans fats as a selling point. Credit NYC for standing up on behalf of people in banning trans fats in restaurants. As for the HFCS found in almost all processed foods from soda to meats to even bread, examine the ingredients label of some of your favorite foods and you’ll be surprised to find it there. While the cheapest sweetener to purchase, it’s produced at a high environmental cost. And that’s not even accounting for its role behind many health problems and likely one of the biggest culprits behind America’s obesity epidemic. Its prevalence in almost everything is tragic, as PGuy will attest to in his breakfast forays. Sadder yet, the media has kept relatively under the lid that HFCS is suspected of containing mercury. I doubt it’s completely avoidable from one’s diet, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce intake. Check the advice linked through the picture below.
High Fructose Corn Syrup – Cut it Out
All this can be quite overwhelming for the average eater. For myself, similar challenges exist: howto change what grandma buys and cooks, my passion for adventuring in great food, and my wallet’s limitations. My approach, or compromise so to speak, to all this is my flexitarian diet (eating mostly plants with the occasional meat), follow the guidelines as much as possible, but not like a religion. Most days I’m fairly disciplined, but give myself the leeway to not restrain those moments that should be enjoyed. As for enjoyment, give yourself the pleasures of a real meal, one shared with friends and loved ones. Make it an experience, one over conversation and personal exchange, instead of an allotted time to feed at the trough. No matter the cultural background, humans historically have not scarfed down thousands of calories with eyeballs glued to the television. It’s bad enough that we already do that in front of a monitor during lunch (guilty as charged, amongst many folks in the US). So why not invest a little time in improving not just the what but also the how in our eating habits?
A final take on the Michael Pollan: he delivers the bad news through exceptional story telling and a personable voice of authority backed by extensive research. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Omnivore’s Dilemma a couple years ago. While this follow-up has less of the story telling elements, it does not disappoint. I highly recommend reading both books in sequence; they’ll entertain while opening your conscious mind to what enters your body every day. And what can be more vital, more fascinating than that?