Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Defence of Food

Michael Pollan’s new book In Defence of Food describes in detail how food, our food, real food, has been stolen from us, commercialised by the business of nutritionism. Not nutrition, he points out, but nutritionism, a pseudo science that insists that food can be reduced to its component parts and then synthesised, recombined and sold back to us at enormously inflated prices.

Food, he says, is something that our grandmothers would have recognised as such. It is the whole carrot, not the beta-carotene supplement. It is the simple version of yoghurt, not the fat reduced, gelled, bulked, flavoured omega-3 substance with the corn syrup sweetener. It is real bread, made with whole grains, fresh yeast, salt and water and NOTHING ELSE.

And on the day when my newspaper announced a study by scientists at Oxford University into the links between eating junk food and violent behaviour he also makes the connection between this reductionist approach to eating and the fashionable and very very scary condition known as metabolic syndrome.

Last Tuesday 22 January BBC Radio 4 devoted its Case Notes programme to this disorder. You can hear what was said here.

The rocketing rates for obesity and diabetes are, says Pollan, a direct result of our Western Diet, which has allowed commercial interests and nutritionism – sponsored by those same interests – to hijack what we eat and in the process make a lot of us very ill indeed. But capitalism is also able to turn these problems to its advantage and sell us diet pills, diet books, spa treatments and heart bypass operations. Pollan estimates the cost to society in health care costs to be in the region of $250 billion a year for America alone.

I have an interest in all this because ten years ago I had bowel cancer and I had a good look at my diet to see what I thought could have caused it. A few years later a good friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and again we found ourselves scrutinising what was in the fridge. We are coming down with studies about what we should eat, or drink, and every time a new one comes out we have to throw out the butter, or the red wine, or the margarine, or the chocolate, and start all over again. You would think they could get it right, but maybe, just maybe, there is more to food than the sum of its constituent parts. Maybe a carrot is more than beta-carotene, maybe it's its inherent carrotiness that makes it good for us.

A major culprit is the way we eat, or should I say consume, our calories. In front of the tv, in front of the computer, in the car, who knows what goes into their mouth? Could be cornflakes, could be the packet…and the less time we spend eating the more obese we seem to get, whereas people who spend two hours eating their lunch actually consume fewer calories. Go figure.

Pollan offers some advice; don’t eat anything your grandmother would not have recognised as food. Don’t buy supplements, buy the whole food. Eat more plants than meat (and if you have read his previous book The Omnivore’s Dilemma you will know why this is a good idea), and eat a bit less of everything.

Personally I find I’m becoming extremely narrow minded about food. I eat seasonal vegetables, some of which I grow myself. I never buy ready meals – because I find my teeth banging together in the middle in search of some integrity – and I don’t buy things with unpronounceable ingredients like ethoxylated diglycerides. I make my own bread so I know what goes into it and I try to ensure that my vodka is the purest I can find. Why on earth would anyone want to do anything else?

In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating by Michael Pollan

Published by Penguin Books



Joanna said...

Great post ... your rules sound pretty similar to my rules. Apart from the vodka. Red wine here ;)

Your very good health


June said...

Cheers Joanna!

Jasmine said...

I enjoyed his Omnivore's Dilemma--will keep an eye out for this tome.

Thanks for the post.

lindy said...

These are pretty much the rules I aspire to, though I don't always get there. And I have one more (also aspirational): Don't eat anything I don't actually want or like (except a little bit to avoid hurting someone's feelings).

I think one reason I (and others) eat too much, is that we eat things we don't actually want. Sometimes this is just because we are hungry, and there is nothing else available. but sometimes, it is because we want to be "good".

Hence, commercial "lowfat" baked goods wind up being more fattening, because they are so unsatisfying-you keep eating more, in the hopes of feeling satisfied. Wheareas, if you eat something delicious, it is a pleasure, and you can be sated.

This theory has not yet resulted in a slender me, however, I feel better and am happier.

June said...

Hi Lindy

How much has our post war generation suffered from being told to eat 'everything on your plate'? When my daughter was little I made it a rule that she did not have to eat everything unless she had put it on the plate herself. And how many times have I heard someone praise an eatery because 'they give you huge portions'. Yes, of something completely tasteless.

pink dogwood said...

Great post..

I am reading omnivore's dilemma and I totally agree with you. I am in the process of slowly eliminating these poison foods from my pantry. thanks for sharing.

Jeanne said...

What a wonderful post - and once again, hear hear. There are many aisles of our local supermarket where we simply don't go - all the confectionert, all the desserts, all the ready-meals. And sometimes you look at what is being unpacked form the trolley in front of you and think OMG, I wonder if all their kids have scurvy, pellagra and rickets?

I must get hold of the Michael Pollan book.

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