Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

Thus begins Michael Pollan's latest book release In Defense of Food. Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma was my favorite book of 2007 and this new book picks up where it left off. Where The Omnivore's Dilemma provides the reader with the backround information about our food supply, In Defense of Food is the answer to "What should I eat?"

Pollan discusses the problem of nutritionism at length. The definition?

Nutritionism is an ideology that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine their value in the diet.

Basically, if you can put the food in a package and stick a label on it and tell me why I should eat it - based on current dietary recommendations - then it must be worth eating (I'm paraphrasing here).

"0 Trans Fats!"
"Made with whole grains"
"Fat Free"

The fact that manufacturers can put a label on Lucky Charms cereal that it can be part of a healthy diet because of its whole grains is bewildering. Consumers are so taken in by this. I used to be taken in by this push from food manufacturers to get me to buy products that fit the current trends of what healthy eating means. I'm so often surprised that generally intelligent people are taken in by these things. A friend of mine was really excited about buying low-carb orange juice during the low-carb craze. I told her "I'm guessing to make orange juice low-carb they just add more water to it. Why don't you just buy orange juice and dilute it with water and save your money?" She'd never thought of it like that.

A relative of ours asked what foods to have on hand for our baby/toddler. I requested full fat yogurt and unsweetened applesauce. What was purchased? Sugar-free applesauce - "see, it has no sugar" they said. "Well, yes, because it contains nutrasweet." The yogurt purchased was fat-free and sugar-free. I told them I could not feed these foods to my baby - they were just chemicals - why would I put chemicals into the body of a 25 pound person? They couldn't understand why I felt those were inappropriate foods to feed a child. Aren't they safe?

The same family has been using margarine for many years. The husband underwent a quadruple bypass and a year later had to be re-stented. His wife still bakes and cooks with margarine, only less, and now she uses salt-free. Pollan writes at length about trans-fats and margarine, stating that people are having heart attacks and dying as a partial result of the use of margarine. My relative? She just cannot bring herself to use butter after being bombarded with how bad it is for most of her life. And she grew up on a farm. This family is intelligent, they are educated, but they are taken in by what the food manufacturers tell them to eat.

Just yesterday I saw a news story on CNN asking: Could sugar substitutes be worse than sugar?

The Omnivore's Dilemma was a very personal book, about Pollan's journey of learning about our food supply. In Defense of Food is a more scientific book and is a nice companion. I don't know how much I learned from reading it, only because I've read a decent amount on the subject already, but it's the sort of book that I'd recommend to someone who is not ready to invest the time in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's short and to the point. Pollan looks at how nutritionism came about and how it's affected our diet over the years. Despite all the research, Americans have become more and more unhealthy. People latch on to the latest diet, including those eaten by people around the world who are healthier -the French, Japanese, those in Mediterranean countries. Pollan states that the greater problem is our relationship with food and eating.

So what to eat? Pollan suggests eating foods your Great-Grandmother would recognize as food, that is to say - nothing processed. Don't eat foods that make health claims, no high fructose corn syrup, shop the outside of the grocery store, buy from local growers- you've heard this before, right? Pollan acknowledges that not everyone can afford to eat this way. He feels that if you can afford to, that you should try to do so, and by doing so you are casting a vote for eating - what else? -food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.


Jodie Robson said...

This sounds a very positive book, but it's so hard to get the message across to people, especially about margarine.

By the way, I'm so sorry for your recent problem, which I've only just read about.

Nan said...

Great, great review! Maybe when I finish, I'll just send readers over to read this, since I'll say much the same thing, I think! I liked the 'real life' component. People startle me with things like this. Grew up on a farm and uses margarine. What I really don't get is that they believe the 'bad food' brainwashing, but not the 'good food' news. And where on God's earth did common sense go? You'll see people eat an apple pie from a convenience store rather than an apple? And then there is the whole joking you hear about people who eat whole wheat and granola, like they (we) are freaks of nature. I'm just shaking my head.

Chrisbookarama said...

Sounds like a good read. I've been using butter ever since I found out about margarine. At least it's 'real'. I never use sugar substitutes. I've started using raw sugar though. But it doesn't dissolve very well.

Bookfool said...

Oh, yes, the margarine issue is one we tried to explain to my mother without success. We use real butter, avoid sugar substitutes, don't keep salt or sugar on our table, don't buy foods that are bulked up with fake fats and labeled "fat free", etc. But, there are a lot of ways in which we fail to eat the healthiest foods. I'll look this one up, although I'm sure it'll just reinforce what I already know. I can use the refresher. Thanks, Tara! :)

Iliana said...

I was just thinking about The Omnivore's Dilemma. I haven't read it but want to. In the past couple of years we've been making a lot of lifestyle changes in our home and I think it's time I read these two books and got more informed. Great info Tara!

Carrie K said...

I keep meaning to pick this one up - I've been seeing him lecture all over. He was saying that even french fries - if you want them, make them yourself. It used to be a big deal special occasion treat and anyone who has made them from scratch will know why.

I love his real food philosophy. I can't tell you how crazy it's make me over the years to argue that fruits are not carbohydrates - say WHAT? Geez.

Danielle said...

I have his first book ready and waiting for me to pick it up. It sounds good, but sort of scary, too. I already have an idea of what he'll say, but I know I don't know the extent of it. I try and read labels and buy foods that don't have things like high-fructose corn syrup in them--but it is practically impossible. It's everywhere. I can't even get yogurt without something in it that I don't want. I do like Mott's no sugar added granny smith applesauce (no sugar or arificial sweeteners or frusctose). I'd rather have pure cane sugar and real butter (and generally I do)--just sparingly. I really do hate to think what has happened to our food. And I wonder what he has to say about meat from cloned animals. Safe or not--I don't want it, and when they start selling it maybe I'll go vegetarian! :)

Danielle said...

I will admit, though, I don't want to give up dark chocolate! :)

Eva said...

Oh-I want this one! I hope my library has it. :)

Nan said...

Danielle, can you get Stonyfield yogurt where you live? Good company and good ingredients. And there is an organic applesauce from Santa Cruz that is excellent.

Tara said...

GeraniumCat, for me that's the frustrating part - getting the information to people. Thank you.

Nan, you flatter me. I am looking forward to your review, especially since you mentioned you are taking notes. I am notoriously bad at that and my emotional, visceral reaction to books is what helps me write my 'reviews'. I fear I don't do justice to my nonfiction reads due to this. Exactly - where is the common sense?? I happen to live in a neighborhood where these sorts of things are important to people, many moms I know are so vigilant, but I know that is not the norm.

Chris, my thoughts on butter exactly. And sugar substitutes? They taste like chemicals to me.

Bookfool, we definitely still have some changes that can be made - esp. my husband! The support of margarine by people is maddening!

Iliana, TOD is a great read, it's very conversational.

Carrie K, I'd love to see him lecture - he came to our area and the tickets were $$$. That low carb diet was so nutty - to not eat fruits and veggies? That is nuts!

Danielle, for me, once I read it and KNEW about everything I just had to make changes and pay more attention - esp. with dairy, eggs, and meat. The HFCS thing is ridiculous - I was pointing out to my husband that it's almost literally in every processed food. I do not want meat from cloned animals, so I will be more vigilant than I am now about buying meat from local farmers. And, you know, as long as the dark chocolate is good - and not made with a bunch of stabilizers etc., I would personally consider it food so eat away!

Eva, I hope so too!

Nan is right - Stonyfield is a good organic yogurt that seems to be available in mainstream groceries. I like the apple sauce too.

StuckInABook said...

I saw a cereal that was advertised as being suitable as "part of a balanced breakfast" - how unhealthy must it be if it's not even a balanced DIET, but a balanced BREAKFAST needed to offset it!

I try to make as much of my meals as possible 'from scratch' i.e. nothing processed in. Being vegetarian, that often just means getting lots of vegetables and a type of carbs, and putting them together...

Though I do always use margarine in cooking. Did you know that stewed apples will do much the same thing, in sponge cakes, and not affect the taste much?

Bybee said...

I've been on the lookout for this book...eventually, it'll pop up here! Thanks for the review. His seven-word advice is so dead on. I also like the advice about thinking about if your great-grandmother would recognize something as food or not.

melanie said...

Great review!! This is fascinating stuff. My husband's grandparents lived into their 90s eating lots of meat & potatoes & butter. They weren't eating weird lab produced food. I'm not a fan of fake sugar either. Thanks!

Cornflower said...

Excellent and important post, Tara. Thankyou.

nutmeg said...

This one is currently winging it's way to me from Amazon as I write (which makes me think I am not doing much to help the fuel situation - something I am going to have to put some more thought into). Like you, I have probably read/heard a lot of it before - but I still have to read it - his writing alone makes it a treat.

I had a bit of a write up about my impressions of The Omnivore's Dilemma on my last post - the 38 ingredients in a chicken mcnugget (including butane!) was worth the price of the book alone (bought locally!) It seems Australia is subject to a lot of the same "diet" silliness as the US - but we seem to have a surplus of wheat and oats (instead of corn) and that's what some meat producers force feed our cows. "Grain fed" beef is a big selling point in restaurants here - no longer for me ;-)