Issue Date: February 8, 2008
Author urges people to reject nutritionism for the food of their forebears
Reviewed by RICH HEFFERN
Truth about what we eat is hard to find. The government is influenced by the industrial agriculture giants that produce most food. We cant trust labels that print natural above a list of chemical agglomerations. Doctors dont really know much about food, and nutritionists, food author Michael Pollan points out, are educated but biased in particular ways.
If Michael Pollan has a bias, it seems to be that he gives a damn about how we American consumers buy and eat and wants us to know exactly where our food comes from. He is author of The Omnivores Dilemma and writes about food for The New York Times.
In his new book, In Defense of Food, Mr. Pollan shows how government dietary decrees began to speak in terms of nutrients rather than specific foods starting in 1977. This was due to the pushback from the meat industry against the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Sen. George McGoverns committee had made the fatal mistake of suggesting that Americans should eat less red meat and fewer dairy products. Enter agribusiness lobbyists, and a sea change for our Western diet.
The Age of Nutritionism had arrived. No longer would certain foods be extolled; now we would be sold nutrients. No matter that these mysterious and unpronounceable ingredients might be manufactured rather than grown, Mr. Pollan writes.
He describes the Western diet as linked with the rise of an industrialized food industry that favors and promotes such factors as highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat; and the narrowing of biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy.
Mr. Pollan details how the nutrition science that has informed and helped design the Western diet is based on a narrow kind of science, focusing primarily on vitamins or on individual nutrients, such as certain fats or carbohydrates or antioxidants, rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns.
Nutritionism is, in a sense, the official ideology of the Western diet and so cannot be expected to raise radical or searching questions about it, he writes.
Many of the scientific theories put forward to account for what in our diet is responsible for what disease conflict with one another. With regard to the possible causes of heart disease, the lipid hypothesis cant be reconciled with the carbohydrate hypothesis, and the theory that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids contributes to heart disease is at odds with the thesis that refined carbohydrates are the key.
We dont need to declare our allegiance to any one of these schools in order to figure out how best to eat, Mr. Pollan says. The solution to the problem of the chronic diseases caused by the Western diet -- diabetes, heart disease, cancer -- is simply to stop eating that diet.
Near the end of this valuable book are suggestions like Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
We can be locavores, persons who eat what is grown nearby. If we cant raise our own food, we now can buy from small producers as close to us as possible. The more we know about the people who produce what we put in our body, the more we can trust our food-buying decisions. And when we buy food we vote our values, Mr. Pollan says. He urges Americans to spend more money on good-quality food and spend less money on doctor bills.
Mr. Pollan emphasizes that food is more than the sum of menus. It embraces as well the set of manners, eating habits, and unspoken rules that together govern a peoples relationship to food and eating. How a culture eats may have just as much of a bearing on health as what a culture eats.
He cites whats called the French paradox. Slender French people eating gobs of saturated fat washed down with wine. What [nutritionism] fails to see is a people with a completely different relationship with food than we have. Nutritionists pay far more attention to the chemistry of food than to the sociology or ecology of eating. ... [T]he French seldom snack, and they eat most of their food at meals shared with other people. They eat small portions and they dont come back for seconds. And they spend considerably more time eating than we do. Taken together, these habits contribute to a food culture in which the French consume fewer calories than we do, yet manage to enjoy them more.
In the end, Mr. Pollan shapes for us a kind of spirituality of shopping and eating in this book, the most recent of his eye-opening accounts of how we produce, market and consume our dinner.
Rich Heffern is a staff writer at NCR.
National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008
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