Sunday, January 28, 2007

Unhappy Meals

You've got to love an essay that starts like this:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I'm tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words.

What follows is Michael Pollan's brilliant (and humorous) essay in the International Herald Tribune, titled Unhappy Meals. But before you shut your browser and head out to snack on your favorite brand of potato chips, consider this:
And you're much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That's what I mean by the recommendation to eat "food." Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you're concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it's not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

In a piece that spans 14 pages, he turns to expose why our nutrition system is quite so confusing, exposing the politics and the economics of making things that way.
It's hard to imagine the low-fat craze taking off as it did if McGovern's original food-based recommendations had stood: eat fewer meat and dairy products. For how do you get from that stark counsel to the idea that another case of Snackwell's is just what the doctor ordered?

And fundamentally points to getting back to food, rather than nutrients in processed foods:
Of course it's also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.

Here's another classic paragraph on why you should ignore the scientists and focus on what has worked for centuries:
Also, people don't eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that's how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they're found in, as we've done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don't work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

My intent is not to present too much of the article, for really it is best read as the author intended, in one piece, but I leave you with one last tidbit:
For reasons of economics, the food industry prefers to tease its myriad processed offerings from a tiny group of plant species, corn and soybeans chief among them. Today, a mere four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, and that 3,000 of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the food web. Why should this matter? Because humans are omnivores, requiring somewhere between 50 and 100 different chemical compounds and elements to be healthy. It's hard to believe that we can get everything we need from a diet consisting largely of processed corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.

Also, if you don't have the time to read the whole article (shame on you!), at least skip to page 12 to look for Pollan's tips on how to restructure your diet. You will lose a lot, but I guess it's better than losing it all!

1 comment:

sri said...

Hey, thanks for pointing this out. I came across this on some other site, but didn't follow up on it.

I just checked Michael Pollan on Amazon: there is an interview there with Bill Maher.