"Eat food!" That's the advice that Michael Pollan gives us about what we should put in our bodies in In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
. That would seem to be rather vague advice, except that Pollan tells us that most of what we consider to be food isn't really food.
Oreos, margarine, Triskets, toaster waffles, Cheerio's, Pop Tarts, Arnold's whole wheat bread, pop-up ice-cream, soda, salt n' vinegar chips. You thought those things were food. But they really aren't. They're so full of chemicals and corn syrup that they should not qualify as food.
Even your meat is full of antibiotics and chemicals. Your apples were picked so long ago, too quickly and sprayed full of chemicals. An apple picked today has far less vitamin C than an apple that was grown in 1940.
Our western diet, Pollan explains, is making us really unhealthy. It's making us fat and giving us cancer. He describes studies done on Aborigines who improve their health by going back to their original diets. While the human body has become accustomed to eating a wide variety of foods, it has never gotten used to eating the fake food that we consume by the truck full today.
Much of what Pollan writes about the fakeness of food in the supermarket I didn't find particularly surprising. My parents got into organic gardening in the 70s. One of the women that Pollan interviews for the book, Joan Gussow, was part of my parents' circle of friends. That's for the next post.
Although I know all about the virtues of chemical-free food, I kept reading. Pollan does an excellent job of buttressing the "eat food" lesson with recent research in anthropology and biology. I do like to know the facts.
Most importantly, he also tells us why we we are eating crap. Big business is the first villain. It's cheaper to make crappy food, and the big business pressured government to allow it to produce crap.
Nutrition scientists are villain number two. Over the past century, they have tried to figure out what particular chemical is so great in a carrot. They reproduced that chemical in a lab and pumped in into our breakfast cereal. But they can't really identify what the one healthy chemical is. The best thing, really, is to just eat a carrot.
The last culprit is the decline of traditional cooking. Pollan is careful to avoid blaming women and their entry into the workforce for the declining food standards. And he is probably right. Julia Child's autobiography talks about the rejection of traditional cooking in the early 1960s. Women stopped making day-long pasta sauce long before the 1980s. Yet, the time-crunch on women today certainly does increase the difficulty level for locating real foods and then finding interesting ways of combining them.
Like the nutritionists, Pollan focuses on one aspect of a healthy meal – the food – and forgets the rest. Yes, a traditional Italian meal includes everything that Pollan would categorize as food: tomatoes and basil from the garden, olive oil, garlic, onions, and red wine. But an Italian meal also includes a large extended family, five courses, five hours of eating, and at least one guilt trip. The leisurely lifestyle and the extended family have also been shown to increase overall health.
While Pollan reminds me of what I should do, he fails to tell me how I'm going to find the time to do all the right things.