“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”… Simple right?
Our culture is constantly changing; fads and trends push boundaries and redefine the status quo. It is easy to pinpoint the major developments in technology, fashion and communication that have taken place over our lifetime. Our society is progressive and we all must ebb and flow in order to adapt and move forward.
Some aspects of daily life are more stable; for example, our basic needs have not changed much over time. Sure, some people categorise necessities differently, but concepts such as food, shelter, air and water are still prioritised. Since we literally cannot live without these foundational building blocks, it seems odd that they would undergo any sort of dramatic change.
This being said, the western diet has indeed undergone substantial changes in the recent years. Humans have eaten for survival and nourishment for as long as they have been on this earth. Our food system was designed to be natural and sustainable. The intervention of science and food modification has since changed our food supply, posing threats for our own health and the future supply of food.
It seems counterintuitive, but the overarching idea is that most of what we are consuming today is no longer a product of nature, but of science. The foods that have constituted our diet and sustained our ancestors for ages are being replaced with “nutrients”. People are all of the sudden forgetting the reasons that they have always eaten and are buying into all the labels and claims. Contrary to popular belief, the more time we spend articulating a nutrition label or modifying our diet, the less “healthy” we are likely being.
“The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science… is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”
The solution, according to author Michael Pollan, is simple. He says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. While this appears to be an easy fix, consumers are almost paranoid of food these days. The food industry has taken their authoritative position and created all sorts of claims and fears around numbers and constituents. That’s what the remaining 200 pages dives into. Pollan discusses the rise of this “nutritionism” era, the industrialisation of food and then how to get over it all and be the healthiest you can be.
The rise of “nutritionism” is the shift in focus to individual ingredients instead of the food as a whole. Foods are marketed to highlight specific nutrients, but the carbohydrates, fats, fiber, etc. are merely aspects of the food. What you are actually eating is something more complex, something that cannot be categorised in a single word or as a number. This transition has taken place due to government regulations on the FDA and major food industries. This defining of nutrients is not only disregarding the overall complexity of a food, but also confusing consumers. How is someone supposed to know what nutrients are more important? Which are good? Which are bad?
You may be starting to see some of the problems with modern nutrition science. If one focuses soley on individual nutrients rather than looking at whole foods, synthetic foods may appear healthier than natural products. Pollan uses an orange as an example; the current market highlights the vitamin C content, but this doesn’t say much about the nutritional value of the fruit overall. Based on this evidence, consumers may believe synthetic vitamin C products are healthier than an orange, this is how food production companies are making their money.
This leads into the industrialisation of food. Pollan spends a lot of time reiterating the role of money in the new western diet. Many of the changes we see in the grocery store and the negative health trends that accompany them are due to large-scale agricultural interests. The results however, are not benefiting our diets in the slightest. The industrialisation is increasing the availability of processed foods and devaluing the diet staples that have sustained us for decades.
"The industrialisation is increasing the availability of processed foods and devaluing the diet staples that have sustained us for decades."
It may seem odd that people are reading a book defending foods but it goes to show that many readers do not believe our food culture is thriving. The definition of healthy is not clear-cut. While this definition will always be a person-by-person case, this book works to eliminate some of the largest discrepancies in what people believe to be healthy vs. unhealthy. These changing nutritional guidelines per se are not leading to better health overall, but to orthorexia. This is the unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Not to confuse you, this is not actually healthy. This was not the intent of food.
Pollan concludes with a host of potential solutions. Simply stated, we should “eat food”. He means that we need to educate ourselves enough to avoid all the synthetic foods and those tricky food companies that make claims or throw on words we cannot pronounce. The easiest way to do this is to shop mostly in the produce section or go to farmers markets.
Another interesting thing to consider when choosing your food is that you are eating whatever that thing ate. This of course doesn’t apply to processed foods, you are simply eating the result of a science experiment. But, with produce, you want to buy organic whenever you can. This ensures that you are buying from people who care about what they are producing.
If all of this went in one ear and out the other, that is ok. If there is anything Pollan wants the readers to take away, it is that you cannot perfectly follow someone’s recommendation for a diet. Everyone is different, each day is different and life happens. Striving for someone else’s ideal of perfection is not healthy, it is just important to be aware of what you are eating.
Some food for thought as you continue on with your day. You only have one body, it is worth spending a little more (if you can) to buy high quality foods. Slowing down is also good, both for your digestion and your wallet. You will actually feel yourself becoming full and most likely will not end up overeating. Most importantly, the processed foods have got to go.
But what about everyone who already thinks they are healthy?
The basis for this book stems from Pollan’s belief that people eat for health. But, in a 2016 study that NPR conducted with Truven Health Analytics, 75% of the 3,000 US adults surveyed responded that they would consider their eating habits to be good, very good or excellent (1). This may deter people from recognising a need to change and subsequently making any improvements. Pollen builds his argument on the fact that consumers make choices based on the individual nutrients, but mindless eating may actually be the bigger issue here.
According to Food Psychologist Dr. Brian Wansink, people make over 200 food decisions everyday but are unaware of 90% of them (2,3). This staggering statistic implies that people are not even paying attention to the choices they are making. Walking down the aisles of the grocery store may be out of habit and all the numbers and fancy names on packages may actually go unnoticed.
Another issues that Pollan focuses on is changing our approach to food. He stresses making more informed choices and changing how we think of food. The reductionist approach to food is all scientific and removes people from the equation. This suggestion, the concept of changing the isolationist mentality, goes beyond just food. People have fallen victims of this trend because of the industries and structures that have monopolised and broken apart the food supply.
Asking consumers to see the “big picture” is not entirely possible without discussing food and health concerns as they relate to health care, environmental and immigration issues. Those who are consciously making decisions are likely doing their best with the information available. It is hard to ask people to read between the lines and educate them on areas that our society has somewhat concealed.(4)
(1) Aubrey, Allison, and Maria Godoy. “75 Percent of Americans Say They Eat Healthy – Despite Evidence To The Contrary.” NPR, NPR, 3 Aug. 2016, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/03/487640479/75-percent-of-americans-say-they-eat-healthy-despite-evidence-to-the-contrary.
(2) Edwards, Vanessa Van. “The Science of Eating.” Science of People, Science of People, 7 Dec. 2017, www.scienceofpeople.com/the-science-of-eating/.
(3) Wansink, Brian, and Jeffery Sobal. “Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook.” Food & Brand Lab, Cornell University, foodpsychology.cornell.edu/research/mindless-eating-200-daily-food-decisions-we-overlook.
(4) Kulkarni, Nidhi. “Seeing the Whole: A Review of In Defense of Food.” Mit.edu, web.mit.edu/angles/2010_Nidhi_Kulkarni.html.