Another fantastic book from Michael Pollan. This one is a very quick consideration of what food has become in our society, how it has affected our health, and how we can escape the obvious perils that this diet has caused. The first section considers the rise of “nutritionism,” and if you read his article on the subject from The New York Times Magazine, much of this material will be familiar. The argument is that the discovery of macro- and micro-nutrients has allowed scientists, journalists, and industrial food producers to keep consumers focused on the nutrients in food rather than the food itself. This is important because as food producers began modifying food into food-like substances, they could use the science of nutrition to enrich their food-like substances with what scientists were telling the public they needed. So when you refine whole wheat grains into white flour, you eliminate most of the nutrients from the grains. No problem: just add those nutrients back in. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that this doesn’t work. Food isn’t just a collection of nutrients, and a loaf of nutrition-enriched bread-like substance made from refined grains, chemical additives and preservatives won’t give you the same benefits of a real loaf of bread made from whole grains, yeast, salt and water.
The second section discusses the “Western Diet,” and how unhealthy it is. He defines the Western Diet as a diet with “lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains” (page 89). As a result of this diet, fortified with all the nutrients and vitamins science tells us we need, two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one-quarter have metabolic syndrome, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes has been going up by 5 percent every year since 1990. The United States is now 45th in the world for life expectancy at birth. The interesting (and hopeful) thing is that the health consequences of this diet can be rapidly reversed by eating differently.
The last section of the book offers some advice on how to modify your own diet in the form of a series of rules. For example, one of the best rules is this one:
Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.
This is a tough one to follow. Earlier in the week I went to the supermarket to get hamburger buns, and there were none on the shelf that would be allowed under this rule. All of them had high-fructose corn syrup in them. Short of making my own (which I may try tomorrow), I have no valid choices at the supermarket. All the hamburger buns available don’t really qualify as food.
All the rules are condensed down to one short statement that appears on the cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But despite the simplicity of that prescription, reading the book is well worth it. It’s a very quick read, and really brings the point home that we need to think more critically about what we’re eating in this country.