Updated: Oct 21, 2020
If you prefer to watch or listen to me read this post, you can click on the video. Otherwise, read on, friend!
I just read Micheal Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” this week. It landed at the perfect time, just as I am starting these weekly investigations into a treasure trove of health related curiosities. The thesis of the book is summed up in the following simple exhortation: “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants”.
In our culture, here is so much confusion about what to eat. “Should I get this avocado oil mayonnaise or stick with the Hellman’s with the soy oil”. "Is soy oil bad?” "Soy is supposed to be good for us, right?” “ "Is soy oil a trans fat?” "Will it affect my cholesterol?" "Maybe just my LDL?” and on and on it goes. Each time we pick up a product there’s a little conversation around it, trying to strike that delicate balance between tastiness and having it not kill us. It really is confusing.
Have you heard the term "Orthorexia Nervosa”? It is fairly new, coined in the late nineties. It describes an eating disorder associated with an obsession with healthy eating and optimal nutrition. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans lean in the other direction (as evidenced by the skyrocketing cases of chronic illness), this seems to me to be a response to the decline of the American diet and our obsession with health that seems to be doing the opposite of what it intends. It can be a problem when we are fed too much information about what is healthy and what isn’t. Because I risk of adding to the problem on these Friday snacks of health info, I think it’s important to start by offering a touchstone that we can come back to time and again, especially when we get confused or feel like we are going off the rails. This is where Mr. Pollan’s handy dandy phrase can do it’s little magic. Allow me to elucidate.
Eat Food. Now, you may be thinking, "what do you mean eat food? Of course I eat food. You said simple but that’s too simple." Well, when Michael Pollan says 'eat food', what he means is, eat whole food. . . actual real food. If it comes in a bag, in a box, or in a jar, (for the most part) it doesn’t count. Because what you get in that bag, box or jar is a actually just a food-like substance. It looks like food, it often tastes like really good food, but in reality, it was created in a factory from the hundreds of derivations of just three main crops - corn, soy and wheat. That soy oil in the mayonnaise, that high fructose corn syrup from corn, that egg from a chicken fed with that corn. If you dig, and you don’t have to dig too far, the basis of most of the products, flavoring, sweeteners, preservatives and the like, that you find on the shelf of a typical grocery store comes from the extracted energy from the seeds of those three plants (all, ironically enough, grown from denuded dirt that is made palatable to the plants using just three inputs; nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). So eating real food means eating food that is not found in a box or a bag. It means shopping on the outer ring of the grocery store and, for the most part, avoiding the aisles. It also means you might have to cook. Which brings me to the second point.
Not Too Much. Many people have asked the question - why is it that the French are so healthy despite the fact that they drink a lot of wine and eat food laden with saturated fats. I mean, have you ever been to a French restaurant and eaten the sauces that they serve? They are so rich and flavorful and downright yummy - how can they not be fattening?!! And then they wash it all down with red wine every night? Seriously?? What gives? Despite all this, they have a population with an obesity rate under ten percent (the obesity rate in the US is over 30% - number one in the world thank you very much!)!
Here’s a theory. They place high value on eating as a family or with friends (in the US, at least until Covid, one fifth of our daily food consumption was eaten while driving!). Because they are hanging out with family and friends while eating, they eat more slowly, they don’t have big portions and they don’t take seconds (it’s a part of their culture). They eat good, high quality food and they savor it. It’s true that the price of good food is more money and not everyone can afford it. But if you can, you should. Not just for your health but for all the downstream consequences of better soil management, less chemicals in the food chain, better conditions for farm workers, and so much more. Real food can be more expensive but when we are eating actual food, we don’t need to eat as much to get our nutritional needs satisfied. Smaller plates, higher quality and slow, relaxed eating with friends and family can make all the difference. Plus, it can pay off in the long run. In 1960, Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food while 5.2 percent of the national income was spent on health care. In 2008, Americans spent 9.9 percent of their income on food all the while health care rose to 16 percent of the national income. It has literally flipped. Perhaps if we spent more on quality food, we might spend less on health care (***insert encouragement to support local, organic and regenerative farms here).
Mostly Plants. Although there are bitter debates amongst well meaning people about food and nutrition, there is little disagreement that eating more plants is a good thing for our personal health, and depending of course on how it is grown, the health of the planet. Plants are filled with antioxidants that absorb and stabilize those pesky free radicals. But the antioxidants in plants, such as vitamin C and many others, actually stimulates an enzyme in the liver that breaks down various chemicals, carcinogens or other toxins that need to be removed from the body. The greater variety of plants you eat, the greater variety antioxidants you will consume and the greater variety of toxins you will neutralize before they can do their dirty work.
If you eat meat, try to choose meat that was fed on plants of their choosing (not seeds; ie. corn), and killed in a humane way. Why do we add antibiotics to cattle feed? Because when you feed a cow an unnatural diet of high energy grains, they get sick. If you let that cow graze on grass then guess what, no antibiotics are necessary, there are way more omega 3 fatty acids (there has been much speculation that one of the reasons for the spike in chronic illness has to do with the industrial farming practices that create lots of inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids and a dearth of omega 3 fatty acids - more on this in a future Prattle), and the meat is rich in nutrients.
Throughout time and throughout the world there have been diets high in fats and low in fats, animal based and plant based, all of which supported the health of the people consuming them. There is no one perfect diet though we can say without equivocation, the western diet is an unmitigated failure. What these traditional ways of eating do have in common is that they are all whole food based on plants (ie. leaves) grown in healthy soil and they celebrate food though meals with family and friends. They eat food, not too much, mostly plants. It’s a simple motto to remember but one that we must keep in mind because if we do, ourselves, our communities and our planet be happier and healthier for it.