2.01.2007

Sensible writing about food and on being a flexitarian

Too lazy or busy to read The Omnivore's Dilemma even though it's been recommended to you? Join the club. You can read the short version here, in Michael Pollan's recent Sunday New York Times Magazine article. It's long, but not as long as the book, and I found it to be a very worthwhile read.

Plus, now I have a word to describe the way I eat: flexitarian. I almost never eat meat on weekdays, and that's how I've eaten for most of my life. This is a funny week to be writing this, because I've had meat for four meals this week, which is unusual. But I expect to go back to my regular flexitarian ways shortly.

I mostly only eat meat when others serve it to me, which really only happens on Shabbat. Sometimes, I make chicken for a Shabbat meal because it is easier, quicker, and sometimes cheaper than vegetarian meals (depending on what you're making and how much cheese you need to buy), but I also make dairy Shabbat meals. I have never cooked red meat. Not even pre-formed hamburger patties. I eat a lot of soy-based products, some wheat-gluten based products, and try to get at least some of my protein from beans and lentils. I also drink a large glass of milk almost every morning and eat some cheese. I go through occasional yogurt phases as well. And, ice cream. Don't forget all the protein in ice cream! I think I could probably quite happily have a dairy-only kitchen and satisfy occasional meat cravings with a meal out or take-out in.

So, I'm a flexitarian. Yay! But don't worry. I also "mainline glucose," as Pollan discusses in his article and eat a lot of processed foods like cereal bars, frozen (veggie) dinners, and veggie burgers, and in terms of that, there is much room for improvement.

* * * * *

Since sending the link to this article to several friends and relatives, I have been asked for a summary. Also, it's already Thursday and I'm not sure you'll have access to the full article past this Saturday. So here is a summary:

First, a direct quote: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Then, he goes and explains that. Some interesting points from the middle of the article include:
  • The history of nutrition science and how Americans went from eating food to eating "food products"
  • The beef and dairy lobbies affected the government's nutritional recommendations. This one merits a direct quote:

"No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

"Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually 'reduce consumption of meat' — was replaced by artful compromise: 'Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.'

"A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to 'eat less' of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called 'saturated fat.'

"...Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies in Washington."

  • "Nutritionism" encourages us to view food solely as a vehicle for providing fuel to keep our bodies running healthfully, and leaves out all other aspects of food: enjoyment, socializing, culture, community, family.
  • Concern with macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) has made Americans fatter:

    "Oddly, America got really fat on its new low-fat diet — indeed, many date the current obesity and diabetes epidemic to the late 1970s, when Americans began binging on carbohydrates, ostensibly as a way to avoid the evils of fat....By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did. We’re always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something (with the possible exception of oat bran), and one of the things nutritionism reliably gives us is some such dispensation: low-fat cookies then, low-carb beer now. 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?"
  • Then there's a whole bunch of science stuff that I don't feel like summarizing. It's interesting, though. Some of it is about bad science and how some oft-quoted long-range studies don't really tell us much at all because people, no surprise, always remember eating fewer calories than they actually ate.
  • Then there's some stuff about viewing ecosystems as, well, systems, and how both the consumers and the consumed adjust to work together to spread their genes far and wide. Cool!
    "In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in what we call food chains, or webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant."

    "...Put another way, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup. Such a relationship with corn syrup might develop someday (as people evolve superhuman insulin systems to cope with regular floods of fructose and glucose), but for now the relationship leads to ill health because our bodies don’t know how to handle these biological novelties."
This is one of my favorite lines from the article:

"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."

Finally, Michael Pollan gives us some advice, excerpted here:
So try these few (flagrantly unscientific) rules of thumb, collected in the course of my nutritional odyssey, and see if they don’t at least point us in the right direction.

1. Eat food. ...try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food....There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn't recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised....Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less. ...Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown...."Eat less" is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling....To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians....

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren't a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn't still be around....In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating....

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn't bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.

That's it. I'm not that good at summarizing interesting things, since I really just want y'all to read the whole thing.

3 comments:

David said...

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I've gotta say that the silence of the yams is one of the funnier phrases I've ever read, especially because the allusion it makes (The Thomas Harris novel and subsequent movie) is to a character's experience with raising a natural food product.

Who knew that irony was such a delicious part of this complete breakfast?

Dave (Balashon) said...

Thanks for the summary! I've been meaning to read the article since last Sunday, but without an American Sunday, I just don't have the time...

alg's dad said...

"The silence of the yams" reminds me of the Mosses' "paschal yam," which replaced the zroah, as the symbol of the korban pesach on their seder plate, when they became vegetarians. (Halachically, any kosher for pesach food can be used.)