While Part I introduces us to the ins and out of nutritionism, Part II of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food delves into the modern Western diet and its problems.
Let’s face it, there wouldn’t be books about our diet if there wasn’t something seriously wrong about the way we’re all eating. Self-help books don’t exist because we’re well-adjusted people wondering about hypothetical situations, and health books don’t exist to collect dust on a shelf. Let’s admit we all have a problem and find out what went wrong.
In our culture, we see problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high rates of cancer, and gaining weight synonymous with getting older. However, many cultures with more traditional diets (think whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, varying amounts of meat and dairy – practically any diet that does not include processed, high-sugar, refined-carb foods) are far less susceptible to diseases such as this.
Pollan uses an example at the beginning of Part II of diabetic Aborigines who reverted back to their traditional diet for seven weeks and in turn began to reverse all of their health issues relating to diabetes. Before they ate a Western diet, they had none of the health problems we see as just a part of life, and once they were back to the bush, those health problems disappeared. If that doesn’t start alarm bells off in your brain, I’m not sure what will.
So, it’s obvious that there’s something wrong with the way we’re eating now. Eventually, we may be able to adapt to our diet without accumulating any of the health problems, but for now, that’s not the case. In order to understand what to change, we must understand the major changes in our diet. Here they are, from 1 -5:
1. From whole food to refined
We are now using half of our daily calories on the consumption of sugars, between carbohydrates and straight-up sugars. Refined is not good. One of the main benefits of eating fruits over juices or sugars, for example, is that fruits come with fiber that slow the absorption of sugar into our system. Refined sugars shock our system, which leads to insulin spikes that can cause type II diabetes.
2. From complexity to simplicity
Here’s some straightforward logic for you: Simple soil leads to simple plants. Nutritional quality is not what major food producers are looking for – they’re looking for a crop that is resilient and has high yields. Fertilizer, selective breeding, and planting the same crops every year can lead to a nutrient-deficient soil. Not to mention the simplicity in variety of crops that we eat. Pretty much everything we eat involves either corn, soy, wheat, or rice. With us being omnivores, that doesn’t seem like nearly enough variety.
3. From Quality to Quantity
This is what I was talking about before – high yields are very important. However, this leads to lower nutrients per food. You’d have to eat three apples in order to get the iron you’d get out of one apple from 1940. I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised with the argument that organic soil is better, but maybe not just for the reasons you’d think. One of the best things about it is that plants that are raised organically have to fight off and be resistant to things that a plant that has been chemically treated doesn’t have to worry about. Those defense compounds might actually be beneficial to the humans that are eating them.
4. From Leaves to Seeds
This is a biggie, because we eat mostly seeds (think corn and soy) but there are nutrients that we can only get from leaves. Omega-3, a nutrient found in wild leafy greens, has been removed from processed foods and bred out of vegetables because it spoils quickly. However, it’s considered an essential nutrient because it’s something we need to keep us healthy that our body doesn’t produce on its own. Our body needs omega-3s, and not just from foods “fortified” with the ingredient, but from whole foods where it naturally occurs.
5. From Food Culture to Food Science
What’s on your dinner table every night? Is it food your mom, your grandmother, or your great-grandmother used to make? We used to eat our meals based on what came from our culture and our family recipes – traditional and whole foods that got passed down over generations. Now we listen to scientists, food marketers, and the government to know what we should eat.
But should we really rely on them? An American born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes. ⅔ of Americans are overweight or obese. ¼ of Americans have metabolic syndrome. We are dying from our diet. It’s time to make changes.
Check in later when I run through some of Part III. And seriously, buy this book. There’s so much information in it and I’m barely scratching the surface.
Some questions to ask yourself:
1. How much white flour/processed grain do you have in your home in the various foods you eat? How many of these could you easily swap out for whole grain?
2. Do you tend to eat juices or refined sugars instead of whole fruits that contain sugars + fiber? What appeals to you about these refined sugars and what changes could you make to switch to more whole foods?
3. Look at your foods. How many of them contain soy, corn, wheat, or rice?
4. How many recipes do you make that came from your grandparents? If you passed the food you ate down to your children/grandchildren, what would those recipes look like?