Scott H Young

In Defense of Food


Lettuce.png

How can a nation so obsessed with health, be so unhealthy?  Why has our historically diverse diet gone down to mostly three crops: corn, wheat and soybeans?  Michael Pollan argues that in a society where potato chips and corn oil can be awarded health claims (Frito Lays and Mazola, respectively), there is something seriously wrong with our approach to food.

I recently had a chance to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.  I think both books are must-reads for anyone that is interested in their health, the environment or eating food.

Why is Health Advice Making us Sicker?

In Defense of Food starts on an unusual attack.  Pollan argues that a big part of the obesity crisis is the field of nutrition itself.  Nutrition has shifted the focus from foods, like potatoes and beef, to nutrients, like carbohydrates and saturated fat.  This switch from foods to nutrients is what Pollan calls nutritionism and it is making us sick.

This focus on nutrients and not food, has lead to an oversimplification of an incredibly complex system.  When protein, fat and carbohydrates were discovered as the building blocks of nutrition, many researchers declared the problem of nutrition solved.  Unfortunately, they weren’t able to explain why sailors (who get plenty of these macronutrients) were getting sick.  This lead to the discovery of vitamins and minerals.

Now we’re just learning that vitamins aren’t the last step.  Other compounds in food such as flavonols can impact our health.  The simple category of fats has undergone more than a few civil wars, splitting first into saturated and unsaturated, and now dividing into even more categories such as Omega-3′s and trans-fats.  Although knowledge is progressing, nutritional science understands a lot less than it would like us to believe.

Food corporations love nutritionism.  Need more Vitamin A?  Just add it in.  Trans fats are bad?  Just synthesize something else.  Tomatoes and brown rice don’t have much of a profit margin.  Absorbing the health advice, industry has created many edible foodlike substances that claim to be healthier than real food, and also make far more money.

Scientific arrogance and industrial greed have joined to make us obese, pollute our earth and “ruin more than a few good meals” according to Pollan.

    Eat Food.  Not Too Much.  Mostly Plants.

Seven words summarizes Pollan’s advice for the eater.  Along with the simple headings, he offers advice I never expected to hear from a book on nutrition, such as:

  •     “Don’t eat foods your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.”
  •     “Be the kind of person who buys multivitamins.  Then save your money.” (Studies have shown that people who take vitamins tend to be healthier, but the actual vitamins themselves are probably worthless.)
  •     “Avoid food products that make health claims.” (Ever seen a list of ingredients on an apple?)
  •     “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.”

What little we do know about nutrition, we know that the Western diet isn’t healthy.  Processed foods, too much meat, industrial agriculture and high-fructose corn syrup are a big part of the problem.

  What I Learned From These Books

Reading is useless unless you’re going to do something about it.  There were multiple lessons I gathered from these two books that I’m going to use to change the way I eat.  I definitely don’t fit into a typical Western diet (I’m a vegetarian and there is tofu in my fridge), but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t find a few points of improvement.

Here are a few of the changes I’d like to make after reading these two books:

  1) Eliminating Processed Foods

A big villain in both of Pollan’s books is processed foodlike substances.  As a culture we’ve shifted away from the whole foods of our ancestors.  Food is more than it’s nutrient building blocks (at least in the ones we’ve discovered), and when you refine foods they may retain some of those building blocks and completely lose others.

I don’t eat much processed foods.  When I have my way, a good lunch is brown rice and stir fried tofu and broccoli.  But, like most people, I’ve taken the shortcut provided by more processed foods.  As a vegetarian, a whole host of meat imitation products have been created.  Initially I ate some of these out of convenience and, supposedly, my health.  After reading these two books I’m going to reconsider how these processed foods play a role in my diet.

Eliminating all highly processed foods is difficult, if not impossible.  Where do you draw the line?  Bread is a processed food, but it has stood for hundreds of years whereas milk-free cheese has not.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t take some steps to reduce it’s impact on your diet.

    2) Eating Organic

Pollan criticizes what he sees as “industrial organic” food.  Despite this critique, both of these books opened me up more to the idea of trying to eat more organic foods.  Pollan claims that many of the big organic growers still utilize the big industrial structure for delivering food.  As a result, organic livestock isn’t much better than industrial livestock, and your lettuce is grown in a huge industrial system, instead of a quaint farm.

Although these criticisms are fair, I think if you compare organic to industrial food it still wins on the areas of the environment, health and ethics.  I’m not sure whether a complete switch to organic is something I’m going to do, but paying a bit more for foods that are probably healthier and less environmentally damaging is probably a good thing.

3) Cooking More Meals

Earlier this year I posted about how I’m learning to cook more.  These books offered another potent argument for home-cooked meals: they are much healthier for you.  By cooking food and taking time to prepare food that tastes good, I’ll know I’m not eating a highly-processed food substitute.

Cooking also broadens the amount of species you eat.  Highly processed food is usually the result of corn or soybeans.  When you cook real food you eat a much more varied diet, which as an omnivore, is closest to the diet we would eat naturally.

I don’t think I’ll be doing any of these steps as a 30 Day Trial yet.  I’m moving back to residence in a few weeks where my flexibility with food is more restricted.  But, when I go back to cooking every meal for myself, completely eliminating processed foods and spending more time cooking will be on my to-do list.

I’ve written just a bit about these two books, but I recommend reading both of them.  In Defense of Food focuses on the nutrition, while The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a critique of the agricultural and food industry in general.  I’d recommend reading In Defense of Food, but if you have the time, reading both will give you a better picture of where your food comes from and why you might want to reconsider how you eat.


Print Friendly
StumbleUpon It!

This website is supported, in part, by affiliate arrangements (usually Amazon). Affiliate relationships are always marked by bolded links.


16 Responses to “In Defense of Food”

  1. Shanel Yang says:

    I don’t think our nation is obsessed with health — just youth and beauty. The irony is that that youth and beauty are not really possible for long without true health that is built from the inside out. This can only be done with lots of water and much, much less consumption of food in general and a switch to mostly raw food.

    I can hardly believe I’m saying this b/c I used to be a die-hard big, thick, juicy steak eater! I spent many a late night or an early morning standing in the very long lines at The Pantry (a 24-hour landmark steakhouse that supposedly has never been without a customer and never closed its doors since The Great Depression) in downtown L.A. While standing there one time I saw someone had left a funny graffiti comment on the wall: “Carnivores unite!” I thought, “Hear! Hear!”

    Finally, in my early 40s, I’m realizing that in order to keep my energy levels and mental clarity high — not to mention my youthful looks — I need to change my diet considerably. Which is why I tried water fasting and fell in love with it! I kept a log of the entire experience starting at http://shanelyang.com/2008/07/03/fasting-log-day-1/

    Then I happened to learned the link between good food and beautiful skin from a great YouTube video that I transcribed in a post called “Naturally Beautiful Skin” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/08/03/naturally-beautiful-skin/

    Now I’m a sort of “born again” more-raw-foods evangelist spreading the amazing good news that natural foods heal us from within! ; )

  2. Great post Scott. I think one of the real eye openers for me was that once I had been off processed foods for awhile, eating processed foods wasn’t the same anymore because none of it seemed to taste very good. Whenever I eat processed food now I always find myself thinking that I could probably make from scratch whatever it is that I’m eating, and it would almost definitely taste a whole lot better.

  3. Kali says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for the straight-forward post.

    Some people get totally crazy (okay maybe I’m exaggerating) about certain diets where they eliminate like all of a certain type of food because they’ve invested in it and it gives them more “energy.” But seriously how much energy to you need? Do you really want to be awake all night?

    Thanks for listening to my ranting…

  4. Andy says:

    Great overview. I have been meaning to read these books for myself.

    My one quibble is on the health benefits of organic foods. Do you have any studies that show organic to be significantly healthier for people than non-organic? Or are you in the hedging-your-bets crowd betting that there is enough pesticide residue/other stuff that it could have a long term impact?

  5. Scott Young says:

    Shanel,

    Perhaps most people aren’t obsessed with health. However if you compare different cultural attitudes towards food, it’s clear that people in North America tend to have different perceptions. As an example, when shown a picture of chocolate cake the number one response word for people from France was “celebration” whereas the number one response word for Americans was “guilt”. It shows that there is a different preoccupation.

    Andy,

    No, I don’t know whether they are significantly healthier. However, I think if you read both the books you’ll gain a greater amount of skepticism for the ability of nutritional sciences to “prove” what is really healthier.

    I don’t think eating organic (unless I encounter some new information) could be seen as a bad thing. Is it provably better? I don’t know. I’m more from the angle of common sense than science.

    Kali,

    If you’re referring to the Steve Pavlina Raw Food Diet, I’m inclined to agree with you. I don’t think the point of eating is simply delivering chemical nutrients to your body–it’s about taste, socializing and enjoyment too. However, I wouldn’t be too quick to judge an alternative diet. I’d guess that most of us eat the same 10-20 meals for 95% of our eating, so a diet that appears incredibly restrictive might not be in practice as long as you can get a really delicious set of 10-20 meals.

    And unless you’re eating a lot of coca leaves, I don’t think there is any food that will keep you up all night. ;)

    -Scott

  6. Eamon says:

    “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

    That’s simple, good advice. Avoiding processed foods and eating organic is not.

    Organic foods in particular I’d rather avoid: these foods are generally more expensive due to their (unsurprising) greater cost, which translates almost directly into a _greater_ environmental impact, not a smaller one. Given the world’s increasing population and food consumption, promoting organic food at the cost of yield is hypocritical advice. Organic food definitely has a few specific local advantages (avoiding pesticides, for instance), but system-wide, losses in the form of increased logistic costs due to shorter shelf life, increased requirement for cattle manure, increased energy requirements and other factors mean that these advantages should not be taken at face value. The environmental benefits are real, but misplaced: encouraging almost irreversible habitat destruction and global warming just to avoid essentially ephemeral pesticide use is short-sighted.

    Health-wise, I’ve yet to see a predominance of studies which demonstrate actual benefits (as opposed to changes in composition which are conjectured to be beneficial). Probably, the books author once again has the right advice, in spirit: “be the kind of person who buys organically, then save your money”.

    Organic food has something to teach the rest of the food industry. Unfortunately it’s infused by unfounded “feel good” factor, which merely leads people to making meaningless, environmentally harmful choices and obscures any potential advances.

  7. Ivy says:

    I bought the two books from amazon and an italian web site, so difficult sometimes to find books from Italy.
    I will read them and tell you, i think its important to have a sort of education on food, we dont know what we eat, we dnt know if there’s something better to eat instead of the things we usually buy, and i thought those two books were good to begin understand those things! i should receive in defense of food the next week (agoust 17th) and the omnivore’s dilemma at the beginning of september, according to amazon.

  8. Asia Hadley says:

    I enjoy reading your blog and plan to read the two books you mentioned. I’ve been adding more living foods to my diet and can feel the difference. It’s easier to wake up in the mornings and I have more energy. I did a thirty day living foods diet last year and the results were amazing. My skin cleared up, I had tons of energy and I had no cramping. I look forward to eating living foods as a part of my lifestyle.

    Faithful reader,
    -Asia Hadley
    http://www.beaconsfrontline.com

  9. Scott Young says:

    Eamon,

    In the book, Pollan compares the industry average amount of fossil fuels created for the same amount of organic and industrial produce. Despite the higher cost, organic does use less fossil fuels. Until the environmental impact of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics is factored into our foods, industrial may be cheaper (even if the true costs are higher).

    I was inclined to agree with you that the organic industry was worthless before reading these books. Now, despite Pollans critiques of the industry, I could see how organic would be preferable, if you can afford the cost.

    However the comment about processed foods really strikes at the heart of this book. I’d say that it was his #1 argument as a change in the western diet. The question is whether we are destroying the food we are eating by processing it.

  10. Kakalina says:

    I’m not too sure I like the part about only eating food your grandmother would recognise because there is a lot of food they wouldn’t recognise and what they would recognise is on the heavy side.

    My mother is reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma right now. I understand it’s very good. I just love reading about food ^-^

  11. Scott Young says:

    Kakalina,

    I think the idea is to avoid new food creations (especially those with health claims) and stick to more traditional foods. A salad also has more than 5 ingredients, but I think Pollan would let it slip under his rules…

    -Scott

  12. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the informative post. I think that the physically unhealthy US population start comes as a result of an unhealthy mindset and mental condition. Something that may be of interest to you… neural science evangelist and entrepreneur John Assaraf from “The Secret” and author of “The Answer” is holding a free conference call August 20th about how to condition your mind to live a life of success, passion, and wealth. I’d highly suggest listening in. Go here for details and registration… http://www.JohnAssaraf.com/hia/challenge.htm?s=hiac2008

    John is also providing free chapter downloads from “The Answer” here… http://www.readtheanswer.com/index.php?RTA=web2

  13. C.J. says:

    I think our three biggest crops in the U.S. are McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King.. hehe.

    Organic food is good I think, little pricey though, but if demand goes up for organic then more big companies will produce it and hence the prices will drop (I’m guessing, but then again corperate greed will give us far inferior organic foods :-( and hence the obesity rates will rise). Probably a good idea to look at the label, large companies usually have their own made up brands for marketing appeal, such as Wal-Mart’s, “Sam’s Choice” but still write their main company name very tiny on a copyright so you can recognize it as inferior food.

    Only problem I found is that I couldn’t find enough organic ingredients to prepare meals… seems like there is mostly organic snacks at my grocery, like soy ice cream, granola bars, oil, cereal and whatnot. If I ate just that stuff I would definitely pack on some pounds from all those carbs! Sorry for rambling.

  14. PeaceCat says:

    I have 3 food phrases that I like to go by:

    “No Snacks, No Sweets, No Seconds – Except (sometimes) on days that start with S” – Reinhard Engels

    “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan

    “Animals are my friends…I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw

    I like it when things can be summarised quite simply :)

    It’s also a good idea when buying foods to avoid things with too many ingredients, or ingredients that sound like a science experiment. e.g. bread should contain wholewheat flour, yeast, water and preferebly not much else :)

  15. I’m always into discussions on anything organic, so this read made me feel at home.
    I’ll bookmark the site and subscribe to the feed!

  16. [...] Healthier. No preservatives, chemicals or taste enhancers. Just things your grandma would recognize as real food. [...]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

Leave a Reply