02 June 2009

In Defense of Food

This is one of those books that potentially changes your life, by eloquently pointing out what's wrong with the status quo. Michael Pollan writes clearly and persuasively about the pitfalls--not just of how America eats, but of how we think about eating. He debunks nutritionism as a science by pointing out how the whole nutritionist paradigm (focusing on the consumption of individual nutrients rather than whole foods) benefits food processors.

While traditional nutritionists and other scientists have traced our high incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases to high-fat diets, or high-carb diets, Pollan looks at the big picture and points out that the most striking difference between the modern American diet and traditional diets is the modern prevalence of processed foods--foods that have been engineered to ship and store well, be palatable, and contain the nutrients we need. Pollan suggests that we just don't know enough about how whole foods work in our bodies to reproduce their full benefits in processed foods. He characterizes whole foods as systems--nutrients in whole foods may work together to provide important benefits that are otherwise unavailable.

Pollan's arguments are convincing, and are leading me to reevaluate my consumption of white bread and white rice. I still love these foods, but I'm thinking I should consider them treats--like cake--rather than as staples. I should keep brown rice in the pantry, and make sandwiches with whole-grain bread.

But then I think about the beautiful bread we had in Paris, which was white, and Pollan often points to the French as healthier than we are, so I think maybe a little (or more than a little) white bread really isn't so bad. I'm much pickier about whole-grain bread than white--I guess it's a matter of what I'm used to.

The book made me feel a little proud and self-satisfied that Victor and I have already been eating at home and cooking for ourselves so much more in the past few months. And I have already been trying to vary the vegetables and fruits in our diet; going to ethnic grocery stores in different neighborhoods exposes us to an impressive range of foods. But eating well is an ongoing process. Sometimes we get stuck in ruts and it is tempting fall back on what's easy. We're very good at making excuses for not doing what we should (see my rationale for continuing to eat white bread, above).

I like Pollan's notion that food preparation and consumption should take more time and even cost more--it's that important.

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