Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Re-Learning How to Eat

About a week or so after watching Food, Inc I came across an interview with Michael Pollan on tv. He was making the rounds to promote his new book Food Rules.

I've heard of Michael Pollan before, but I never read any of his books. I came to know his name through Food, Inc. While watching his interview with Jon Stewart, I kind of felt like it was useful information, but common sense.

Rule #2- Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
Rule #36- Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.

Now obviously, something like Go-Gurt probably isn't good for you. If I stopped long enough to think about it, I'm pretty sure I could have come to that conclusion on my own. I didn't necessarily need my great-grandmother's confused ghost for me to figure out that maybe that wasn't real food. And it makes perfect sense that cereals that turn milk pink/brown/blue/whatever probably weren't healthy. It made sense, I just wasn't thinking about it. I was going to start using common sense to pick out my food.

Except it really wasn't that easy. Maybe I just don't have a lot of common sense, but I was still a bit confused. Maybe Apple Jacks aren't the ideal health item, but are they REALLY that bad for me? I couldn't decide.

One day at lunch, I decided to make the trek to the bookstore to check out this book. The book was really small and could easily fit inside my purse without breaking my back. I flipped through it to look through the rules. Was I positive I wanted to spend $8 (thanks to my coupon!) on this book of common knowledge? I decided to get it because I was clearly confused on so many different types of food that maybe I need a refresher on everything I thought I already knew.

That night, I read through the introduction. Michael Pollan seemed to share my worries:

But for all the scientific and pseudoscientific food baggage we've taken on in recent years, we still don't know what we should be eating. Should we worry more about the fats or the carbohydrates? Then what about the "good" fats? Or the "bad" carbohydrates, like high fructose corn syrup? How much should we be worrying about gluten? What's the deal with artificial sweeteners? Is it really true that this breakfast cereal will improve my son's focus at school or that other cereal will protect me from a heart attack?

Yes! Exactly!

Except, honestly, I still don't understand most of those things. I'm aware of all of them, and how there's controversy surrounding them, but I usually ignore things like this because I don't totally understand it. Luckily (for me), Michael Pollan researched everything for me. Basically, he dismisses nutritional science (but not necessarily science or scientists) because it's such a young science that contradicts itself every day with every new study. Because I don't care about it, that's all I'll mention here. But he goes into more detail in Food Rules, and even more into his other book In Defense of Food.

He then mentions the 2 facts that everyone agrees on. These facts were enough to make me glad I bought the book, and happy I was ready to change my diet.

FACT 1. Populations that eat a so-called Western diet-generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meats, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains-invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet. Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet. The arguments in nutritional science are not about this well-established link; rather, they are all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the Western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases. Is it the saturated fat or the refined carbohydrates or the lack of fiber or the transfats or omega-6 fatty acids-or what? The point is that, as eaters (if not as scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This det, for whatever reason, is the problem.

FACT 2. Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets generally don't suffer from these chronic diseases. These diets run the gamut from ones very high in fat (the Inuit in Greenland subsist largely on seal blubber) to ones high in carbohydrates (Central American Indians subsist largely on maize and beans) to ones very high in protein (Masai tribesmen in Africa subsist chiefly on cattle blood, meat, and milk), to cite three rather extreme examples. But much the same holds true for more mixed traditional diets. What this suggests is that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets. Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us now are eating. What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!

Yes, how amazing! ...Does this mean I'm doomed? I already expected to get cancer, but I thought it was something that happened everywhere. I didn't realize it was because of my diet. He mentions a third fact, that I'll leave you with for today. If it weren't for this last bit, I'm not sure I would have been able to go through all the changes I need to. Because if I had already doomed myself to an early death, then what's the point? Happily, that's not the case.

People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health. We have good research to suggest that the effects of the Western diet can be rolled back, and relatively quickly. In one analysis, a typical American population that departed even modestly from the Western diet (and lifestyle) could reduce its chances of getting coronary heart disease by 80 percent, its chances of type 2 diabetes by 90 percent, and its chances of colon cancer by 70 percent.

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