By Bill Fosher, copyright 2008 all rights reserved.
Michael Pollan’s opening paragraph – or should I say salvo – has the power of briefly stated, commonsense advice. It’s seven words long, and I daresay they could be the most important seven words that Americans will ever read, if they take them to heart. Here they are:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
If we would all follow those three rules, our health would improve greatly. There’d be less heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, obesity. Contrasted against the confusing landscape of government food pyramid and Mediterranean diets, with their recommendations for so many grams of this and so many servings of that per week, those three simple rules are a beacon for people trying to improve their diets.
Then Pollan spends the next 200 pages muddying the waters.
I mean that in a good way, mostly. Pollan looks at the reasons behind confusing and contradictory dietary advice that we are bombarded with every day. It’s confusing because so much money depends on the decisions people make about buying food, or the other things that we eat, which Pollan refers to as “foodlike substances.” It’s contradictory because much of what the experts are saying is so nuanced and finely crafted as to be virtually meaningless if you read the fine print. But no one does. And in some cases, it’s contradictory because what we know one year turns out to be wrong the next.
The first important thing is to understand what Pollan means when he advises us to eat food. Food is oatmeal, eggs, apples, a lamb chop, a head of lettuce. It’s in its natural form, or very close to it. Foodlike substances are packaged, highly processed items, such as Go-Gurt, the tubed, squeezable product that contains some yogurt and a lot of artificial ingredients to make it sweet and squeezable. Think toothpaste with cultures.
Pollan sharply criticizes the science of nutrionism as reductionism at its worst and most dangerous. He points out – perhaps a little more often than necessary – that these are the people who brought us trans fats in the form of margarine, which was supposed make us healthier but instead turned out to be, well, the closest thing to poison ever sold in a dairy case. He writes about the political forces behind food labeling laws and their corrupting influence on the process. Even organic certification comes in for some justified criticism.
I read In Defense of Food with the keen eye of a 46-year-old heart attack survivor who feels he is being given some very bad – or at least inappropriate – advice by the team of well-meaning dietitians, doctors, and rehabilitation specialists who are supposed to be helping me reclaim what’s left of my health. Diet is one of the main things that need to change in my life if I am to avoid a second heart attack. But the advice I was getting seemed wrong to me. It was pushing me towards more processed foods: Breads with added fiber and long, incomprehensible ingredient lists; frozen or canned vegetables; packaged meals. It wasn’t until I started to read Pollan’s book that I started to understand the two reasons for this.
First, the sort of stuff that they were recommending was basically health-enhanced versions of the stuff that most people eat. To be a little crass, they have to put the hay down where the goats can get it. The problem is that I had already moved away from most of these kinds of foodlike substances years ago, so eating Cocoa Puffs (which carry the American Heart Association’s heart-healthy logo) seemed like a real step backwards.
Second, and perhaps more insidious, was the reductionism that Pollan keeps in his crosshairs. Health professionals want cardiac patients to monitor saturated fat, sodium, total calories, carbohydrates, protein, and so forth. You can’t do that with food that doesn’t come in a package. There is no “Nutrition Facts” label on an ear of sweet corn at the farmer’s market.
In fairness, I should say that everyone who has talked to me about diet since my heart attack has said that fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent and should be a major part of the diet. However, that is about the extent of it. The next 20 or 30 minutes would be spent on how to identify the “heart-healthy” foodlike substances in the supermarket.
Pollan’s criticism of nutritionism as science is that it attempts to break foods down into component parts and to look at those parts out of context of the food that delivers them. He points out that people who eat lots of foods rich in antioxidants tend to have less cancer. Nutrition science has identified the antioxidant chemicals and put them into pills. When people take the pills, they don’t work. So, apparently, there’s something going on in kale and carrots that we don’t understand and haven’t figured out how to measure.
In retrospect, I realize that the problems with my diet lay in the fact that I had broken two of Pollan’s three rules: Not too much and mostly plants. I was, for the most part, already eating food, but I was eating too much overall, and not enough of it was plants. This last one is a particularly hard reality for me to face, as I raise food animals and enjoy sampling my work and that of other like-minded farmers. I used to joke that I love leafy green vegetables. I just want to run them through a lamb first.
This is where Pollan’s book really shines. He points out that food that is grown on healthy soil and under healthy conditions will confer health benefits on the people who consume it. It’s not magic, it’s micronutrients and fat composition. Pasture raised animals will produce food products that have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleaic acids. A carrot grown in ground rich in organic matter will have all the stuff it needs to make the antioxidants that protect us from abnormal cell growth than could be the precursor to cancer. More importantly, healthy foods have all the ingredients working together; they are more than the sum of their parts, Pollan contends.
He also talks about the health of a food system: if you shake the hand of the farmer who grows your food, you don’t need a whole regulatory infrastructure to protect yourself from tainted food. Farmers who have the opportunity to sell directly to their customers suddenly get feedback about the food they produce. Pollan rightly points out that in the commodity food business, the only feedback farmers get from the market is price. In the effort to drive down production costs, they often forget that they are producing food for human consumption, not a commodity for sale on the Chicago Board of Trade.
None of this is exactly new. Wendell Barry has been saying this sort of thing for decades. But Pollan puts them in the context of a set of rules for personal behavior that fits with today’s “What can I do?” mentality, not in terms of government policies.
Unfortunately, Pollan falls into the trap of nutritionism for long stretches of his book, using the logic that gave us margarine to argue against margarine, essentially. He does confess to having done so, and claims his need to do it proves how little good information about food is available. It’s a little hard to swallow. But the advice that he gives about avoiding the chronic diseases and developing a healthy food economy are worth slogging through the deconstruction of nutritionism.
I referred to Pollan’s first paragraph as an opening salvo. In a very real sense, this book is a subversive insurgency in its simplicity and its means of providing ways for people to change their personal behavior, government and scientific advice be damned, for the better. The simple fact of the matter is that if we keep getting fatter and sicker, the medical costs associated with chronic diseases stemming from the Western diet will make the Social Security crisis look like a walk in the park. No kidding: they will bring down our economy. Not “may,” not “could very well;” they will destroy it. Normally, the idea of making the world a better place one person at a time strikes me as feel-good pap, but in the case of diet, it really does come down to changing personal behavior. The changes that Pollan recommends need to reach into the vast majority of households to have their effect on society as a whole. It’s not enough for my family to eat a healthy diet. Our community must also do so. Otherwise we will be fighting each other in the streets for insulin.
The government can and must play an important role in enabling change. How realistic is it to think that a single mother of five living in the inner city can buy a whole lamb from me at $4.50 a pound? Right now, not very. Her ability to find me and afford my product are very limited. That’s where government policy will have to play a role. It’s a series of government policies that have set up the corn belt, the dairy belt, the wheat belt, the beef belt and all the other belts, along with the commodity exchange and transportation infrastructure that underpin its longstanding cheap food policy. It’s a set of government policies – corrupted by corporate food processing and industrial agriculture lobbying power – that have allowed the makers of Mazola to place a “limited” health claim on corn oil.
It’s a question of deciding where we’re going to treat our health problems. The medical system is very good at pulling people out of the sink when they’re circling the drain. I’m living proof of that: my grandfather died of a heart attack at my age, and as recently as 20 years ago my heart attack probably would have been fatal. But that’s perhaps the most expensive way to save a life. The blockage of my left anterior descending artery has been repaired, and I’m on a drug regime that will last years – parts of it for the rest of my life. I’ve had hours of counseling and supervised exercise. I’ve missed lots of work to tend to my health crisis. I put the total cost of my heart attack at about $85,000 so far, and I’m just five months into the 40 years that I should have left. One wonders how far that $85,000 would go if it were applied to producing a healthy food supply and getting it into the places where people need it most. I bet a lot more than one person’s life could be saved.
The basic fact of the matter – and this is Pollan’s strongest point – is that nearly everything the government and science is trying to do to improve America’s diet is basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when everyone in the wheelhouse can clearly see where the iceberg lies. We still have time to change course, but not much.