Sunday, January 28, 2007

Unhappy Meals from Michael Pollan

Everyone should read "Unhappy Meals" by Michael Pollan in today's NY Times Magazine. As Pollan summarizes in the very first line, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Debunking the various "nutritionist" food fads that have appeared over the last 20+ years and including the high-carb, low-fat diets, the no-fat diet, the additive craze to highly processed foods, and the fiber and low-cholesterol approaches, Pollan makes an excellent argument for just food. He reiterates his earlier advice: if there are more than five ingredients, don't buy it. Also don't buy it if there are things in it you've never heard of or can't pronounce.

Pollan makes the case persuasively that we've been held hostage by the "you can eat more if..." crowd. The low-fat, high-carb craze made this country significantly more obese through the 80s and 90s, which then gave rise to the opposite extreme of high-protein and high-fat Atkins diets, no panacea either.

We should just be eating less. Look at all the studies that show that calorie restriction makes us live longer and reduces the probabilities of many diseases, including cancer. We should be eating more leaves and less seeds (grains), Pollan states. We should avoid additives like corn syrup and stick with the real thing: corn kernels. And we should use meat as a condiment to enhance all the vegetables we're consuming.

Pollan states that we know very little about nutrition. And the way we analyze it doesn't really work since we have to isolate vitamins, for example, instead of figuring out how they work together in our bodies for better health. It's an ensemble cast and solo analysis doesn't get us much. In fact, it's led us down the wrong paths time after time (oat bran in the 80s, for example, and margarine as a healthy alternative to butter).

To add insult to injury, medicine reactively deals with the problems of our new approach to eating with more and more palliatives for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer instead of educating folks about diet as a way to prevent these chronic and horrible diseases.

The first time I really thought about meat as a condiment and the dangers of processed food was in the early 80s when I started reading Jane Brody's columns in the NY Times. And then in 1985, I bought her cookbook, Good Food, and I read the entire, huge intro, which discusses all of these topics and more. But the best part are the recipes. I still use my now-tattered copy of Good Food. I love the recipes because they taste good. She never sacrificed taste for any fad but still paid attention to whole grains, low and unsaturated fat, and produced a vast variety of recipes, using an enormous spectrum of foods, mostly vegetables and whole grains. I probably have Ms. Brody to thank for my interest in food and nutrition as a path to wellness (and therefore prevention), my interest in organic foods (because of the additives in the growing process), and just plain good cooking and eating (although I'll admit to being enthusiastic about this part my whole life).

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