By Tove K. Danovich
Originally published on Food Politic: Journal of Food News and Culture.
If you've read the sentences, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." You've gotten a taste of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. A New York Times #1 bestseller when it was published in 2008, it's not exactly an unknown tome of food wisdom.
Yet it somehow missed my list of books to read until a few weeks ago. I've read a lot of books in this genre but only a few have inspired me to tell the non-food-obsessed to go to their local library or Amazon account and get reading. I realize that the average American adult reads only 17 books a year and I like to make my recommendations count.
You see, if there's one thing we all have in common -- even those of us who can at a meal without photographing or analyzing it -- it's that we worry about our food. We worry that we've eaten too much or too little. We worry that produce might make us sick or that processed foods are trying to kill us (albeit more slowly).
Twenty percent of Americans are on a diet at any given time. Less than one month after New Year's, this number is probably higher than usual. That's why those three little sentences that begin In Defense of Foodare so powerful. They're simple. Easy. Everything our relationship to food is not.
Both history and psychoanalysis, Defense explains not only where we went wrong in our meals but why. The central culprit, according to Pollan, is a thing called Nutritionism, the idea that food is only a sum of its nutrient parts. Unfortunately this is still exactly how most of us think about what we eat. So maybe it's time for us to revisit this book again.
Every major diet of my lifetime has purported to have found the scapegoat for obesity, lethargy, or even a lackluster shine in our hair. (Do the words "The Atkins Diet" ring a bell?) That's without counting the weight-loss diets -- like the master cleanse or other types of fasting -- that were never meant to be a source of well-rounded nutrition.
Yet since we discovered that you could break food into vitamins and nutrients, people have tried to find some combination of them to blame for our ill health. People continue attempting to define what "good" nutrients are -- things like the antioxidants that have been found in everything from açai to chocolate. Every so often, someone else nominates a new nutrient to be this year's evil. If we just ate more of one and less of the other, we'd be hunky dory.
This is where we've gone wrong with food. People have ceased eating meals in favor of the soylent approach, mashing nutrients together into a drinkable paste. Michael Pollan talks about the glorious things that happen when we let our foods play together in a little thing called "cuisine," writing:
"We eat foods in combinations and in orders that can affect how they're metabolized. The carbohydrates in a bagel will be absorbed more slowly if the bagel is spread with peanut butter; the fiber, fat, and protein in the peanut butter cushion the insulin response, thereby blunting the impact of the carbohydrates. (This is why eating dessert at the end of a meal rather than at the beginning is probably a good idea.)"
Looking at food as a composite of its nutrients misses reactions like these. Yet, by allowing food to be treated as a science, we've invited the problem right into our homes. "Scientists," Pollan writes, "study variables they can isolate; if they can't isolate a variable, they won't be able to tell whether its presence or absence is meaningful." We wanted to study food, so we got nutrients.
If you read between the narratives, In Defense of Food blames our problems on nothing more complex than the way we've chosen to think about food. Sure, processed foods and advertising campaigns haven't helped the weary shopper but where we've really been undone is our desire to eat right. Because "right" implies that there is a wrong way to eat as well, a culprit in our kitchen that must be avoided at all costs.
No wonder we have so much anxiety about what to eat. Bad foods are trying to kill us! (Or at least make us fat.)
If you've ever walked through a grocery store you've seen signs on food proudly proclaiming them to be "low fat" or "no carb" or now "raw" and "gluten free." This is black and white Nutritionism at its core. But it's not entirely the fault of processed food giants. We did it to ourselves by subscribing to the notion that we didn't have to think about what we eat as long as we cut a few things out. Food companies are just telling us what we want to hear.
How's that been working out for us?
Toward the end of his book, Pollan writes, "A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species."
We wanted more protein and we got it in the form of factory farms. We wanted more easy-to-make food and were given it through corn -- corn cereal, breading, sweeteners, and more. We wanted low-fat options, so we got them by adding extra layers of processing to strip the fat out.
I don't want to sit down in front of a plate of nutrients. I don't even want to get my recommended daily intake in the form of disparate foods. I want composition and cuisine and history in my food. I want something that's been recipe-tested over the centuries -- the dish that stood the test of time.
What will it take for a lady to get a meal around here?