by Eileen Weber
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Those seven words are all you need to know about food and nutrition. At least according to Michael Pollan, renowned author and activist for eating fresh food locally and Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
Last Saturday at the Cornwall Consolidated School, Michael Pollan gave a lecture about his well-documented food philosophies from such titles as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. The Cornwall Public Library sponsored the event. Over 200 people sat in the sweltering heat to hear Pollan pontificate about what food is and what it should be.
Pollan said he is often asked what should we eat if we are concerned about our health? One key factor in shopping for your food, he said, was to stay along the periphery of the store. All the perishable items—produce, meats, and dairy—are packed along the sides. But stay away from the middle, he warned. That’s where all the “edible food-like substances” lurk.
These are the foods with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats and oils that boast health claims in bold letters on the front of the package. Boxes shout at you down every aisle with phrases like “Lowers Cholesterol!” and “Prevents Heart Disease!” But do they?
Most likely not, says Pollan. He recalled one day while watching television a commercial segment. Two were for breakfast cereals in which one claimed that your kids would focus better in school and the other would prevent heart disease. The third commercial showcased Splenda with fiber.
“Here, they’ve taken fake sugar and added fake fiber to it,” he said. “And now, we have health in a packet. Nature comes packaged with fiber. It’s called an apple.”
“Our obsession with nutrition is what’s making us sick,” said Pollan of the thousands of people who are obese, have heart disease and diabetes, and who die from it. He went on to say that we eat for lots of reasons: for pleasure, as a sense of community, or even identity, as in vegetarianism. We equate eating with health and that’s one of the main reasons we do it. He said we’re either “eating to ruin our health or eating to rehabilitate it.”
In a New York Times article dated January 28, 2007, he consolidated his views on the food industry and what he terms “nutritionism.” As he sees it, the biggest culprit in the whole food system is the focus on the “nutrient.” Taking the one element in a food that is the pinnacle of “health” and trying to insert it in other foods that don’t necessarily contain it or remove it from those that do. It’s either a “good” nutrient, like fiber, or it’s a “bad” nutrient like saturated fats. We zero in on these things as if finally we have found the key to happiness.
But as with saturated fats, they are eaten by other cultures and they don’t have the high rate of diseases that Americans do. He pointed out the difference between the way Americans eat and what is known as the French Paradox. We are so concerned about our health and yet we are the least healthy. The French, however, can eat cheese, butter, and red wine with seemingly reckless abandon. They are thinner on average and they live longer. Why?
It’s how they approach food. The French didn’t start gaining weight until the American diet became more mainstream. A few too many McDonald’s in Paris and the French waistline expanded. Those French who manage to keep their weight down eat food grown locally. They don’t snack. They eat smaller portions. And most of all, they enjoy their food. They don’t gulp it down while answering the phone and typing out an e-mail. They savor it. As Pollan said, nineteen per cent of the food Americans eat is ingested in the car. The French think that’s disgusting.
But with such busy lives, who has time to sit down to a gourmet meal and chew their meat 100 times before swallowing? Can’t we just exercise it off?
Undoubtedly, exercise is good for you. But, it may not help you lost weight. A recent article in the August 17th edition of Time Magazine points out why exercise won’t make us thin. Research shows that when we work out at the gym, we are more likely to eat afterward because exercise makes us hungry. And what we eat maybe the very thing that discounts all those butt squats we just did.
As Dr. Timothy Church, health chair at Louisiana State University, puts it, he sees most people undo the work they accomplish in just one visit to the gym. As one of his wife’s friends was known to do, she would go for a workout and then hit Starbucks for a muffin afterward. “I don’t think most people would appreciate that, wow, you only burned 200 or 300 calories, which you’re going to neutralize with just half that muffin,” he said.
Essentially, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. We eat too much of the wrong foods and we think if we exercise enough we’ll lose weight anyway. It’s just not true. Downing a box of SnackWell's® cookies and then running a half an hour on the treadmill because you feel guilty is not a healthy lifestyle. But eating whole, natural foods and going for a nice bike ride is.
Maya Angelou once quipped that if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Here, we are in total control. We can change what we eat as well as our attitude about it.
There is not one food that will help you live longer. Exercise by itself will not necessarily make you lose weight. And unfortunately, you may still die of cancer. But eating well and regular activity are the keys to a healthy lifestyle.
Pollan said he often asks for suggestions on good rules of eating, like avoiding high fructose corn syrup and eating until you feel almost full. He said one suggestion was to have one meat per pizza. “I don’t know if that’s actually going to do it for you,” he said.
Pollan ended his lecture with a heavy dose of common sense. “Don’t eat anything that you’ve seen advertised on TV and don’t eat anything that has ingredients you wouldn’t have in your pantry. Who cooks with high fructose corn syrup anyway?”
Photo courtesy of Cornwall Public Library.