Tuesday, March 3, 2015

In Defense of Food: A Review

As I write, it is Snow Day 2 of this suddenly incomprehensibly long weekend in March.  Snow Day 1 was great and exactly what I needed; Snow Day 2 has me hoping it's the last one this week because too much down time and I get serious cabin fever.

How am I allaying that cabin fever?  Reading.  I read a lot in December -- at least 10 books, which for me is pretty serious.  I like to read but I am not very quick.  I am a diligent yet thorough reader, rarely capable of speeding up my pace of reading.  Even when I try to speed read, I have to keep reminding myself to do so because I will inevitably slow down to the enjoyable pace I naturally fall at.  Anyways, I got busy in January and February and didn't really feel much like reading.  That happens.  When it does, I usually just let it happen because I know I'll be back to it before you know it.  Plus, they had just put out Friends on Netflix and I'd never seen a full episode, so clearly I had to binge-watch all ten seasons.  Clearly.  Also in February my good friend and I wrapped up our Drama Club's yearly musical, so February was mostly dedicated to rehearsals, frantic sewing, and herding small children into orphan costumes (we put on Annie!).

Finally, finally, with the advent of these snow days, I am finally able to relax a bit and get back to reading.  I finished two books yesterday (Girl Named Disaster and The Good Lord Bird) and today I am tackling a third, hoping to finish it today, mostly because it's so engrossing.

That book is:  In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan, author also of The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.  I have been wanting to read his books for years, and when I recently went to Bookman's to sell back some books (paperback thrillers, yo), I decided to splurge and buy the first two.  And here I am, reading Defense, and even though I'm currently typing about it and it's sitting next to me, the only reason I'm doing that is because I'm so enthralled with it and its ideas that I'm having trouble sitting still.  So I'm going to start a list of all the things that are interesting me/bothering me/scaring me about this book, as well as things I'm learning.

  1. Margarine is solidified vegetable oil.  That's disgusting.
  2. The food industry is really trying to kill us.
  3. Fat isn't bad.  I knew this, but still.  It really depends on what kind of fat you eat.
  4. When asked to come up with a word in response to "chocolate cake," Americans say "guilt".  The French say "celebration".  Stupid Frogs.
  5. In the 1970s, they changed the language of the new United States nutritional goals from "eat less meat" to "eat meats that will significant reduce the intake of saturated fats".  And it turns out sat fats aren't the ones we should be concerned about -- trans fats are.  And they have been touting the reverse for at least two decades.  Lordy.
  6. Scientists like to isolate nutrients, but in actual fact it seems like nutrients work better as part of the whole than on their own.
  7. Likewise, don't eat anything that specifically touts health on the label.  This should be a duh moment (like if you have to tell me you're good at sex you probably really, really aren't), but at the same time:
  8. An astounding number of Americans think that it's better to eat a lot of a low-calorie food that's less nutritionally dense than a smaller amount of a high-calorie food that's more nutritionally dense.  Nooooooooo.
  9. Fructose is not bad for you when it's found in fruit because the fiber in the fruit allows it to be absorbed more slowly into your body and therefore keeps you satisfied longer.  The fructose that is found in refined sugar contains no such fiber and therefore is nutritionally useless and makes you hungrier sooner. *insert sound of mind being blown. . .fiber is amazing*
  10. White flour is flour that has literally had the nutrition "polished" out of it.  Yuck.
  11. All the modern diseases that plague Americans (heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes) can be traced to the modern Western diet of overly processed foods and the lack of truly nutritional food (e.g. vegetables).
  12. And the order of those diseases goes obesity, diabetes, heart disease.  I.e., it's a waterfall effect.
  13. If you eat a bagel smeared with peanut butter, the peanut butter makes it so that the carbohydrates in the bagel get absorbed slower.  
  14. Organic foods might actually be better for you because industrially-grown foods typically come from soils that lack complexity, therefore creating less nutritionally-dense food.
  15. But then again, not all organic foods are created equal.  
  16. Rule of thumb: if possible, look the grower in the eye and shake their hand (i.e. go to a farmer's market or participate in a CSA).
  17. This really makes me want to really grow my own vegetables.  Go away snow.
  18. Humans have historically eaten up to 80,000 edible foods, 30,000 of which were in widespread consumption, but today the modern American gets 3/4s of his/her daily calories from four sources: corn, soy, rice, and wheat.
  19. The famed omega-3 has a sibling: omega-6, which is good for us but not in the proportions we're eating.  We used to eat omega-6 to omega-3 in the ratio of 3 to 1 and now it's 10 to 1.  Omega-6 is good for fat storage, rigidity of cell walls, clotting, and the inflammation response.  Too much, we are learning, can play a role in heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer's.
  20. Many Americans today are still facing nutritional deficiency diseases at the same time as being overweight or obese, because the food we consume is nutritionally empty.
Wow.  This was an excellent book.  I learned lots of things, got pretty scared by some other things, thought deeply about my own relationship with food (okay and getting better), and it ended with some beautiful and inspirational words about the communal nature of food.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

Food is about nutrition but it's also about the community.  It is one of the most fundamental aspects of human life, not only in a physiological sense but also in a cultural one.  Too long have food companies and the food industry plagued modern Americans with false advertising, fake foods, and unhealthy modifications, supporting dubious studies and dispersing questionable information.  Too long have we as people allowed them to do so in favor of cheapness, in favor of efficiency, in favor of avoiding things we don't like to do, such as clean up after ourselves or engage in meaningful conversation with one another.  Too long have we allowed this to happen.  Michael Pollan makes a convincing argument and then details a plan for how we, as consumers both in the biological sense as well as the commercial sense, can take our tables back, and in doing so take our health and our happiness back.  Read this -- take back your food.

Also, if you really want to see the true pervasiveness and insidiousness of the modern food industry, take a look at this commercial:

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