Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.
– Michael Pollan, NYT 2007
I developed somewhat of an addiction to Pollan’s blog “On the Table” for the New York Times, after I read an article last week in my food psychology class called “Unhappy Meals”. I was inspired by his message to move away from this whole complicated food science trend we have happening in America, with every dieter or health conscious eater desperately trying to calculate calories, nutrients, portions, and grams.
In his 2007 article, Pollan explores the rising complexity of a simple decision: What foods should humans eat in order to maximize their health? He suggests that the more we try to understand dieting, by quantifying and isolating nutrients, the more complex the answer becomes.
People’s perceptions of what constitutes healthy food choices have been changed and misdirected over the years, and Pollan illustrates the powerful impact that the food industry, nutritional science, politics, and the media has on what people decide to eat. Pollan shows how our culture has moved into the Age of Nutritionism, a time where words like amino acids, omega-3’s, saturated fats and proteins, have replaced the traditional holistic food items, such as eggs and breakfast cereals. Pollan argues that this shift in dieting paradigms is solely based on ideologies and bad science, a way to “organize… life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions.”
The most important unexamined assumption of nutritionism is that food is only consumed to promote good health. This assumption has eradicated the culture of food and has replaced it with the science and medicinal purposes of food. Businesses and companies have honed in on such linguistic capitalization by adding healthy words to processed foods, like Lucky Charms now has “whole grains” and orange juice is fortified with calcium. These advertising messages distort the public’s perception of what constitutes healthy foods by telling them that even highly processed, highly refined, sugar-laden foods are good for you.
Pollan also argues that nutritionism is based on “bad science,” an argument I strongly agree with. He successfully highlights the how food science is confounded and reductionistic by isolating one nutritional component to study, without regards to (1) the context of the environment, (2) the biological differences among individuals’ digestive systems, and (3) the combinations of other foods ingested and the order they are absorbed. Science also bases everything on face value and ignores the complexity behind each food; for example, the just the antioxidants in thyme list a paragraph long. Lastly, Pollan questions the internal validity and reliability of the methodologies employed. He argues that the research is fundamentally flawed because people lie or have a hard time calculating their exact food intake. He also shows how the survey questions for the food frequency questionnaire result in “shaky data.” People often assume if a fact is based on science, it must be true. This close examination of the science behind our food decisions is an important message to direct toward the general public, who may not be educated in evaluating scientific methods and analyses.
Finally, Pollan talks about “the elephant in the room”, that is, the largest most obvious fact we know to be true: The Western Diet and the efforts to improve health based on numbers and nutrients are not working. Even with all of our scientific studies and knowledge, Americans still suffer higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than other nations of more traditional diets. And when people of other cultures move to America, they, too, will acquire these diseases as their diets assimilate, which blatantly shows us that the Western ways do not work!
Pollan suggests that Americans begin looking to food as less of a “thing” and more of a relationship between our body and the foods we eat. He gives a list of suggestions which include (1) eat food that only if your great-great-grandmother would recognize, (2) avoid food products that come with health claims, (3) avoid highly processed foods with a long list of ingredients, (4) get out of the supermarket when possible, (5) pay more, eat less, (6) eat mostly plants, especially leaves, (7) eat like any other culture besides the Western American diet, (8) cook and plant a garden if possible, and (9) eat like an omnivore.
I would add one more suggestion to this list: (10) savor and tune into the experience of food by listening to your body and mind’s reaction to the food being consumed. Food is about experience and it is about culture and it is about an individual’s psyche at the time of consumption. Another NYT wellness blogger, Tara Parker Pope, published a post In the Obesity Epidemic, What’s One Cookie? scientifically explains why monitoring caloric or nutrient intake physiologically does not work. Not only is it inaccurate, but it also creates a negative bias towards dieting.
For example, when you eat a piece of birthday cake that cake tastes especially delicious because of the experience of excitement and celebration associated. And conversely, when you eat “diet” food that food tastes worse because your taste buds must reconnect with natural flavors and you are in a negative mindset in an unsupportive, tempting environment. Rather that counting calories, portions, and grams, people should monitor their physiological and psychological responses to eating specific foods. That way, they can record and reflect on the different experiences of eating a truly healthy food compared to a highly processed one. This would also help reduce the complexity behind making a food decision. Rather than shifting through the mass amounts of information published by the media and scientific journals, people would only have to ask their bodies and ask themselves. This is one way we can change the culture and change the experience of holistic foods by showing people how enjoyable foods can be and how good they can feel by eating more plants and whole grains.
Even before reading his article I wondered why does science have to make everything so complicated? If someone needs more probiotics in their diet, why do people perceive it to be so hard to turn to the naturally fermented Greek yogurt instead of Activia or other products that have artificially added in nutrients? Why do people believe that dieting has to be a difficult, multifaceted challenge, when it is really quite simple?
As Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Science hasn’t proven much of anything by isolating its facts from life. We know more than ever before and yet we are still fatter than ever. As a society, we need to turn to the facts of life, that overweight, diabetic heart-diseased elephant in the room, and recognize that our complex ways are not working. Sometimes taking a step backward is actually the first step forward. Back to nature, back to health, and back to easy eating decisions.
Future questions to consider: How can we get people to step back away from science and towards culture to make their decisions from? In what other ways would holistic foods simplify the complex questions in making food decisions? How would the scientific community react to Pollan’s argument and the food culture movement?