Monday, August 29, 2011

Eating in America

I picked up an interesting book in San Francisco, called "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan. Quite the opposite of most books in its genre, it gives away the punchline in the first paragraph ("Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much") as opposed to the usual style of obliging the reader to wade through a whole book to make him feel as though he is getting his money's worth. The first part book is a fascinating history of how we ended up with the so-called "Western diet" and helps make sense of the seemingly schizophrenic advice received from bodies such as the FDA ("Eat margarine, it's better for you than butter". "Don't eat margarine, it's bad for you."). The alternative is to be completely skeptical and ignore any official recommendations. Actually, this is not far from the position of the author, although a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and this book definitely helps fill in the gaps.

I found it very hard to eat well in America. Half of the time we were in big cities relying on restaurant food with finickity menus and elaborate sauces to cover up a multitude of culinary sins. The rest of the time we were camping and so we got a fairly good idea of the American Supermarket. What surprised me was the absolute lack of fresh produce, especially meat and fish. These had already been chopped up, sanitized, smothered in barbecue sauce and wrapped up in plastic as if it were somehow offensive to eat something that resembled a once living creature. Perhaps everyone caught their own fish and hunted their own meat. I was also surprised by the number of "super drinks" - bottles of flavoured water with added vitamins, anti-oxidants, supposedly all the things that had been taken out of the food - compared to water, say. It's no wonder that there is a `problem with obesity: the number of calories in these drinks that you have to pack in makes them the nutritional equivalent of a salad heaped with sugar.

The book calls this phenomena "nutritionalism" - the tendency born of science to reduce every food to its constituent parts - if only we knew the complete list and there were no interactions between the constituents. In processing food to increase its shelf life, many nutrients are lost, some of which are added back by the manufacturers, others of which can be taken as supplements but we cannot be sure that we are not missing something. This is applied all the way down the food chain to the soil used to grow the plants which the animals which we end up eating feed off. The result is more calorifically dense food with less nutrients. It may be that our organism craves for certain nutrients and forces us to take in more calories than we need as a result. How else can you explain the obese and yet malnutritioned children (with rickets!) admitted to a clinic in Oakland, mentioned in the book?

It is actually very difficult to find "real" food - even so-called organic food sold in supermarkets may be "old" food that has had to travel from afar and has therefore undergone some degree of processing. You have to go out of your way to find it, that is for sure, but you also need to know what you are looking for and the book gives some very practical advice on this issue such as "don't buy any food your Grandma wouldn't recognize as such" and "avoid any food that makes health claims". One bit of advice he gives I think is a bit silly, though. He says that there is no evidence to support the claims that supplementation helps in any way although people who take supplements tend to be more healthy, perhaps because they spend more time thinking about their health. He proposes, therefore, that you should not take supplements but that you should behave like someone who does - whatever that means. Firstly, the claim he makes about food not being a "zero sum game" - that is to say, food can be more than the sum of its parts - could be applied to supplementation. In the same way that we may be missing something by applying reductionist science to deconstructing food, perhaps taking certain combinations of supplements is more effective than taking one in isolation, as would be the hypothesis of any scientific test. What may in fact be the case is that people taking supplements are in fact much more physically active on the whole. The only valid reason I have heard for taking supplements as opposed to looking to food to get all the necessary nutrients is that training for something like an Ironman is an "unnatural" stress on the body and may need unnatural supplementation to repair the damage and bolster the immune system.

None of this is terribly surprising but it is interesting to take a step back and see the problem with a bit of perspective. Even some of the more health conscious amongst us can fall in to the trap of the latest fad. It is not to say that food science has nothing to tell us but just that we should take it with a pinch of salt because, as yet, we do not know the full picture.

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