Thursday, February 11, 2010

Food, Health & Conundrums

Anyone on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble email lists can tell you that books on health and diet are in no shortage, and those you see today are constantly being superseded by new titles in the field. A quick look tells me that Amazon is now offering 17,710 separate titles under the category of ‘Special Diet.’


For better or worse (hopefully better), books on food, nutrition, health and diet have long been a part of my buying and browsing habits. The notions of ‘food as medicine’ and ‘we are what we eat,’ carry some weight with me in the grocery store aisle and at the table. I do recognize the extremes and shun those that propose odd and radical diets leading to better health, preferring a plan that doesn’t ask me to guzzle raw eggs, eat nothing but grapefruit, or chomp on raw steak. I won’t pretend to be anywhere near the healthiest, fittest, slimmest and robust man on the block, but it would be a lie to say I didn’t give some daily thought to what I’m eating.


Way back in 1985 I was a great fan of Harvey and Marilyn Diamond’s book Fit For Life. For two or three years I followed the ideas in that book for every meal I ate. It was with good results, and even now I go back to the principles in that book on occasion. More recently four other books have served as helpful guides, three of them by Michael Pollan, and one by Bob Greene. In his 2006 book, The Best Life Diet, Greene combines his suggestions for healthful eating with the wisdom of daily exercise supported by diet. The writing of Pollan is focused exclusively on our eating habits, how those habits developed, and the results of ‘industrial eating’ over the years.


Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals was published in 2006, and readers swarmed to buy it. It’s a cultural-political-social history of the American diet and the forces that shape it. The book is grand and ambitious and remarkably educational, but Pollan’s sharp and humorous style makes reading it a complete pleasure. He raises four questions, pursuing each one with impeccable research: (1) What are we eating? (2) Where did it come from? (3) What processes brought it to our table? and (4) What is the true cost environmentally, politically, ethically, and in public health? The breadth of his questions is certainly not small, but Pollan leaves little unanswered. He follows the food chains—industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food we forage ourselves—from source to dinner table, and along the way spotlights the American way of eating. His book takes us on a tour of cornfields, food-science laboratories, feedlots, McDonalds, organic farms and finally on a hunting trip. When I put the book down after reading the last page, my entire world view of agriculture, food processing and a healthy diet had been changed. Read this book, by all means if you haven’t already.


In 2008 Pollan published a follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma called In Defense of Food, which begins with the admonition, ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ In this book he describes the part scientists, journalists, big lobbyists, and so-called “nutrition” play in the western diet, undeniably the worst possible diet for anyone.


In the December 2009 release of Food Rules, Pollan has written a short guide for the person concerned with health and food. Basically, it is no more than a set of 69 short and quick rules for shopping, cooking and eating, all in the space of seventy pages. A good bit of the information found in the two earlier books is repeated (reiterated) in this uncomplicated and sensible little book. Following are some of Pollan’s food ‘rules’ I especially like:

No. 11—Avoid foods you see advertised on television.

No. 18—Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap.

No. 19—If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

No. 20—It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

No. 36—Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.


I’ll wind this up with an interesting question researched by Pollan:

What one food would you choose to have on a deserted island in order to maintain the best possible health for one year? The choices are: corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, bananas and milk chocolate.


Believe it not, according to Pollan’s research, the two best foods for maintaining health over a long time are hot dogs and milk chocolate. (These were the two least chosen in a survey.)

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America