Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Advice for the Diet Dilemma (A Bit Lengthy, I'm Afraid)

Once again the New York Times has provided me with my topic du jour. In the Times magazine on Sunday, January 28, there was an article about food science and eating by Michael Pollan, author of the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma." He talks about how scientists have broken “food” down in to “nutrients” to the point where we, the American public, don’t have a clue what we should be eating. As a result, we subsist on Diet Coke and Lean Cuisines.

Pollan offers a few “rules” for eating, which I’ve been thinking about. This is a little stream of consciousness, but here are his rules, along with my thoughts. It’s worth noting that I’m not setting out to answer any questions here; I’m just asking them. If I answer them through my thought processes, well, bonus.

1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

My great-great-grandmother was a woman we call Grandmother Henley (well, one of them was…I’m picking the one I’m actually familiar with, although of course I never met her, but my great-grandmother told me about her, and my grandmother always speaks of her as Grandmother Henley). Going back to her is smart, because I know for a fact that my great-grandmother ate things like Wise Potato Chips, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other Evil Processed Foods. Grandmother Henley would not, it’s true, recognize Go-Gurt as a food (I barely do, in spite of the fact that my son likes them; blue yogurt—how vile!), but I’ve got some questions and hesitations about other things.

Chocolate graham crackers spring to mind. Graham crackers have been around for a long time. Doubtless Grandmother Henley would recognize them as “food,” but what about the chocolate part? Making graham crackers chocolate involves nothing more than adding some cocoa powder to the dough, and she would also recognize cocoa powder as food. Does that mean chocolate graham crackers are OK? Of course, according to some of the later guidelines, the answer is pretty much no, but there’s more.

I eat egg and cheese English muffins from McDonald’s (you order an Egg McMuffin and tell them to hold the Canadian bacon). Based on this guideline, this is food, but I quite doubt Grandmother Henley would recognize it as such. There was no such thing as a “breakfast sandwich” in her day. Even if I make this at home (since we all know that the McDonald’s cheese and English muffins are loaded with Evil Preservatives and other naughty ingredients), would it still count as food according to this rule? I suppose so, but I don’t really know.

OK, moving on.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

I’ve heard this before and it gives me pause every time. Quaker Oats, probably the most benign food in the free world, carries a health claim about reduction of the risk of heart disease. Am I to avoid Quaker Oats? And what about Bush’s Black Beans: “May Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease”; or Libby’s Pumpkin: “Excellent Source of Vitamin A & Fiber”; or Del Monte Sliced Carrots: “Only 5g of Net Carbs Per Serving”? Or my Fresh Express Baby Spinach: “Packed with Nutrition! Vitamins A, K & C! Folic Acid! Iron! Lutein!” (If you think I spend a lot of time wandering around my kitchen reading food labels, well, that’s where you’re right.) I can see that Mr. Pollan is talking about something like a plain old leek from the produce department, which bears no label at all, but this particular piece of advice could prove confusing to the average idiot (of which there seem to be a frightening number in this world, alas, alas).

Of course Kellogg’s Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars are something on which I’d take a pass. Besides sounding downright revolting, they’re clearly processed within an inch of their lives, and the fact that the person who dreamed these up had a Strawberry Shortcake doll as a kid is the closest they ever got to anything even vaguely resembling a strawberry.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

Here we have a slight problem with the deluge of food and nutrition reporting interfering with the recommended course of action. Thanks to Better Living Through Chemistry, I can pronounce Aspartame, guar gum, titanim dioxide, and ascorbic acid, and worse, I know what they all are (respectively: an artificial sweetener whose arrangement of molecules closely mimics that of real sugar, a thickener from the guar bean shrub, a chemical used as a “brightener” in products such as white toothpaste and canned frosting, and the formal name for vitamin C. I got a D- in high school Chemistry. Pathetic, isn’t it?)

More than five in number is tricky, because sometimes perfectly healthy products have more than five ingredients. I’ve never heard of anyone slamming Worcestershire sauce (except my friend E, who hates it—but then, she’s not deriding its health properties, only its taste), and yet my bottle of Worcestershire sauce lists 13 ingredients, including the much-dreaded high-fructose corn syrup.

High-fructose corn syrup is the next trans fat. Or maybe it’s just a companion evil to trans fat. It’s said to be in just about everything (a claim I won’t dispute, since it’s bloody true), and it’s said that the human body does not need that crap. Again, no argument. But if we can’t eat ANYthing with high-fructose corn syrup in it, what ARE we to eat? Are we expected to sit around and gnaw on raw, unseasoned carrots and celery sticks? Or am I to comb natural foods stores for Worcestershire sauce that doesn’t have HFCS in it? With four kids, I frankly don’t have that kind of time.

So maybe we go with the last sentence here and assume that none of the characteristics mentioned is harmful in and of themselves, use the Worcestershire sauce (except E) and get over it.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

I’ve whined about the inconvenience (timing) and availability (seasonality and location) of farmers' markets before. I will not again.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

Ah, this is an interesting argument, and one that really got me started thinking about this article. Eat Less. As Americans we eat an enormous amount of food. This morning alone I’ve probably eaten more food than some inhabitants of the Third World eat in a week. It was all, I might point out, pretty much crap.

I completely agree that if the food is of a really high quality, I need far less of it to be satisfied. The caveat is that if I spend a lot of money on it, I feel like I should bloody well eat it all, instead of tossing it when I’m full. In my home I can, of course, better control portion sizes. In restaurants it’s a different story.

Yesterday I had lunch at a local pub that serves pretty decent food. Since this article was still on my mind, I ordered something that I felt pretty closely adhered to the guidelines set forth here. It was a spinach salad (see #6 about eating more leaves), with bleu cheese, sautéed red onions and apples, walnuts, and a balsamic dressing. I asked for sautéed shrimp to get a little protein as well. The salad was $8.95. The added shrimp were $5.95 (roughly a buck a shrimp). You can bet that at that price, there was no Hara Hachi Bu-ing for me. I ate it all. I could probably have stopped about two thirds of the way through—maybe even half way through--but that would have meant leaving about three shrimp, and I just couldn’t stand to do that. Yes, better in the trash than on my tush, I suppose, but I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brought up as a member of the now-cliched “Clean Plate Club,” but something in me (years of my grandmother’s frugality finally wearing off on me? Sheer guilt?) just wouldn’t let me send that plate to the kitchen with two or three uneaten shrimp, and a pile of other salad ingredients, on it.

We Americans seem to have an interesting problem of our own devising. We’ve forced restaurants to provide huge, huge portions in response to our insistence that we “get what we pay for,” and yet we feel guilty wasting the money if we don’t eat every bite of food, no matter how overfull it makes us feel. Personally, I would have been just as happy with a $5 salad, and $3 worth of shrimp, and been able to eat it all without feeling too full or too guilty. The restaurant didn’t offer $5 worth of that salad, because their patrons want a bigger salad, something more filling.

I’m happy eating at home most of the time, but what’s a pig to do when she goes out to eat? Try to control myself, I guess, and see if I can get half orders of things, or maybe doggie bags (however, salad does not lend itself to a doggie bag).

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

I’m tired of hearing this “meat more as a flavoring” line, even from Thomas Jefferson. How about if I just eat less meat and more vegetables?

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

Oh dear. What about mixing the eating habits of different cultures? What if I want to eat like the French AND the Italians? And the Chinese? And the Indians? And the Thais? I like all those different kinds of food, and I don’t want to limit myself to just one. Maybe there are some similarities in all those cultures that can be incorporated into our own eating habits. The small portions, and no seconds or snacking ideas sound like they might bridge all of the healthy non-American styles of eating. Is that the way to go? So many questions.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

I do cook, so problem solved there. Right now I can’t plant a garden, but when I can, I will. Case closed on that one.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.

Earlier in this article, Pollan mentions that four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat: wheat, soybeans, corn, and rice. So adding new species…hm. That’s kind of a tricky one, because really, what’s available to us? Fish, chicken (I’ll lump duck and turkey in here too), pork, beef, lamb. Various fruits and vegetables. The Grains (and things like seeds and legumes).

I think his statement about adding new “species” as opposed to new “foods” to one’s diet is confusing. The dictionary definition of a species is “…the smallest group of classification. A species generally consists of all the individual organisms of a natural population which are able to interbreed, generally sharing similar appearance, characteristics and genetics due to having relatively recent common ancestors.” So Brassica oleracea is a species, but I’m sure Pollan would say that we shouldn’t just add cabbage alone to our diets, but also add brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli, all of which fall into the species B. oleracea. I think the advice “add more different foods” is sufficient. It ought to be followed by the statement “Try everything you can find that’s edible.”

What I find to be a problem about this is that often some fruits and vegetables just aren’t good in their natural state. Ever eaten raw broccoli rabe (or rapini, as it’s sometimes called)? Or raw quince? Yuck. Yet cooked, those two things are wonderful, and I love them. The problem is twofold, it seems to me—first, people don’t eat enough of a variety of fruits and vegetables, and second, we don’t know how to prepare them to make them tasty. If we just follow the “add more” rule, stroll into the grocery store and buy the first unfamiliar vegetable that comes to hand, and eat it as is, more likley than not we’re going to be turned way off. What’s a would-be adventerous eater to do?

My solution, as always, is to buy more cookbooks. I’m not recommending this for everyone, necessarily, but based on the advice above to cook more, I’d say it would work for those truly dedicated to trying to eat better. I have several vegetable and vegetarian cookbooks, and I like “regular” cookbooks that have big sections on ways to cook different vegetables. In fact, say what you will about the “low carb” craze, it has produced a few very good cookbooks that focus on vegetable preparations.

At the beginning of this article, Mr. Pollan gives the solution to our diet and nutrition problems in 7 words (with a couple of sentences of clarification): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products.

And buy more cookbooks. He forgot that.

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