Recently I read Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food. This summer, I got very interested in planning healthy meals at home (more about the why and how of this another time), and Pollan's philosophy about food grabbed my attention from the cover of this book: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
It's simple advice, but more complicated than it seems. Pollan's basic premise is that most of the things available in a typical American supermarket aren't food at all. It's a lot of packaged, processed, engineered “edible food-like substances,” but it's not food in the way that fresh produce or meat is food. That food-like stuff might be tasty, and it might keep us from starving, but what else is it doing to us?
For one thing, according to Pollan, it's keeping us from being able to enjoy eating. Packaged food, fast food, all of that--it's too convenient. It's meant to be consumed in a hurry, not savored. The experience of eating it is unsatisfying, which makes us want to eat more because our bodies know they haven't gotten what they need.
Which brings us to another good point--how much food do our bodies need? Probably not as much as we think they do. The American lifestyle of eating on the go, eating at our desks, etc., leads us to eat mindlessly and to be unaware of how much we're actually consuming. Pollan cites several fascinating studies from professor Brian Wansink, one of which was a survey that asked two groups--one American, one French--how they know when to stop eating. The Americans said things like, “When my plate is clean” or “When I run out of food.” The French people said simply, “When I feel full.”
Ah, the French. We Americans can learn a lot from them about the place of food in our lives. Pollan cites a survey conducted by psychologist Paul Rozin in which Rozin showed the words “chocolate cake” to participants and asked them for a word in response. Among French people, the top answer was “celebration.” The most common response from Americans? “Guilt.” Yikes.
I knew it before, but this book really drove the point home--Americans are really screwed up about food! Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and preventable diseases like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are much more common here than elsewhere. We all know someone who eats nothing but take-out food, or someone who's on some crazy diet because they think eating fruit (!) is what's making them fat. Especially among women, we hear this kind of talk from each other all the time--feeling guilty about enjoying food, punishing ourselves in the gym for some dietary transgression (the idea that exercise = punishment is also really screwed up), talking about food in moral terms like “this dessert is so sinful!”
Food isn't our enemy, and the fact that it needs to be defended is pretty sad. Eating should be a way to nourish our bodies, as well as being a sensory pleasure and a chance to spend time with family and friends. Pollan reminds us that without the distraction of food marketing or politically motivated “nutrition” claims, our bodies basically know what to do--eat food, not too much, mostly plants.