Saturday, July 16, 2011

In Defense of Food: On Science and Natural Movements

I am reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. As I've mentioned before, becoming pregnant and subsequently breastfeeding has made me much more aware of what I put into my body. I grew up in a lower-class home and subsisted largely (in more ways than one) on pre-packaged, high-fat foods.

Once I was an adult in charge of my own eating, those habits were hard to break. I have struggled with weight control since early adolescence, so my relationship with food has often been tumultuous. I am probably happier with the way that I look and feel than I have ever been in my life, and that's largely because of the shift in the way that I eat and think about eating, a shift that has been ongoing, but has recently undergone some pretty major changes. Pollan's book is part of that transformation.

Once I became pregnant, I could no longer get angry at myself for gaining weight and punish myself by not eating enough for days at a time. I had a baby to feed. I hope that I will never "diet" again because recognizing food as nourishment and (yes, God forbid) enjoyment was a breakthrough for me. I have been much kinder to myself and that has made it much easier to make healthy choices.

Pollan (who also wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma), takes a look at the cultural practices that attribute to the way the Western diet shapes how we eat and live. He makes a very convincing argument that the scientific modification and study of food has not made us healthier, largely because food is not just the sum of its micro-parts (various nutrients, antioxidants, etc.) but a whole thing that exists as a system. In addition, science hasn't historically been all that good at figuring out what nutrients are most important to human development anyway, often focusing too much on the ones they've mastered and not enough on the ones they haven't (or haven't even identified).

He uses baby formula as one of the places this is evident:
The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another: Liebig missed the vitamins and amino acids, and his successors missed the omega-3s, and still to this day babies fed on the most "nutritonally complete" formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.
This should not be a revelation to me. Really, nothing in this book should have been news to me, but something about the way it's presented struck me. I had put so much blind trust that "they" were making food better with their tinkering that I hadn't thought about food from a natural perspective in a long time.

That made me think about the process I went through while deciding to have a natural childbirth. Just like I had a hard time believing "they"--the scientists and researchers--might not create better alternatives to real, natural food, I also had a hard time believing that "they" hadn't improved upon the process of giving birth. As Pollan explains:
most of us unthinkingly place the authority of science above culture in all matters having to do with our health, that prejudice should at least be examined. The question we need to ask is, Are we better off with these new authorities telling us how to eat than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? 
Now, I do not want to demonize science. Scientific advances in food have been remarkable and are probably necessary to prevent starvation. It's important research to determine what nutrients are in which foods and how they work within the body.

At the same time, it's important research to figure out how labor works. Determining the hormones released during labor and what they do allows us to know more about our own bodies as well as know how to intervene when something goes wrong.

But instead of using these miraculous natural functions as primary examples to understand, we use them as base models in need of improvement. We found that laboring women produce oxtocin, so we figured out how to make pitocin to do it "better." We found out that leafy green vegetables give you folic acid, so we extract it and put it in a pill.

The goal should not be to create replacements for these natural processes (and eating, digesting, and thriving off of food is a very complex process, indeed). Instead, we should learn how to use the useful scientific knowledge we have to become better at using the natural skills of our bodies and the natural resources of the world around us.

And much like the medical birthing process, these advancements in food science are complicated by the capitalist forces surrounding them:
diet pills, heart bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But though fast food may be good business for the health care industry, the cost to society--an estimated $250 billion a year in diet-related health care costs and rising rapidly--cannot be sustained indefinitely.
All that aside, it's much easier said than done. Marketing and demand from the American palate has made it incredibly difficult (and expensive) to avoid what Michael Pollan calls artificial food without a lot of research.

I've decided to go about it in small steps. I cut out artificial sweeteners last month (and since I primarily drank diet soda, I've pretty much cut out caffeine and upped my water intake as well). This month, I'm focusing on replacing canned vegetables with fresh (organic, if possible) ones.

I highly recommend the book. I think that it's an interesting look at how our bodies and the food we eat operate in a complex dance. I'm ready to learn a few new (or old, depending on how you look at it) steps.


  1. Michael Pollan is a smart dude, for sure. He's in several documentaries, including 'Food, Inc.,' 'The Future of Food,' and 'King Corn,' in which he goes into detail about these things (although obviously not as much detail as in his books). While I'm inclined to agree with most of his comments about the 'food' we eat, I have a few criticisms on his views in my limited research on his work.

    First, he seems to downplay the high efficiency level of the processes in which our bodies divide the good (however little of it there may be) from the bad in these 'Frankenfoods.' Our digestive systems can generally handle most of whatever the Western system can throw at it. The nonsense in food now-a-days has little to do with the obesity 'epidemic' in the states.

    A second criticism of Pollan refers to the very idea that obesity is worthy of the label 'epidemic'. Globalization has created a scenario in which inhabitants of some of the poorest areas in the world drink Coke instead of water because it's cheaper. Yet, these people remain extremely under-nourished, and certainly not fat or obese. My point is that Pollan ignores the most important reason we are obese -- we are rich. It's not a deadly pathogen as the word 'epidemic' would suggest; we just have too much food for our own good.

    We still possess the same impulse in our brains that we had 50,000 years ago to eat everything edible in sight, and it's VERY damn difficult to ignore. Until science catches up with this impulse (as it has with sex), we'll probably continue to struggle with it. As bleak as it has been thus far for the human species, we remain forced to rely on self-control and personal autonomy.

  2. Those are good points, though I'm not completely convinced that our bodies are able to sort out all of the stuff we throw at them. I think about the chemicals that we think are completely safe, and then I think about the fact that we used to spary DEET in the air to kill bugs and build everything out of asbestos. It can take a long time to figure out what the body really can handle.

    I think that your point about being rich is particularly interesting. Our food also costs such a relatively little amount to our average incomes. That's something that I think Pollan does really well in the book: he illustrates that we have engineered food to be so high in quantity, not quality. So not only do we have a lot of money, but that money buys more food than it probably should, too.