Friday, February 01, 2008

A Review of "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan - Part II

In Part II (The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization) of his just released book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan begins with a tale of ten middle-aged Australian Aborigines, all overweight diabetics, who had been living in a settlement and eating a Western diet chock full of refined carbohydrates. Kerin O'Dea, a nutrition scientist, asked them to participate in an experiment: spend 7 weeks in the bush hunting and gathering the traditional Aboriginal foods. The result was dramatic. They lost weight, naturally, but also "all of the metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were either greatly improved or completely normalized...."

What are the diseases brought about by the infamous Western ways of eating? Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diet-related cancers are the big ones. O'Dea and others who have replicated her findings in other native populations (Native Americans and native Hawaiians) are showing us that it doesn't take a long time to reverse the ill effects of our horrible ways of eating things that really are not food. They also show us that the idea of "Nutritionism" with its single minded focus on fats or carbs as the guilty culprits that make us fat or sick is wrong-headed. It isn't one thing, it's the entire range of foods and how they are produced that act together to either make us healthy or ill.

The typical Western diet consists of "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains." Pollan points out that this is not new information, that scientists began recognizing the effects of western vs indigenous diets in the early 20th centuries. People like Albert Schweitzer observed that when native populations were introduced to refined flours and sugar and other industrialized food products, western diseases were sure to follow.

All kinds of theories were offered -- from natives being poorly adapted to modern foods, to genetic and demographic theories. But Pollan points out that "When you adjust for age, rates of chronic diseases like cancer and type 2 diabetes are considerably higher today than they were in 1900." Chillingly he notes that most of us today simply accept that conditions like cancer and heart disease are givens, so we look for medical solutions rather than focusing in on what and how we eat.

In a fascinating account of a Canadian dentist by the name of Weston A. Price, who set up a practice in Cleveland, OH, we find an answer to the question of why industrialized societies have such great dental problems. Price traveled the world to solve this mystery. He searched for native populations that had not been exposed to modern refined foods. No matter where he found these natives (in the mountains of Switzerland, lowlands of Africa, Australian bush, New Zealand or the Everglades of Florida and more), they all had no need of dentists. Their teeth were healthy and their gums free of diseases.

Not content with mere observation, he took pictures of the teeth (this was in the 1930s) and sent home samples of their foods to be analyzed . He found that all his population groups were eating a diet that contained on average ten times as much vitamins A and D as the typical Western diet. What is most amazing is that none of the diets were the same. For example, the Masai ate hardly any plant foods, for example, while the people in the Hebrides consumed no dairy.

What he was on to was how nutritionally starved we have become in the quest to process foods so that we can ship them great distances and store them for months and years upon the shelf. The closer we humans are to the natural links of the food chain, the more nutrition we gain from our food.

It starts with the the soil, which gets robbed of nutrients to grow more grains to process into refined food products or to feed more animals to slaughter and process to feed more people. Other researchers were developing this critique of an impoverished food supply in the 1930s, but World War II created a demand for industrialized foods (think Spam) and by the end of this horrific Western conflict, processed food was a way of life for most Europeans and Americans.

Pollan puts it bluntly -- the Western diet is:
"...a radical and, at least in evolutionary terms, abrupt set of changes over the course of the last 150 years, not just to our foodstuffs but also to our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal. The rise of the ideology of nutirionism is itself part of that change. When we think of s aspecies' environment, we usually think in terms of things like geography, predators and prey and the weather. But of course on e of the most critical components of any creature's environment is the nature of the food available to it and its relationships to the species it eats."
Pollan offers five fundamental recent transformations to our foods that we can reverse if we choose:

1. From whole foods to refined.
2. From complexity to simplicity.
3. From quality to quantity.
4. From leaves to seeds.
5. From food culture to food science.

Pollan goes into great detail and provides excellent examples of what he means for each of the above transformations. I won't give it all away, as I do think this book deserves to be read and talked about and acted upon. I will give you one example for number 5. Pollan talks about how food once was something that was part of one's cultural traditions. What we ate and how it was grown, gathered and prepared was handed down from generation to generation. Now food is packaged as something that is "good for you" with added vitamins and Omega 3s and everything else that has vanished because our soils are depleted and our food is processed to death. Grandmother doesn't tell you what is good for you anymore, it is the nutritionists from General Mills or other corporate food processing behemoths.

Coming soon -- Part III, in which we learn how to get over Nutritionism as a way of eating.


amy said...

Thanks for reminding me to put this on my book list! I had read a review of it and forgot to write down the title. Glad I found it here!
Amy P

Village Green said...

It's a must-read and I have one more section to go in my review. Soon!