I'm reading a book, In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. The sub-title is An Eater's Manifesto. We're all eaters and this book's author caught my attention last weekend on Book TV as I was checking C-SPAN. The best aspect of the book? He offers no set answers to the problems of our state of nutrition, in our way of eating food.
Michael Pollen is a published author of 4 other books, this being his current bestseller. He contributes to The New York Times Magazine and he is a professor of journalism at Berkeley. He's a smart guy without the attitude.
His motto is eat food, not too much, mostly plants. This doesn't mean he is a vegetarian though. He just recommends small portions of meat, more as a side dish instead of the main course. He also doesn't advocate the no dairy nonsense either. He professes that dairy fat is different than animal meat fat and acceptable in our diets. This was interesting to me as a personal point. When newly married, I stopped using margarine instead of butter at the urging of my husband. He claimed that dairy fat is better for our bodies than manufactured fat in margarine. I was abiding by the thoughts of the day that dairy fat was making us fat and margarine was a healthier choice.
Pollan traces back our national obesity problem to the days of George McGovern's rule in the Senate. In 1977, McGovern was the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He held hearings on the rise in rates of chronic diseases being linked to diet - heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes - and the committee's mandate, established in 1968, was to eliminate malnutrition and working to establish food assistance programs.
Two days of hearings produced dietary guidelines from the Senator's staff. The staff, however, was not made up of scientists or doctors, of course, but of lawyers and journalists. The American Heart Association embraced a 'lipid hypothesis', as Pollan labeled it, which recommended a diet in lower saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products. After a few weeks of the McGovern committee recommending less red meat and dairy product consumption, he had to backtrack to recommend chosing meat poultry and fish that reduce saturated fat intake. Why? Because the cattle ranchers in South Dakota, McGovern's constituents demanded the compromise. Yes. Politics affects every aspect of our lives, it is a fact.
So began the new 'nutritionism', as Pollan calls the new justification for processed foods. Margarine was the first synthetic food to come into the average household's diet. Polyunsaturated fats and then vitamins were added to margarine by a method that takes vegetable oil solid at room temperature and blasts it with hydrogen. The result? Trans fat. Oops.
So, margarine makes the consumer fatter and unhealthier than butter, as it turns out.
Pollan delves into other foods and the cause and effect of tampering with production before it lands in the grocery store. He advises you pass up buying products labeled healthier than others, due to added vitamins, minerals or supplements. Case in point? Breakfast cereal labeled 'whole grain' now so that you don't feel so guilty buying it. And the low fat items? Loaded with sodium instead.
His recommendations are common sense and things we can all do. I've made it a practice to buy locally whenever possible since my cooking days began. Made sense to me to support local and state products, your neighbors. And, they are earth friendly solutions, if that is your greatest concern. Plus, many times it is the more economical solution, too, which appeals to me as the cook. Buy locally grown products whenever possible. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Incorporate whole grains into our diets. Less processed and refined sugar, wheat, grains. He doesn't recommend eliminating anything completely that orginated from previous generations of Americans. He recommends you think about if your grandmother or great grandmother would recognize the food. If so, it's probably ok. Yogurt in a tube for on the go eating? Boxed cold cereal labeled 'whole grain'? Pudding in a tub? No. Not so much.
I'm almost at the end of a course of stong antibotics that I've been taking to cure enflamed glands on the right side of my neck. These past few months have also brought out the sinus problems that are the bain of my existance. So maybe I'm more acutely looking at nutrition. And, I have a physican who believes in holistic healing and dietary changes along with traditional medicine. She's Indian and is always telling me to stop dairy product intake when my sinuses bother me.
As I mentioned, Pollan doesn't try to tell the reader what to eat. He simply tells the story of how we became a nation hooked on processed foods and our continued escalation into unhealthiness. Who knew low fat diets were making us fat?
Common sense. It's a good thing.