In Defense of Food

From Goodreads

I love to eat. Seriously. I’ve always enjoyed food. Which, if you’ve seen me, would be quite obvious. As I became older and got more adventurous, I realized how truly incredible the different food cultures of our world are. However, Americans in general have our diet and we stick to it. We have been far too successful in culling our food into non-perishable, enriched-by-vitamins food staples. Which I’ll be honest, I never really thought about until my two years in Ann Arbor.

A2 is very big into the local food movement, into organic produce and food preparation, as well as into knowing where your food comes from and what is in it. It was a major eye opener for me and one I really enjoyed being a part of and learning more about. It also made me appreciate more where I came from. Syracuse has a massive year-round farmer’s market as well as many local growers who have business deals with grocery stores. Our sweet corn during the summer came from Reeves Farms, a farm I could literally drive to across town and frolic amongst the corn if I wanted to. We picked blackberries from the bushes next to our house or along the railroad tracks at our babysitter’s. We went apple and pumpkin picking in the fall. I grew up around farms and agriculture but it never dawned on me about local versus the major growers.

Fast forward to moving into a town on a ranching side of a state and far off the beaten path for food deliveries. I may have pumped my fist in the grocery store over the weekend when I found a North Dakota grown tomato. After becoming so aware, it was hard to move to a place that continually thwarts me. So, last summer, I turned to Michael Pollan for comfort and dove into The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was truly an eye opening read and I was fascinated by how our food is produced in this country and why. I also, luckily, was not so completely turned off by food that I didn’t like to eat anymore. Pollan’s tone makes you think, OK, so we do it like this but not everyone in the country does and if you just get creative and pay attention, you can eat more responsibly and also, bonus! eat more healthily too!

So, I was excited this summer to get to Pollan’s second book, In Defense of Food and see what he had to say. As always, his tone is very approachable and logical. He has his own questions that leads him on his research and it’s clear he thinks other people share those questions (we do). The first two sections of the book deal with nutritionism and our movement away from thinking about whole foods into thinking about nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates. The components of food rather than the food itself. He discusses the politics and changing scientific ideals that allow nutritionism to take hold in our society to the point where it rules what we eat. He then goes into how that shift has not made us healthier; in fact, we’re worse off than before if you look at the statistics. But also, don’t even look at the statistics. Look at the chronic food disease we hear about: obesity, both adult and childhood, diabetes, heart disease. It’s possible certain forms of cancer are affected by our Western diet. A diet we have imported throughout the world, much to the world’s chagrin.

After Pollan has discussed all this, he realizes you’re probably feeling discouraged and frustrated. What on earth CAN we eat then? Pollan gives you one simple rule: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Now, he obviously breaks that into more specific rules to address each maxim. Most of his advice was common sense based but one thing he said really resonated with me: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food. So simple and yet it never occurred to me!

So, I headed off to the grocery store. Sadly, this particular rule is not easy to apply around here (see lament above) but I took the time to actually read the ingredients in the food I normally buy and then look at the alternatives that I could replace it with. It was slightly disturbing. On some items, I knew maybe one or two of the listed ingredients. Half of the time I couldn’t pronounce the ingredients listed. Not cool. Even the so called “better” alternatives had the same problem for the most part. I think that is where the “mostly plants” advice comes from. At least when I buy a tomato, I know I am getting a tomato (However, I have to assume it wasn’t covered in pesticides or grown in a poor environment of course…).

So, I am taking Pollan’s challenge this summer (I’m hoping summer might be easier. We supposedly have a farmer’s market around here. Maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places) and try to stick with things I recognize as food within reason. I don’t think I can be perfect but I can improve and pay attention. I will be what every grocery store fears…an informed consumer!