Where we get fit and spin (wool)

In Defense of Food

So I have been touting Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food” based on the summary of it, and his tag line, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. It is always a good idea to read something before you promote it. Lets face it, even if there is only one odd comment on page 59, maybe you will have yourself for associating with those ideas. So now I’m reading it, and committing another faux pas, of writing on it before I’m done.

The funny thing is, I am reading “The New Rules of Lifting for Women” by Lou Shuller, Alwyn Cosgrove and Cassandra Forsythe at the same time. This is funny, as they don’t see eye to eye on nutrition. Michael is railing against the substition of “nutrients” for “foods”, and a lot of what the Rules book touts is balancing your macro nutrients.

Here is my take so far, which may change by the time I finish the book. While I still agree with Michael’s basic premise, that the healthiest foods for us are vegetables, I think he is a bit unfair to those who study and write about nutrition. I have been reading about nutrition, with ever growing interest, since the 1980’s. I do think he is right that in the beginning, there was a sense of absolute certainty about low fat being good for you, and I don’t think anyone worried too much about the carbs until later. But as time has gone on, and we have learned more, those who study and write about nutrition have become more cautious. Anyone who promotes healthy living will tell you to eat more veggies. It is the meat/fat vs carbs as whole grains that there is debate over.

Anyone who studies and writes about nutrition will tell you that there are huge problems to studying how diet affects us. You can’t put people in labs, you have to trust they are honest, or factor in their dishonesty. You can’t isolate nutrients in people’s diets. The low fat thing started with asking “which societies have the lowest heart disease, and what is different about their diets?” We have spent the last 40 years trying to figure out what those factors are. Humans are complex, and the factors in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer are too. Outside of diet, genetics, age and exercise play a role as well. Michael oversimplifies the scientist’s position, and casts them in the role of bad guy, along with the food industry. I prefer to think they are doing the best they can, muddling along as we all do. Of course there are cases of pride, greed or fear for their academic reputation that can create scandals, but I think as a whole, the nutritionists  and scientists are doing a decent job. So far, Michael hasn’t pointed one finger at the media, and there is a big target. A scientist might do a decent study, and write a cautious paper, but the media might get a hold of it and write a screaming headline that distorts the facts. Again, I don’t see malice here, just ignorance and a desire to get attention.

I have heard two sources, Michael being one, castigating the governments food pyramid, saying that people are following it but they are getting sicker and fatter. In my experience, people aren’t following  the food pyramid. I’m not saying the pyramid couldn’t be tweaked, but I don’t think people are getting fatter because of that.

There is a lot of truth in Michael’s book, but there is some hyperbole and broad points that go overboard. For one thing, he seems to think prior to modern times, nutrition was good. Just eating whole foods is not the whole answer. Women used to say you lost a tooth for every baby. I’m thrilled we know the role folate plays in Spina Bifada. Modern knowledge and the food industry has eliminated so many food shortages and nutritional deficiencies that he doesn’t acknowledge.

I look at our relationship with food like sailing. You can’t sail directly into the wind, you have to tack, which is to go in a zig zag course. You get to your destination eventually, but not in a straight line. We are discovering more about food and what it does for us and how it does it all the time. Unfortunately, this leads to erratic swings-high fat, low fat, low carbs, vegan, paleo, and every other diet fad you’ve ever heard of. Most have a good point to make, none are a complete answer. I like the current statement I heard, “the best diet is the one you can stick to”.

I’ll probably write again when I get to the end of the book, maybe with a higher opinion, not that I don’t like the book. You’ve heard more of my criticism than my praise. As I said before, his basic premise seems sound.

Until then, Bon Apetite.


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