Triumph of the Weeds

Food, Glorious Food.
January 4, 2009, 10:07 pm
Filed under: food

I’ve used Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma as guides in my endeavor to improve my eating habits. In these books, Pollan investigates our current food system in the US and why it’s so broken. He links together the major environmental, economic, and health problems that we face to this food system and suggests that a lot of these problems could be solved if we opted out of it as much as we could. One of the big takeaway points for me is that Pollan points out that humans have thrived on a variety of diets throughout the history of the world, but the so called modern Western diet- consisting of highly processed and manufactured foods with lots of sugars, refined carbohydrates, fats, salts, and assorted chemicals- is the only one that has resulted in the devastating package of diet related diseases, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, that we are faced with today.

Luckily, I haven’t developed any of these dietary diseases yet (though technically I am obese) but I’ve long struggled with my weight throughout my life and have had issues with food in general, but this past year, I’ve managed to lose about 50 pounds without even trying. Of course, there are a lot of things going on in my life this year that could have contributed to this weight loss, but I have noticed that I’ve been eating less (or, rather, the proper amount instead of overeating) and I have been able to start addressing how my psyche handles food and where my deep-seated problems lay.

Here are the guidelines which Pollan laid out in In Defense of Food, that I’ve been trying to follow:

*Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.: Pollan uses the example of that gogurt stuff, which I’ve never been tempted to try, actually. I think the point is to prefer traditional foods over the newer manufactured food products, or at least to be skeptical of new innovations rather than just blindly latching on to them when they hit the market. And I assume that Pollan means a sort of generic great grandmother, because I’m fairly certain that none of my great grandmothers would recognize tofu, among other traditional foods.

*Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or d) that include high fructose corn syrup: All these are indicators of highly processed foods. This guideline leads me to choose regular version of foods rather than low fat or low carb or low calorie versions (which add a lot of chemicals in order to take these things out).

*Avoid products that make health claims: I think what Pollan here is saying is not to completely ignore nutrition research but avoid getting obsessed with it. The studies used for various health claims are often tenuous and usually sponsored by corporations in order to market processed foods. It’s been my experience that refusing to get caught up in the field of nutrition, removes a lot of anxiety and guilt from eating; that lowering of stress levels alone should markedly improve one’s health.

*Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle: Produce, deli, dairy, and bakery departments, which is where the true variety of food is located, tend to be located on the periphery of grocery stores, while processed foods, which basically consist of the same corn, wheat and soy byproducts arranged in different shapes, textures, and flavors, tend to be grouped in the middle. Of course, baking goods and whole grains are also found in the center of the store, as well as things like frozen produce, while sodas are sometimes found in the back, but the spirit of this guideline is sound.

*Get out of the supermarket whenever possible: I’ve made a concerted effort to start going to the farmer’s market more regularly, and I’ve started getting eggs, bread, honey, meat, most of my produce, and some other assorted foods from the farmer’s market. I’ve found that the there’s more of a community atmosphere and gives me less of that guilty feeling I usually get when I shop. I hope to continue to find local sources for the other foods I buy, particularly dairy products. I’ve also considered joining a CSA, and may do so in the future.

*Eat mostly plants, especially leaves: I found it a little odd, after discussing at length how it’s possible to thrive on a variety of diets and how nutrition science cannot be relied on as much as tradition in guiding our eating choices, that he would include a guideline this specific. Much of his support of this advice is based on the latest Omega 3/Omega 6 research, and Pollan just spent a couple hundred pages arguing that getting caught up in the latest nutrition research is unhealthy. That being said, I have cut back my consumption of meat and added more beans, grains, and fruits and vegetables to my diet largely for economic reasons. It’s also worth noting that meat production in the US, soon to be around the world, is very unsustainable. For that reason alone, it is a good idea for all of us to cut back on meat. As far as dark leafy greens go, they are known to be nutrient dense so eating more of them would probably be good.

*You are what what you eat eats too: This rather complicated sentence basically means that the quality of the meat one eats is affected by the way the animal is raised. In other words, it makes a huge difference whether meat is pasture raised or produced through conventional means, and there is mounting evidence that pasture raised meat is significantly better in a number of ways.

*If you have the space, buy a freezer: The reason Pollan gives for this is that a stand alone freezer makes it more convenient and more economical to keep to an organic local diet. For example, one can purchase a large quantity of pasture raised meat from a farmer that may live far away and only butcher animals in the fall. Or one can purchase large quantities of produce from the farmer’s market when it’s in season and continue to enjoy it out of season. A stand alone freezer would also be useful for CSA subscribers for the same reason. It’s not feasible for me to buy a stand alone freezer at the moment, but I’ve checked out various models and I was surprised to find that they cost significantly less than regular refrigerators and are far more energy efficient. So, a stand alone freezer is on my wish list for the time when I should buy my own property and settle down.

*Eat like an omnivore: In other words, variety is the spice of life. I tend to be a picky eater, but I’m making an effort to expand my palette and to try new varieties of foods that I haven’t liked in the past just to give them another chance. Many booths at the farmers market offer samples of produce which is a good opportunity to try new things. I’m also making an effort to try new recipes and cooking techniques.

*Eat well grown food from healthy soils: This guideline speaks to the benefits of organic agriculture, and I have started switching from conventional to organic foods.

*Eat wild foods when you can: Again Pollan relies heavily on nutrition research that states that wild foods contain more micronutrients than their domesticated counterparts. Aside from that, one advantage to wild foods is that they don’t cost anything, beyond the effort it takes to gather them. The caveat is that many are wild plants and animals are endangered and others are poisonous, so some education is needed before adding wild foods to my diet. With my present knowledge, I’m afraid that I’d end up doing a lot of damage to the environment or myself if I tried to gather any wild foods, but I would like to learn how to forage and hunt and so forth in the future.

*Be the kind of person who takes supplements: I’ve been taking a multivitamin since I took a nutrition class in college, actually. While the benefits of taking multivitamins or any other supplements are not conclusive, there is some evidence that people who take supplements are healthier than those who don’t. It’s thought that this is because people who take supplements tend to take better care of their health, i.e. exercise regularly, make regular doctor’s appointments, and choose whole grains and produce over junk food. I think this is more of a class issue than anything. The logic behind my taking a multivitamin is to fill in the gaps in my diet and if any vitamin is consumed in excess, it is simply excreted. That goes for other supplements, as long as they are water soluble; for fat soluble vitamins, there is a risk overdosing, so its important to be careful.

*Eat more like the French, or the Italians or the Japanese or the Indians or the Greeks: In other words, consult traditional food cultures for guidance. One of the problems with the American diet, as Pollan points out, is that America’s food culture has not yet been given the test of time. He argues that that is one of the reasons why the American diet gives us so much trouble. The science of nutrition is still in its infancy, so aside from a few pointers, it is in no real shape to provide solid guidance about what food we should be eating. An antidote to that is to hold on to or rediscover our own ethnic food cultures or consult the food cultures of others. I’ve started doing some reading about various cuisines and so forth, but what I think I really need to do is to learn from my mom’s cousins, who still cook in the traditional German and Irish fashion.

*Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism: This goes hand in hand with the first bullet point on this list. Pollan also advocates skepticism with regards to traditional foods prepared in nontraditional ways, e.g., soy, traditionally been prepared as tofu, tempeh, and soy sauce, etc, now being used as a source of vegetable oil.

*Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet: This speaks to curbing the obsession with nutritionism. We should not be looking for miracle foods. It’s a varied diet that leads to health, not a particular food that can save us all. This also goes hand in hand with the bullet above that advises avoiding health claims.

*Have a glass of wine with dinner: Again Pollan cites nutrition research that indicates the benefits of a moderate amount of wine. I don’t like the taste of alcohol, so I’m not likely to adopt this guideline.

*Pay more, eat less: Pollan points out that we Americans spend about 10% of our budget on food and about 20% of our budget on health care, whereas it’s the exact opposite in other developed countries. He suggests that if it’s within one’s means to spend more, it’s worth the extra money to buy organic and to support local farmers rather than agribusiness. It’s better to eschew fast food for a home cooked meal. Basically, we in the US have been so focused on cheap food, that we’ve completely devalued the quality of food. I know that in my own life that has resulted in overeating, driven by the search for satisfaction but never finding it in the cheap foods available. I’ve started to reverse that and focus more on the quality rather than the price, and I’ve found that I don’t over eat any more and I actually finish each meal fully satisfied.

*Eat meals: This guideline speaks to the idea of food as a part of culture. Pollan suggests being more mindful of what we eat and how we eat it. No more mindless snacking. This is pretty hard for me, but I’ve been working on meal planning and so forth.

*Do all your eating at a table: Heh. I don’t have any furniture, so this one is kind of hard. Pollan’s point is that it’s important to take a break and to eat away from the work space and especially not in the car. I tend to eat while I’m working on the computer, and I’m likely to eat in the car if it’s more efficient to do so. I see his point, but I’m not likely to do this one in the near future.

*Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does: In other words, all the food for sale at the gas station convenience store is crap. In addition, interstates usually only tell you whether an exit has a gas station, fast food, or casual dining restaurant, so if you don’t plan ahead, you will miss out on everything else. This is something that I’ve really got to work on. I’ve found two resources on the web so far: The Eat Well Guide, which lets you type in your route and gives you a map with the healthy stores and restaurants and farmer’s markets etc along your route, and Healthy Highways, which compiles a guide of health food stores around the country. Investing in a good cooler and filling it with good food will also help solve the dilemma of eating on the road.

*Try not to eat alone: Heh. I eat by myself most of the time. But Pollan’s point is that there’s a social aspect to eating, which is a fair point.

*Consult your gut: In other words, pay attention to whether you are hungry, not hungry, or full and eat accordingly. The human body is pretty good at providing cues about hunger (thus maintaining homeostasis), but the food industry does everything it can to distract one from noticing these cues from portion sizes to advertising to adding excess salt, fat and sugar. It’s important to make a concerted effort to ignore these distractions in order to get in touch with our bodies again.

*Eat slowly: In other words, really savor the food you eat and how what you eat connects you to the environment. I am completely guilty of mindless fast eating in the past, and I’m now trying to pay more attention to each bite I take and really focus on enjoying the act of eating.

*Cook, and if you can, plant a garden: Cooking from scratch is cheaper that buying ready made foods and eschew the preservatives and other chemicals that ready made foods often contain. Home made meals are also fresher than anything store bought. Nevertheless, ARGH, I hate cooking. I have started doing it anyway and am working on expanding my repertoire. Eating food from one’s own garden means that there is no mystery about how the food was raised. I’m also starting to garden a little, which is a bit of a challenge, since I know so little about it and I’m loathe to buy a lot of gardening equipment that I will have to take with me from apartment to apartment for the next couple of years.

*You can eat anything you want, but only on special occasions: This is actually not a guideline Pollan included in his book, but I’ve paraphrased it from a talk that he gave at Google in last March. Cultures around the world, including American culture, include food as part of celebrations, whether it’s the major holidays, life events like birthdays, or other special occasions. These are typically the only occasions when certain special foods are eaten, and typically more food is eaten than usual. What this means to me is to focus more on enjoying the celebration rather than worrying about the rules outlined above. When being invited to dinner as a guest, I should enjoy the meal and the company and not worry about where my host has obtained the ingredients for the meal. When going out to eat with friends for fast food, I should realize that an occasional meal of this kind is OK and try to find the best choice on the menu that I can. I’ve also interpreted this guideline to mean that I can have dessert once a week and only once a week, on Sundays, but I can choose anything I want for that dessert and have as much of it as I want.


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Thanks for mentioning the Eat Well Guide, and our Eat Well Everywhere tool, in your excellent local food synopsis! When you have a minute, check out our new and improved site where you can sign up to stay updated on local, healthy food in your area, search for local events, or download widgets for your blog ( Let us know what you think and please suggest listings you don’t see in the Guide so we can add them.

Comment by Florence

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