Do you enjoy eating food? Not just any food, but good food? I recently had the pleasure to read “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto“, by Michael Pollan, which teaches us that in spite of the growing commercialization and industrialization of the food industry, it is still possible to enjoy food and to do so in a healthy and sustainable way.
Eat good food for good health and long life
I was first introduced to this book by a good chef friend of mine from Korea. We first met a few years ago when I went to Korea on a student exchange program and we were roommates at the dorm, and we’ve kept in touch ever since then. My friend came to Canada on our recommendations a couple years back to learn English and embrace a new and different culture. Seeing how things are different across the ocean can really broaden one’s horizons, and the experience opened up his mind. Korea is a small country and a homogeneous society, so my friend had never quite had the experience of multiculturalism that we take for granted in North America.
It wasn’t too long after he came here that he decided that he wanted to become a chef. This eventually turned into a full-time passion as he learned how to cook different recipes and worked as an apprentice under the tutelage of more experienced chefs in upscale restaurants in classy neighbourhoods. This was his passion, and he genuinely enjoyed what he was doing. Along the way he also learned about where our food comes from and why it’s important to understand what we’re putting in our mouths.
What sets ordinary food apart from great food? This isn’t just a question for food snobs, or passionate people like my chef friend; it’s also a question that has a direct impact on our health and lives. More and more, much of what we eat is not really food as our ancestors would have known it to be. Is it any coincidence that we’ve become less healthy at the same time?
My foggy head
I don’t really have “health problems” per se, but I have personally gone through bouts of what I call “foggy head“. For some reason or another, sometimes I would feel excessively tired and unable to concentrate. It would take a great deal of effort to speak and I felt like I was trapped in some sort of tunnel.
I didn’t remember always being this way, so naturally I was concerned and I pushed my doctor into finding out more. I took a blood test and I had elevated levels of bilirubin and some other liver indicators, but an ultrasound confirmed that my insides were healthy, if a little odd: I had two spleens! My doctor said it wasn’t that uncommon and I probably had “Gilbert’s syndrome” which he assured me was harmless. Ok, so my birth mother smoked cigarettes and drank some alcohol during her pregnancy and I guess that causes things like having two spleens, but I still needed to know why I had a foggy head.
The next step was to go get a MRI done. Unfortunately, with our public medical system being the way it is, I would have had to wait a year. What the heck… I would have to wait a year while my brain could potentially be turning into mush??? I ended up paying for a MRI with cash at a private clinic. There was just no way I was going to wait a year in anxiety, not knowing and not having any answers. Although only some things can be done through the private system, I’m grateful that I had the option and that it was an affordable option as well.
The MRI test came back clean, and the last remaining step was to visit a neurologist. My appointment came after a few months, and he basically said “stop wasting my time, you’re fine!” My doctor was stumped, so I was at the end of the line and at a loss for answers. He suggested that I was just going to have to live with it.
I then started to do my own independent research, and I found more and more sources that pointed their fingers squarely at the modern Western diet, especially refined carbohydrates. My diet was not that great back then, but surely it wasn’t that bad. I ate lots of pasta and some processed food, which was surely better than the diet of pizza pockets, popcorn and mac & cheese that I had in my student days!
Well, maybe not. Our ancestors survived mostly off of plants, fruits, and meat. Even agriculture and the eating of grains is a recent phenomenon as far as our bodies are concerned, and what about high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, super-refined flour, grain-stuffed cows, etc…? Definitely not stuff we ate even 100 years ago, let alone throughout most of our evolutionary history! Could the food be causing an issue for me?
Well, I took some of this to heart, and started reducing grains and increasing the fat in my diet, and eating more wholesome cooked meals, and less processed stuff. I was absolutely SHOCKED when I noticed a significant improvement after only a couple of days! It has been a long road since then and I have had relapses, but it’s much better today, and the ONLY thing that has made a real difference was eating more “real” food and less carbs, and especially less crap. Did my doctor even suggest such a thing? Nope! In fact, he’d probably get pissed knowing I wasn’t getting my requisite government-mandated intake of grains.
Yes, you can still enjoy food.
So am I saying you can no longer enjoy food? Of course not. I still eat rice, pasta, bread, I eat beans, beef, fish, chicken, duck, lamb, what have you, and I still go to restaurants without worrying about how they cooked the food (too much) and I even eat fast food every now and then. Mainstream “evil” foods like bacon are really not a problem for me. I just eat a lot less crap, and I eat my food in different proportions than I used to. I have skinny genes in my family and it’s not the calories that are an issue for me. It’s really about the nutritional content of the food and the detrimental effect of refined carbs. Some people can take it, and I had no problems when I was a teenager, but if I drink half a litre of pop today, I will definitely feel the effects and I really won’t feel good afterwards.
I want to eat food that not only tastes good, but makes me feel good as well, and I have found that nothing has helped with my foggy head like eating good food. Of course, moving in with my girlfriend and getting her on board was a HUGE benefit in this. Like my chef friend, she also loves to cook, and I have brought her at least somewhat on board with everything that I have learned to date.
Is it something that your great grandmother would recognize as food?
So, what is “In Defense of Food” about? I have talked mostly about my own story and not so much about the book itself, and that’s because I wanted to impress upon you, dear reader, the effects that diet has had on my personal life and why this topic is so important to me. I believe, and evidence increasingly supports, that many of our modern-day health problems can be directly linked to the food chain. Many of our doctors are unaware, and the government is complicit in misregulating and granting special privileges to Big Agro. It’s up to each of us to take responsibility for what we put in our mouths.
Michael Pollan covers these topics and more in”In Defense of Food“, which is divided into three sections:
- The Age of Nutritionism
- The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
- Getting Over Nutritionism
Science and “scientism”.
In some ways, the downfall of our health can be linked with the increasingly mechanistic approach to food. Science has made progress in many areas, leading to rapid advances in technology and our physical understanding of the world. At the same time, the scientific method has its limits and deficiencies, especially when applied to complex and interdependent systems. This has clearly been made evident in economics where we are learning that relying on econometric models and simple mathematical tautologies can result in gravely mistaken policy recommendations.
Could the traditional scientific method also be mistaken when it comes to food? The scientific view of food treats it as a collection of individual nutrients. Instead of eating food, we eat collections of nutrients. This sort of viewpoint has led to all sorts of disastrous policy recommendations. Saturated fats were the devil, so millions of people turned to margarine and vegetable oil, and only later did we find out that we screwed up and actually made things worse in the process of hydrogenating these fats. How many people died for the narrow policy recommendations of our scientists, propagated by the government and supported by Big Agro?
The “western diet”.
Why is it that millions of people on traditional diets don’t suffer from the same health problems that we do, until they go off their traditional diet and start eating like us? Have we turned science into an ideology (scientism), and have we ignored the overall picture? Is food more than the sum of its parts?
At the same time, what of the unholy marriage between big business and government? When it comes to doing the right thing, do our representatives act in the best interests of our health, or do they act in the best interests of their campaign sponsors? Who stands to benefit from the laws and regulations that these politicians pass? It’s a little hard to reconcile the government supposedly acting in our best interest when it subsidizes industrialized Big Agro and lowers its apparent cost to the consumer, making it harder for traditional and organic producers to compete.
What is the way forward? Is it possible to return to healthier and more sustainable agricultural practices and still feed the large and ever-growing population of today? Something that has to be said for current methods is that they have allowed a great increase in the amount of calories available, even if at the expense of health to a certain degree.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I can understand why my chef friend recommended it to me. It changed his outlook on food, and it definitely changed mine as well. I do believe that we are what we eat, at least to a certain extent. When the traditional medical system failed me, food changed my life for the better. It’s up to each of us to educate ourselves and learn more about what we’re eating; education is the first step forward!
Because I enjoyed it so much, I am giving away THREE copies of “In Defense of Food“. There are four ways to enter, with five entry points total:
- 2 points: Leave a comment on this post telling me how you feel about food, the “western diet”, and Big Agro.
- 1 point: Retweet this post. If you do this, include “@InvestItWisely” in the tweet and let me know in the comments.
- 1 point: Link to this post from your site. Again please let me know about it in the comments.
- 1 point: +1 this post in Google+. You know the drill: let me know about it in the comments.
I really want to hear your stories, so that’s why that gets two points. Entries will be accepted until October 22, 2011, end of the day at midnight. I’ll then use Random.org to choose three winners. Good luck!