In Defense Of Food 2 – The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

The second section of Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, shifts from nutritionism to the factors involved in the development of what we tend to call the “Western Diet” and the impact of that diet on our overall health. In the section, Pollan explores some of the well-documented studies both of the negative impact the Western diet has on aboriginals and others when they are first exposed to it and on the health improvements when people return to their traditional diet. Those of us who have lived with the Western diet now for multiple generations have adapted slightly — at least our tolerance for it seems to be greater. But we do develop many of the same health issues over the course of our lives. The “food” (using the term loosely) we eat is killing us, even if it’s not killing us a quickly as it does groups who are newly exposed to it.

The book explores a number of trends that led to the modern Western diet. The first of these trends was the shift from whole foods to refined. The roller-milling revolution around 1870 was the first huge leap forward in this trend and we have since forgotten the epidemics of pellagra and beriberi caused by vitamin deficiencies that resulted from it. In short, refined foods of all sorts deliver glucose to the system faster than whole foods. Our brains like that since glucose is what fuels them. But we are drowning ourselves now in a flood of glucose and in the marriage of glucose and fructose we call sucrose. Moreover, when you refine something, you are always taking something out of it.

The next trend has been the shift from complexity to simplicity in our food chain. Agricultural industrialization, for instance, has focused on the big three macronutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) — while largely ignoring the importance of biological activity in the soil. That has forced crops to live essentially on the three macronutrients alone in chemically enhanced and sometimes almost sterile soil. Chemically simplified soil produces chemically simplified plants. The process of refining also often involves simplification. In the case above of white flour, we removed the germ, simplifying the result, but at the cost of vitamins we needed. We can then try to add them back into the refined product, which is what we do with enriched flour, but we can only try to put back in what we realize we are now missing. Moreover, we often don’t know how. Destroying complexity is a lot easier than creating it.

We have also shifted from quality to quantity. As we have specifically bred for plant species that produce more, we have reduced the nutritional value of the whole food itself. One example Pollan gives is that you would have to eat three modern apples to get the same amount of iron you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple. Even when we do eat whole foods, we’re getting substantially less nutrition per calorie than we used to. It’s not just a result of selective breeding, but also of the way we produce the food. Food grown in the aforementioned chemically simplified soil grows larger faster, but also has less time to absorb nutrients from the soil (and the soil itself contains fewer that the crops can absorb.) We’ve done much the same thing to our meat and dairy animals. We have bred for quantity over quality and by feeding them nutritionally deficient diets combined with growth hormones and antibiotics we further reduce the nutritional content.

Next, we have shifted the core of our diet from leaves to seeds. The small handful of plants that now make up the bulk of our diet (wheat, corn, soy, and rice) are all seeds rather than leaves. In an industrialized, highly processed food world, there’s good reason for that. Seeds are much more durable and longer lasting than leaves. They can be stored for long periods of time, which means they can function as a commodities as well as food. Since we have shifted our diets and the diets of our food animals from leaves to seeds, one of the effects has been a dramatic shift in the balance of omegas-3s and omega-6s in our body. We don’t yet fully know why that is as bad for us as it has proven to be, but there’s not much doubt that it has been a pretty negative shift with some dramatic health consequences. And that is just one documented result.

Finally, we have shifted from food culture to food science. Throughout the history of mankind, we have typically relied on national, ethnic, or regional cultures for guidance on what and how to eat. Both of those appear to have been much more important than we credited. I like Pollan’s way of relating “food culture” as another word for “mom” — that is, the figure who normally has passed along the food knowledge of the group. We now rely on “food science” to guide us in our food choices (with 17,000 new products introduced each year), but that “science” has been remarkably flawed over the years for a variety of reasons. Instead of doing something to recover a healthy culture of food, we are developing new “health care” industries to deal with the fallout of our poor diets.

Most of the profit driving our food industries, though, lies in the heavily processed and industrially grown foods. You can quickly develop a new or reformulated processed food to follow every trend and fad. But you can’t change a carrot into something else overnight.

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  1. Nathan
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    The vindication of tradition–of food! (What would Pelikan say?) I’m really enjoying this series.

  2. Posted March 31, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Yep. I hadn’t really thought about the importance (as far as health goes) of different traditions and cultures of food before this book. And I’ve actually spent time learning and exploring different such traditions! Go figure.

  3. Posted April 1, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve always had a taste for wild food when I can get it. I wonder if it’s more nutritious?

  4. Posted April 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t specifically include that in my review, but he does mention in the third section that wild food tends to be more nutritious. The most nutrition-packed plant in the world for humans is a wild weed. I forget the name of it. And wild animals, of course, will have eaten something more like their natural diet.

    Without going back to being hunter-gatherers (something which also leaves groups more vulnerable to cycles of famine and other vagaries of nature), I would just note that it’s not really possible for most of us to have a diet of nothing but wild food. That’s probably why I didn’t include that snippet in my review.

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