This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses — with artificial flavors, say, or synthetic sweeteners. Note that these ecological relationships are between eaters and whole foods, not nutrients.
Put another way, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup. Reductionism as a way of understanding food or drugs may be harmless, even necessary, but reductionism in practice can lead to problems. Looking at eating through this ecological lens opens a whole new perspective on exactly what the Western diet is: a radical and rapid change not just in our foodstuffs over the course of the 20th century but also in our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal.
The ideology of nutritionism is itself part of that change. To get a firmer grip on the nature of those changes is to begin to know how we might make our relationships to food healthier. These changes have been numerous and far-reaching, but consider as a start these four large-scale ones: From Whole Foods to Refined.
The case of corn points up one of the key features of the modern diet: a shift toward increasingly refined foods, especially carbohydrates. Call it applied reductionism.
Humans have been refining grains since at least the Industrial Revolution, favoring white flour and white rice even at the price of lost nutrients. Refining grains extends their shelf life precisely because it renders them less nutritious to pests and makes them easier to digest, by removing the fiber that ordinarily slows the release of their sugars. Sometimes this is precisely the point, as when corn is refined into corn syrup; other times it is an unfortunate byproduct of food processing, as when freezing food destroys the fiber that would slow sugar absorption.
So fast food is fast in this other sense too: it is to a considerable extent predigested, in effect, and therefore more readily absorbed by the body. Advertisement Continue reading the main story From Complexity to Simplicity. If there is one word that covers nearly all the changes industrialization has made to the food chain, it would be simplification.
Chemical fertilizers simplify the chemistry of the soil, which in turn appears to simplify the chemistry of the food grown in that soil. Since the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the s, the nutritional quality of produce in America has, according to U. Some researchers blame the quality of the soil for the decline; others cite the tendency of modern plant breeding to select for industrial qualities like yield rather than nutritional quality.
Whichever it is, the trend toward simplification of our food continues on up the chain. But food scientists can add back only the nutrients food scientists recognize as important. What are they overlooking? Simplification has occurred at the level of species diversity, too. The astounding variety of foods on offer in the modern supermarket obscures the fact that the actual number of species in the modern diet is shrinking.
For reasons of economics, the food industry prefers to tease its myriad processed offerings from a tiny group of plant species, corn and soybeans chief among them.
Today, a mere four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80, edible species, and that 3, of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the food web.
Why should this matter? Because humans are omnivores, requiring somewhere between 50 and different chemical compounds and elements to be healthy. From Leaves to Seeds. These macronutrients in turn can be profitably transformed into animal protein by feeding them to animals and processed foods of every description. Also, the fact that grains are durable seeds that can be stored for long periods means they can function as commodities as well as food, making these plants particularly well suited to the needs of industrial capitalism.
The needs of the human eater are another matter. An oversupply of macronutrients, as we now have, itself represents a serious threat to our health, as evidenced by soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. But the undersupply of micronutrients may constitute a threat just as serious. There are the antioxidants and all the other newly discovered phytochemicals remember that sprig of thyme?
Most people associate omega-3 fatty acids with fish, but fish get them from green plants specifically algae , which is where they all originate. Today it is not viewed as the most beneficial diet for humans to consume. Those who live on the western diet are exploding with health concerns. Some major health problems range from type two diabetes, high cholesterol, to being overweight.
These health concerns are growing. Today, foods have many unknown ingredients and just really are not food. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc.
It makes good sense: these molecules which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers.
Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops. It could be the vagaries of human digestion. Maybe the fiber or some other component in a carrot protects the antioxidant molecules from destruction by stomach acids early in the digestive process. Or it could be that we isolated the wrong antioxidant. Beta is just one of a whole slew of carotenes found in common vegetables; maybe we focused on the wrong one.
Or maybe beta carotene works as an antioxidant only in concert with some other plant chemical or process; under other circumstances, it may behave as a pro-oxidant. Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. When William Prout isolated the big three macronutrients, scientists figured they now understood food and what the body needs from it; when the vitamins were isolated a few decades later, scientists thought, O.
But who knows what the hell else is going on deep in the soul of a carrot? The case of the antioxidants points up the dangers in taking a nutrient out of the context of food; as Nestle suggests, scientists make a second, related error when they study the food out of the context of the diet.
The trace of limestone in the corn tortilla unlocks essential amino acids in the corn that would otherwise remain unavailable. Some of those compounds in that sprig of thyme may well affect my digestion of the dish I add it to, helping to break down one compound or possibly stimulate production of an enzyme to detoxify another.
We have barely begun to understand the relationships among foods in a cuisine. Yet nutritionism encourages us to look elsewhere for the explanation: deep within the meat itself, to the culpable nutrient, which scientists have long assumed to be the saturated fat.
Of course thanks to the low-fat fad inspired by the very same reductionist fat hypothesis , it is entirely possible to reduce your intake of saturated fat without significantly reducing your consumption of animal protein: just drink the low-fat milk and order the skinless chicken breast or the turkey bacon.
So maybe the culprit nutrient in meat and dairy is the animal protein itself, as some researchers now hypothesize. The Cornell nutritionist T. Willett suggests, it could be the steroid hormones typically present in the milk and meat; these hormones which occur naturally in meat and milk but are often augmented in industrial production are known to promote certain cancers.
This is of course precisely what the McGovern committee was trying to tell us. Nestle also cautions against taking the diet out of the context of the lifestyle. The Mediterranean diet is widely believed to be one of the most healthful ways to eat, yet much of what we know about it is based on studies of people living on the island of Crete in the s, who in many respects lived lives very different from our own.
Yes, they ate lots of olive oil and little meat. But they also did more physical labor. They fasted regularly. They ate a lot of wild greens — weeds.
And, perhaps most important, they consumed far fewer total calories than we do. Similarly, much of what we know about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet is based on studies of Seventh Day Adventists, who muddy the nutritional picture by drinking absolutely no alcohol and never smoking.
Supplement-takers are better-educated, more-affluent people who, almost by definition, take a greater-than-normal interest in personal health — confounding factors that probably account for their superior health. The intervention group changes its diet in some prescribed manner, while the control group does not. The two groups are then tracked over many years to learn whether the intervention affects relative rates of chronic disease. When it comes to studying nutrition, this sort of extensive, long-term clinical trial is supposed to be the gold standard.
It certainly sounds sound. One group of the women were told to reduce their consumption of fat to 20 percent of total calories. So women could comply simply by switching to lower-fat animal products.
Also, no distinctions were made between types of fat: women getting their allowable portion of fat from olive oil or fish were lumped together with woman getting their fat from low-fat cheese or chicken breasts or margarine.
Scientists study what scientists can see. But perhaps the biggest flaw in this study, and other studies like it, is that we have no idea what these women were really eating because, like most people when asked about their diet, they lied about it.
How do we know this? Consider: When the study began, the average participant weighed in at pounds and claimed to be eating 1, calories a day. It would take an unusual metabolism to maintain that weight on so little food. In fact, nobody buys it. Even the scientists who conduct this sort of research conduct it in the knowledge that people lie about their food intake all the time. They even have scientific figures for the magnitude of the lie. How do the researchers know that?
By comparing what people report on questionnaires with interviews about their dietary intake over the previous 24 hours, thought to be somewhat more reliable. In fact, the magnitude of the lie could be much greater, judging by the huge disparity between the total number of food calories produced every day for each American 3, calories and the average number of those calories Americans own up to chomping: 2, Waste accounts for some of the disparity, but nowhere near all of it.
All we really know about how much people actually eat is that the real number lies somewhere between those two figures. I think not. This is the sort of data on which the largest questions of diet and health are being decided in America today. In keeping with the nutritionism paradigm and the limits of reductionist science, the researchers fiddle with single nutrients as best they can, but the populations they recruit and study are typical American eaters doing what typical American eaters do: trying to eat a little less of this nutrient, a little more of that, depending on the latest thinking.
One problem with the control groups in these studies is that they too are exposed to nutritional fads in the culture, so over time their eating habits come to more closely resemble the habits of the intervention group.
It should not surprise us that the findings of such research would be so equivocal and confusing. But what about the elephant in the room — the Western diet? It might be useful, in the midst of our deepening confusion about nutrition, to review what we do know about diet and health. What we know is that people who eat the way we do in America today suffer much higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than people eating more traditional diets.
Four of the 10 leading killers in America are linked to diet. Nutritionism by and large takes the Western diet as a given, seeking to moderate its most deleterious effects by isolating the bad nutrients in it — things like fat, sugar, salt — and encouraging the public and the food industry to limit them. But after several decades of nutrient-based health advice, rates of cancer and heart disease in the U.
Before reading Pollan's book, the idea of eating vegetables produced without antibiotics in a diverse environment rather than as part of a monoculture or drinking milk from a cow raised on grass had never crossed my mind. Pollan argues that the health of the environment and soil directly affects our health and says that if the animals and plants we eat are not healthy as products of industrial agriculture are often not , then we cannot be healthy.
I, like many Americans, have never associated my health with the other links in the food chain. It feels incongruous to even use it when referring to humans; we feel so far removed from the images of the animal kingdom and jungles it conjures--precisely the kind of distance from the reality of our food that Pollan is talking about.
I simply did not think beyond the aisles of a supermarket or the label on the back of a product when considering what to eat. As writer Wendell Berry points out in his essay "The Pleasures of Eating": Most eaters think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture. But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are.
They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles. This kind of distance from or disregard of one's relationship to not only food, but also the world, has unfortunately become a hallmark of American attitude and policy.
Since American corn is so heavily subsidized yes, here is that powerful corn lobby again , Mexican farmers cannot compete with the cheap prices of U. Farmers who lose their livelihood this way have to find work to support their families; many cross the border into the U.
In addition to contributing to the illegal immigration issue we hear so much about, corn subsidies make the price of corn very, very cheap. Food manufacturers use high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, while industrial and factory farms feed it to their animals to reduce costs and increase profits. This ubiquitous use of corn leads to the dangerous simplification of our diet that Pollan warns us about.
But the consequences do not end there. The simplification of diet inevitably leads to increased rates of heart diseases, diabetes, and cancer--all of which drive up health care costs.
Even though all of these things are related, Americans treat food and agricultural issues separately from trade issues and debates about illegal immigration or health care almost never mention the connection to food. We are failing to appreciate the interconnectedness of all these issues and until we do so, we will not be able to address any of them satisfactorily. Pollan, in his In Defense of Food, reveals how Americans have gained such an unhealthy perspective on food and provides a few clear principles that can help us reclaim pleasure from food.
He advises us to eat only things our grandmother would recognize, that is, foods without any unpronounceable ingredients or high fructose corn syrup. He tells us to stop eating on the go or in front of a television. This is not the challenging part.This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses — with artificial flavors, say, or synthetic sweeteners. In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Why are these foods not healthy? Let culture be your guide, not science.
Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. Willett suggests, it could be the steroid hormones typically present in the milk and meat; these hormones which occur naturally in meat and milk but are often augmented in industrial production are known to promote certain cancers.
Instead, everyone finds a place they can go to escape from the problems and anxiety of life. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. But food scientists can add back only the nutrients food scientists recognize as important. These health concerns are growing. Pollan point is that if you eat a lot of fast food on a daily basis and you don't burn off what you eat you will get diabetes versus a person who eats right and works out.
These macronutrients in turn can be profitably transformed into animal protein by feeding them to animals and processed foods of every description. We tend to assume that our well being is not dependent on that of the rest of the world, an attitude manifested in our foreign and domestic policy as well as in our attitudes toward food and health. We will have to learn to see the relationships among things if we want to truly make the shift from nutrients back to food. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health by reducing exposure to pesticides but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown. Willett suggests, it could be the steroid hormones typically present in the milk and meat; these hormones which occur naturally in meat and milk but are often augmented in industrial production are known to promote certain cancers. Omega-6s are involved in fat storage which is what they do for the plant , the rigidity of cell walls, clotting and the inflammation response.
Various curious nutritionists are conducting research so as to identify the probable nutrient due to which western diet is accused to be the source of chronic diseases.
In keeping with the nutritionism paradigm and the limits of reductionist science, the researchers fiddle with single nutrients as best they can, but the populations they recruit and study are typical American eaters doing what typical American eaters do: trying to eat a little less of this nutrient, a little more of that, depending on the latest thinking. We learned from this article that a lack of omega 3s and preservatives can cause many chronic diseases. Omega-3s appear to play an important role in neurological development and processing, the permeability of cell walls, the metabolism of glucose and the calming of inflammation.
Or the Greeks. The simplification of diet inevitably leads to increased rates of heart diseases, diabetes, and cancer--all of which drive up health care costs. Without delving too deeply into the biochemistry, the two fats perform very different functions, in the plant as well as the plant eater. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Pollan begins his argument by building credibility by using scientific facts and theories to help support is claim.
But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are. Eat food. The first strategy he uses would be ethos. The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement. When the soil is sick or in some way deficient, so will be the grasses that grow in that soil and the cattle that eat the grasses and the people who drink the milk.
Both Mary Maxfield and Michael Pollan explain their own beliefs on what a healthy diet is and how to live a healthy lifestyle. Thus too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. The eating habits have significantly changed over the due course of time. As writer Wendell Berry points out in his essay "The Pleasures of Eating": Most eaters think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture.
Mostly plants. By the middle and end, his credibility weakens by not having enough factual evidence to support his claim. Not too much. Pollan argues that we need to stop eating a Western Diet. Also, no distinctions were made between types of fat: women getting their allowable portion of fat from olive oil or fish were lumped together with woman getting their fat from low-fat cheese or chicken breasts or margarine.
The question is, Are we better off with these new authorities than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? And official dietary advice since the s has promoted the consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, most of which are high in omega-6s corn and soy, especially.