Sunday, March 2, 2008

In Defense of Michael Pollan

When my wife and I saw that author Michael Pollan would be speaking at Butler University near our home, we immediately marked it on our calendar. He has had my attention since The Botany of Desire (2001 Random House), but his The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006, Penguin Press) began to change our eating habits. We just finished his latest book, In Defense of Food (2008 Penguin Press), and that was the basis for most of his talk this past week. We weren’t the only ones in Indianapolis who are apparently avid Pollan readers. Atherton Hall was filled a half hour before his talk and university officials quickly opened another lecture hall linked via closed circuit broadcast.

Pollan began his lecture with the words that opened his latest book, with the advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Then he developed his convincing case for that recommendation. He described the irony that we live in a country where millions of people are suffering from obesity and malnutrition at the same time. Food-related diseases like Type II diabetes and obesity have become so common as to create new “lifestyles” with their own magazines and supportive industries. These “Western Diet” diseases have similar effects in other countries as the impoverished increase their incomes to the point where they can afford to consume American-style processed food. Wherever our food goes, so goes our lethal food-related diseases.

"Eat food." The test for this is to eat only that which your grandmother would recognize as food. That would probably not include spray imitation “cheese” in a can, for example. The shorter the ingredient list the better. One unprocessed ingredient is ideal. Much of what we eat is so highly processed that most of the nutritional value is missing and we are left with little more than the calories and chemicals. Pollan recommends staying out of the center of the store and sticking to the whole foods on the outside of the store. The best food has no health claims or even labels. Think vegetables and fruits and other real whole foods. Better yet, get your food from the local farmer’s market or your own garden. Yes, that means you may need to relearn how to raise a garden and cook, but the rewards of unadulterated fresh food are worth the effort.

"Not too much." This is pretty obvious, but he notes that we eat more than our healthier counterparts in other countries, such as Italy, where eating is a slow, social process with smaller servings that are more mindfully consumed over a much longer period of time. In our fast food nation we tend to eat so much so fast that we overshoot our signals of satiation and miss a lot of food appreciation along the way, not the mention the loss of the family sit-down meal. Pollan cited an unbelievable statistic that 20% of American meals are consumed in cars.

"Mostly plants." Numerous studies, notably The China Study, by Collin Campbell, have shown that consuming a diet that includes a significant portion of animal products, especially red meat, can lead to health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer to premature puberty in girls. In those populations where the diet is all or mostly plants, these diseases are virtually nonexistent and people enjoy longer, healthier lives. Pollan recommends consuming free range or wild animal protein, if any, to avoid the health problems associated with meat produced in confined industrial farm operations with unnatural diets that require massive doses of antibiotics augmented with growth hormones.

The bonus of an organic, local, plant-based whole food diet, other than better eating and personal health and longevity, is significantly reduced environmental impact. A 408-page report by U.N scientists, Livestock’s Long Shadow, indicated that raising animals for food is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all vehicles in the world combined. More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland to grow grain to feed farmed animals; farmed animals are fed more than 70 percent of the corn, wheat, and other grains grown in the U.S.; and almost half of the water and 80 percent of the agricultural land in the U.S. are used to raise animals for food.

So what is it like to really veg out? We have been learning to prepare whole plant foods from our garden, from the local farmers’ markets, from our local whole foods stores (and the mainstream stores increasing their whole foods selections) and from our local farm delivery service for the past six months and it has been a journey from the artificial and the bland to the real and the delicious. We have learned how to cook again and we have learned to appreciate our food and our experience of food more. We can enthusiastically report that it has been a very pleasant adventure in better foraging, tastier food and a more relaxing dining experience. The fact that we have also significantly reduced our carbon footprint is a huge bonus.

It was no surprise that we had trouble finding a seat at Butler’s Atherton Hall to hear Michael Pollan and it is no surprise that In Defense of Food is #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

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