What should people eat?
What should people eat?
The obvious answer to this question is “food”, although the processed food industry and government agencies responsible for setting dietary guidelines, would have you believe that it is far more complicated than that. They operate on the premise that eating the right nutrients is what matters most. Food marketers spend fortunes on adverts which inform us about all the good nutrients they have added to food and the bad ones they have taken out. No added MSG, enriched with vitamin C, sugar-free and low-fat are but a few of the tag lines used to sell processed products. Breakfast cereals are a good example. They are ‘fortified with vitamins and minerals’ and are ‘cholesterol free’. When packaged in eye-catching attractive boxes, we fall for the claims hook, line and sinker.
The rise of nutritionism
The idea that the value of food lies in the nutrients it contains has a name. It is called “nutritionism”. As the ”ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology based on accepted assumptions about how the world works. Nutritionism has had far-reaching implications for what people eat and is the reason why something as simple as eating has become so complex. Nutritionism draws from reductionist nutrition science, which breaks down food into its individual nutrient components and their specific functions in the body. In doing so it often takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the meal, the diet and lifestyle. So when the most important thing about food is the nutrients it contains and when those nutrients are invisible to the naked eye, it falls to ‘the experts’ to tell us what we should eat. ‘Sodium’ raises blood pressure so is best avoided, eliminate ‘saturated fat’ as it can promote heart disease, ‘fibre’ is important to keep you regular, etc, etc.
“It is sort of like a religion, cause now if what matters most about food is something you can’t see, then you need a ‘priesthood of experts’ to mediate your relationship to that mystery.” – Michael Pollan
For decades we have followed the advice of the experts and our health has suffered as a result. Something as wholesome and nutritious as real butter has been vilified in favour of a highly processed artificial substance called margarine. We were told that margarine is heart-healthy since it is lower in cholesterol and has been fortified with omega 3. Yet for centuries humans have been consuming butter (and surviving very well as a species), despite the fact that they didn’t know about the ‘benefits’ of fortified products or the ‘dangers’ of saturated fat. They just ate the food that nature provided.
The rise of nutritionism is one of the reasons why this ancient wisdom, passed down through many generations, has been eradicated from our consciousness. We have become victims to fabricated food and its questionable health claims. While food processing companies rake in the profits, people are generally sicker and certainly fatter than their ancestors.
“Of course it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.” – Michael Pollan
One of the most destructive ideas to come out of nutrionism was the 1970’s American government recommendations to reduce fat consumption in favour of whole grains. Saturated fat was deemed unhealthy and a major contributor to heart disease (despite the lack of scientific evidence). Food companies around the world went all out reformulating products aligned with the new dietary guidelines. Low-fat or fat-free labels started appearing on food products high in processed carbs and sugar. Since it was believed that fat made you fat and unhealthy, no one paused to consider whether an increase in carbohydrates was going to ultimately have a deleterious effect on our health and waistlines. It was a massive human experiment that has sadly gone terribly wrong.
We have ignored the obvious
Nutrition science is still far from having all the answers and, in the interim, nutritionism is trying to find solutions to our global health and obesity crisis and coming up short. Food has become a very complex subject, but does it have to be? Perhaps the real problem is that nutritionism fails to recognise the innate intelligence of the human body. Our bodies understand nutrients far better than our intellectual minds do and they know exactly what to do with the nutrients once ingested. We don’t need to tell our bodies to use protein to build muscle, vitamin C to strengthen our immune system, iodine to manufacture thyroid hormone or vitamin D to absorb calcium. Perhaps all we need to do is provide our bodies with the correct raw materials and let them take care of the rest.
Why are traditional diets so effective in keeping people healthy and lean compared to modern day Western diets? In general, traditional diets consist of seasonal fruit and vegetables foraged from the land, meat from hunted animals or seafood caught from the ocean. Real, simple, unadulterated food! Do you think the bushmen of the Kalahari or the Masai of the Serengeti count calories or track their macronutrient ratios of fat, carbs and protein?
Do you think they are vigilant about consuming enough omega 3, anti-oxidants, or magnesium? Of course not – they probably don’t even know what these things are. Yet despite being ‘nutritionally ignorant’, traditional populations are much healthier and leaner than their Western counter-parts. In trying to be more scientific about our diets, we have veered dangerously off track.
Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, offers some advice pertaining to eating food, which he admits is unscientific, but which he believes will go a long way in pointing us in the right direction.
- Don’t eat anything your great, great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food such as cereal bars and non-dairy creamers.
- Avoid food products that come bearing health claims or contain ingredients on the label that you don’t recognise or can’t pronounce as they are likely to be heavily processed.
- Get out of the supermarket and to a farmer’s market whenever you can. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality.
- Pay more for quality and eat less of it. The scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling and the health benefits of pastured meats and organic produce is irrefutable.
- Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
- Cook, and if you can, plant a veggie garden.
- Eat like an omnivore and include a large variety of different species. This way you are more likely to cover all your nutritional bases.
- Eat more like the French, the Japanese, the Italians or the Greeks because people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are.
So, what is the simple answer to the question, “What should people eat?” Michael Pollan’s answer is, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Who is Michael Pollan? http://michaelpollan.com/press-kit/
Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he explains how our food not only affects our health but has far-reaching political, economic, and environmental implications. His new book is In Defense of Food.
Article written by Nicky Perks for Lose It Magazine (Volume 18)