Thursday, 12 August 2010

In Defence of Meat (beware food that changes its nutritional stripes)

 I have just finished Michael Pollan's 'In Defence of Food'.  It is odd that a book that does so much to promote our re-engagement with 'real food' should start off with a modern vegie-centric mantra of 'Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.'  This is doubly perplexing given that Pollan doffs his cap to the research of Weston A Price who found (my emphasis),
  • '...populations that thrived on seafood diets, dairy diets, meat diets, and diets in which fruit, vegetables and whole grains predominated.  The Masai of Africa consumed virtually no plant food at all, subsisting on a diet of meat, blood and milk....The Eskimos he interviewed lived on raw fish, game meat, fish roe and blubber, seldom eating anything remotely green....Price found groups that ate diets of wild animal flesh to be generally healthier than the agriculturists who relied on cereals and other plant foods; the agriculturists tended to have somewhat higher levels of tooth decay...'
A 'sat fat phobia' and pro-flexivegetarian theme seems to underpin much of the book.  Another strong theme is the problem of moving society's diet from 'seeds to leaves', which disrupts the ratio of O3 to O6 - a cautionary tale about which bits of commercial plants you should eat.  Yet you can pretty much eat all of a domesticated animal - from the brains down to the boiled bones (Polland also quotes WAP's observation that organ meats were highly prized by indigenous peoples), without a problem. 

Pollan also observes the following (my emphasis);
  • The overwhelming majority of the calories Americans have added to their diets since 1985 - the 93 percent of them in the form of sugars, fats, and mostly refined grains - supply lots of energy but very little of anything else.
He even goes so far as to say that 'with the exception of B12, every nutrient found in meat can be obtained somewhere else' - which to me makes a good case for eating meat. 

So why the downer on meat Michael?

If you can put the points above to the back of your mind, the rest of the book is very accessible and gets to work unpicking the profitable business of selling food-like substances that exhibit all the properties of an addictive substance, rendered 'normal' by consumer ignorance and aggressive marketing, fundamentally all driven by profit.

He does a good job of focusing in on the fact that the body of scientific knowledge on which we build modern nutrition is not only rather sketchy but built on ignorance and bad science and finally he nudges us towards re-engaging with 'food', rather than 'nutrients'.

To this end he begins with an assault on nutritionism itself.  Pollan identifies three myths which spawned the birth of nutritionism:
  • that what matters most is not the food but the "nutrient",
  • that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat, and,
  • that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health.
This 'scientific eating by numbers' mandates 'scientific guidance' (and also asserts that this reductionist approach to nutrition has lead to the rise of 'orthorexia' - and unhealthy obsession with healthy eating), and has had important ramifications,
  • 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 reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us.  In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood.  For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need pletnty of expert help.
Pollan has a good eye for the how ruthless capitalism exploits our health through the lens of nutritionism.  Real foods cannot compete (until the wheels of genetic-engineering start turning with haste), with industrial foodstuffs, observing that 'processed foods get reformulated and differently supplemented' in accordance with the 'every change in the nutritional weather'.  I found this both obvious and profound - in that it does focus on what the real threat of GM food actually is. 

He notes margarine is held up as the ultimate in chameleon foods, able to adapt in colour, texture and nutritional profile as the market demands.  Margarine can therefore always claim to be nutritionally 'a la mode'.  What makes this industrial cocktail profitable is that the manufacturer is then able to slap a whole range of health claims on to the product.

Food Not Nutrients
Pollans big idea is to move us back towards eating food, not nutrients.  This has many benefits not least that it side steps the gaps in nutritional knowledge.  The current language used by scientists to paper over these gaps is via the concept of 'food synergy' - based upon increasing evidence that not only is the full nutritional profile of food important (and something that in many cases remains unknown for foods as familiar as milk and fruits), but also the ratios of these nutrients which work together for our health benefit. 

Formula milk is but one example, where it is unable to compete with breastmilk  in terms of health benefits, despite the vast amounts of money and scientific horsepower thrown at synthesising it. 

Simply supplementing industrial foods with 'superfood ingredient X' is also given short shrift, as the research of Jacobs and Stefan showed.  Their review of relevant research found that,
  •   'a diet rich in whole grains did in fact reduce mortality from all causes.  But what was surprising was that even after adjusting for levels of dietary fiber, vitamin E, folic cid, phytic acid, iron, zinc, magnesium, and manganese in the diet...they found  and additional health benefit to eating whole grains that none of the nutrients alone or even together could explain.'
 Perhaps Pollan's most incisive comment is that,
  • The food industry needs theories so it can better redesign specific processed foods; a new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western Diet instead of making any more radical change to its business model.  For the industry it's obviously preferable to have a scientific rationale for further processing foods - whether by lowering the fat or carbs or boosting the omega threes or  fortifying them with antioxidants or probiotics - than to entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem.

    The medical community too need scientific theories about diet to nourish business as usual.  New theories beget new drugs to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol; new treatments and procedures to ameliorate chronic diseases; and new diets organized around each new theory's elevation of one class of nutrient and demotion of another....the health care industry ...stands to profit more handsomely from new drugs and procedures to treat chronic diseases than it does from a wholesale change in the way people eat.
Back of the net!  Although not as in depth as Taubes' GCBC nor as impassioned as 'The Vegetarian Myth', IDF is another positive brick in the wall for the attainment of real health through nutrition.

For me, I have always considered myself an expert in eating - with a lifetime of experience to draw from.  In fact I come from a long line of 'people that eat food' and as such I have pretty much always ignored food pyramids all my life (in terms of ratios of foods rather than content).  But one of Pollens further gems was the discovery of a food pyramid as suggested by Gyorgy Scrinis'.  Scrinis said a food pyramid should contain only two groups 'whole foods and industrial foods'.  Amen to that.

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