Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On Food and Health

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Recently, I attempted to begin the process of looking up various nutritional information to continue my efforts to become more healthy.  As an American, with unprecedented access to a wealth of information and resources, and as a medical professional, who had some training on how to evaluate health information, I thought I was looking at a fairly simple process.  WRONG.  I dug deep into Mayo Clinic publications, materials on Medscape, Cleveland Clinic brochures...without much success.  I searched the interwebz - and pulled up a ridiculous amount of information published by bloggers who didn't appear to be educated at all, but certainly had numerous opinions on what was the right way to eat, and what eating with health in mind meant.  Since the actual medical research on the subject was so scarce and when available apparently contradictory, and the loud opinions from the peanut gallery were so plentiful, I found myself wondering what, exactly, was going on?

While sharing my annoyance with this situation with my sister-in-law, Katie, she directed me to a book (and let me borrow it!  Thanks, Katie!).  This book is called In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  It was apparently very popular when it was published in 2008.  Michael Pollan is not a nutritionist, nor a scientist, and he's not a blogger either - he's a journalist.  At this point, being failed by the scientists, and the bloggers, why not try out a journalist?  I knocked this book out in the span of not quite 2 nap times and a dance class, so it's an easy read and it won't take you long.  I would HIGHLY recommend it!

In this book, the author goes into detail about how and why Americans are so darn confused about food.  Turns out I'm not the only one.  What we've been advised to do by the FDA and scientists, which now forms the Western Diet, have not only turned out to be ineffective in improving health, but appear to have actually hindered the health of Americans.  This doesn't surprise me.  As a result, we grasp at fad diets and try to make sense of all of the latest nutritional claims on "food."  Pollan discusses a concept known as "nutritionalism" which is basically how the food we eat has been framed for our understanding on the parts it is composed of, not on the whole.  This is my experience.  The biggest problem with this is that it takes the authority on food and what is good to eat away from the culture, from history, and from mom, and hands it squarely to the scientists.  From a macro level, food is either a fat, protein, or carbohydrate.  Sound familiar?  On a mirco level, there are nutrients in food, things like potassium, sodium, and so on.  Some are framed as good, some as bad.  Some bad framing you've probably all heard of is that fat is bad!  It's bad!!!  Well, turns out it's not bad.  Actually, the fat replacement that found it's way into what is likely all of your homes growing up, margarine, is worse than the real food it replaced.  The problem is that scientists are trying to understand the inordinately complex structure and function of food by breaking it down into what they can see - which it turns out isn't even close to all that's going on, doesn't help us understand what we eat, and has led to the creation of pseudo-foods, things that pretend to be food, have the nutritional value of food, but still, are not food - just because you can take something apart, doesn't mean you can put it back together.

This book has really helped me to reorient my thinking on food.  Food is not bad.  None of it.  Carbs are not the devil.  Saturated fat isn't going to give me an instant heart attack and should not be replaced by fake food manufactured to get my money without care or concern for my health.  I'm going to try very hard to remove these macro labels from my vocabulary.  Food, real food, is simply what it is.  What I should continue to do, is what I've been working toward for several years - no processed "food."  Grow my own garden, cook from scratch, work for it.  If I need cream of crap soup, I can make my own, thank you very much, I don't need to have every other chemical ever invented in there with it.  I need to do more local shopping, that's for sure.  I need to invest the time and resources into making this happen.  It's hard, but it's worth it.  There will be a great deal of skepticism given to food "science," and even more given to anybody who decides to formulate an opinion about the best way to eat from that science, as it is an emerging and very difficult field, that despite popular belief, has no IDEA what is going on right now.

No specific advice is given on types of foods to eat - general guidelines are provided for what to avoid, fake foods and food products, and what to eat - food.  Real, actual, food.  The punch line: "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants."


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