Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In Defense of Food [book]



"Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." That's the summary, and I'm a believer. Since reading Omnivore's Dilemma, I've been quite the fan of Michael Pollan's approach to food and nutrition. I'm not smart enough to keep up with all the new ideas of what's "healthy" and what's not -- and the conclusions seem to change day-to-day anyway . Scientists still know sooooo little after all, and Pollan reminds us that what's healthy is what our bodies evolved to eat over millions of years. Stick to food that your great-grandmother would recognize.

If you don't have time to read the entire book, the ideas in the book are well-summarized in his January 2007 New York Times essay. Here is my list of particularly interesting things I learned:

  • The idea that you must eat a low fat diet (the so-called "Lipid hypothesis") is being increasingly discredited as researchers find that the type of fat you eat is more important than the amount. And guess what? Traditional food (milk, eggs, meat, etc.) is all good fat, but man-made food-like substances (margarine, low-fat anything) are pretty nasty. [see especially: See Frank B. Hu et al, Journal of American College of Nutrition, Vol. 20, 1, 5-19 (2001)]
  • Our obsession with "health food" (Pollan calls it nutritionism) causes us to miss the forest for the trees. Paul Rozin is a U-Penn psychologist who puts this to the test, concluding that people think incorrectly that bananas, spinach, corn, alfalfa sprouts, or peaches are better for you on a deserted island than the high-protein or high-carbohydrate found in hot dogs and milk chocolate.
  • I want to follow up on the ideas behind nutritional genomics, and in particular a book Pollan cites edited by Kaput and Rodriguez: Nutritional Genomics: Discovering the path to personalized Nutrition (John C. Wiley and Sons, 2006). See the article by Walter C. Willet "Pursuit of optimal diets"
  • Eat plants, mostly leaves (not seeds).
  • Results of nutrition studies are hard to evaluate because the questionnaires are almost impossible for the subjects to fill out accurately. See Gladys Block (U-California Berkeley School of Public Health) who designed the nurses study and says these things are "a mess".
  • Aborigines' health improves when they go back to a traditional diet [See study by Karin O'Dea]
  • Wansink's diet suggestions in Mindless Eating (p. 194)
    • Examples include: use smaller plates, keep the serving pot away from your plates


Incidentally, Sam and others suggested I look at the New Yorker review this week, which discusses Pollan's book along with several other books I think are mostly silly overreactions by wolf-criers who don’t understand the free market.  The idea that something must be done to “solve” a normal ages-old supply-demand issue is, I think, just naive and the people who do it are likely to cause more problems than they solve.  Michael Pollan is right on, I think, in saying how those of us who care most about health should eat, but don't shove good food down the throats of people who disagree with us.

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