In this extract from award-winning author Michael Pollan's book 'In Defence of Food', he questions if tampering with our diets has led to an unhealthy relationship with food and argues that we need to rediscover simple rules for healthy eating.
For the last 50 years or more, we’ve given up certain foods in favour of others, we’ve had our foods fortified with iron, calcium, omega-3, B12… and yet over the same period we’ve become less healthy and fatter than ever before.
With the rise of this nutritionism has come a dangerous belief that scientifically-endorsed ‘nutrients’ are inherently superior to fresh produce. The latest food products might be low in fat and packed with fibre and vitamins, but their ingredients feature baffling lists of additives: high-fructose corn syrup, modified corn starch, carrageenan, tri-calcium phosphate. Are these additives doing us any good?
The value of a traditional diet is illustrated by what nutritionists call the French paradox: that annoying Gallic habit of enjoying a diet rich in fat and many other nutrients deemed toxic by nutritionists, while staying thin and avoiding heart disease. The French love and respect their food; they don’t agonise over its fat content, they eat in moderation and they are more likely to buy it for its taste. By contrast, the British and Americans expend vast resources tinkering with their food, and suffer from the highest incidences of diet-related health problems in the Western world.
Part of the problem is in the search for a dietary ‘magic bullet’: the Greek diet, the Japanese diet and many other traditional diets seem to promote longevity, but it’s not just because olive oil is good for you, or because raw fish is low in fat. You can’t take on the healthy lifestyle of one of these cultures by just taking garlic pills or having fish protein added to your microwave meal – the benefits are in how people eat, as much as what they eat. And let’s face it, if you work in a high-pressure environment, your body will suffer more stress than someone who spends their day sewing fishing nets in the Mediterranean sun.
How, then, can we escape the industrialised Western diet, without taking up permanent residence on a Greek island? By following a few simple guidelines, we can get back to eating real food – and our bodies (and our tastebuds in particular) will thank us for it.
Select food with care
Go to farmers’ markets, farm shops and independent food shops, and buy raw produce. When you find a good source of meat or fish, buy lots of it and keep some in the freezer.
Do all your eating at a table
Preferably with other people. The French enjoy their rich diet at mealtimes, and mealtimes only; in America, roughly one-fifth of all eating (among 18- to 50-year-olds) takes place in the car. A desk is not the same as a table.
Eat mostly plants
The nutritional supplement industry offers pills made from extracts of plants. Real plants are cheaper and tastier, and scientists generally agree, so eat your greens.
Eat wild foods, when you can
Game is, generally speaking, leaner and lower in saturated fat than other meat; there’s evidence that wild greens have higher levels of beneficial nutrients than farmed; and wild mushrooms are among the wonders of the gastronomic world. Just make sure you’re not eating anything poisonous or endangered.
Cook – and plant a garden
The more involved you are in how your meals are prepared, the less likely you are to see food as cheap, throwaway fuel. Even a window-box with a few herbs can encourage you to think more about what you’re having for dinner.
Have a glass of wine with dinner
Treat alcohol responsibly, and there’s good evidence that you’ll live longer. That means a little every day: don’t save your week’s allowance up for Friday night.
And, most importantly, eat food
Try to avoid anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food; if the ingredients contain a long list of unpronounceables, it’s not really food. Stick to natural ingredients, animals and plants, and assemble your meals yourself – you’ll know what’s going into your food, and won’t worry about being properly fed.
Adapted from In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating
by Michael Pollan (£16.99, Allen Lane). Click here to buy the book.