Monday, February 04, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 2-10-08
Jeff Gill

Eating Your Words, and Tasting Good

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

With those seven words, Michael Pollan has provoked quite a storm of discussion, maybe even a teacup’s worth of controversy.

Pollan wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and more recently “In Defense of Food.” These books follow what we eat back to the literal roots, the sources in the earth of everything we consume as food.

He makes a number of points about chemicals and contaminants that vegetarians and organic food fans have been making for many years, but with an easy tone and a comprehensive attitude that makes it all go down smoothly.

The coverage of his latest book, which began as a newspaper article, has focused on Pollan’s admitted free gift of the contents of the whole book in seven words on the cover.

What makes the whole text worth your time is how Pollan unpacks a concept he calls “nutritionism,” which is what he calls the tendency of scientists and nutritionists to break food down into the sum of the nutrients involved.

Vitamins and minerals and fiber are all well and good, Pollan argues, but “nutritionism” takes us further from a focus on food to the mass consumption of what he calls “edible food-like substances.”

Fruit, for example, is food; chewy wrapped vitamin-C enriched fruit snacks are “edible food-like substances.” Butter is milk with some churning and maybe a bit of salt, while margarine is . . . anybody? Bueller?

Tea or coffee can even be food, while a bottle of “energy drink” that is clear but claims to have 47 elements off the periodic table somehow suspended in the fluid is . . . can we just say is an EF-LS? A good tamale is food, with ground spiced beef wrapped in a corn flour dough baked in a corn husk, while the deep fried tubule injected with materials labeled “Southwestern” is probably an EF-LS, too.

The more you can recognize the what and the where of the material you eat, the more it’s likely to be “food” as Pollan is defining it. What got me really nodding my head with Michael was where I read his observing in an interview that the nutrition community is fascinated by the “French paradox,” where residents of France eat all kinds of fatty foods but don’t get fat.

Pollan points to what he calls the equally intriguing “American paradox,” where a people so obsessed with nutritional information but whose dietary health is so poor. In the USA, we lead the world in obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and all the diet-related cancer problems known to date by science, and maybe some still under review. How do we have so much information and awareness in some areas, but have such awful outcomes?

I’m tempted to put out there again the concept of “datasmog,” the information overload that pervades so much of everyday life in this country and much of the modern world. David Shenk pointed out in 1997 that we may have so much information we’re shutting down and falling back on the easiest myths to live by.

While Pollan has some observations along that line, his main points have to do with eating well by living well, making meals with others, eating with others, and eating real food. Which is where his poetic (if you like haiku) seven word phrase comes into play.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.” Pollan isn’t proposing a diet, for a small planet or a large family, just some simple guidelines. Eat stuff that you can recognize as food, and that you could, if need be, figure out where it came from. Don’t eat too much, which is always the kicker, but is the container for eating good stuff – butter, olive oil, cheese, eggs, even some meat is all food and fine to eat . . . if you don’t get carried away.

And mainly plants means just what it says. If you’re getting most of your calories from meat and dairy, you’re going to have problems health-wise no matter how free-range and hormone free it all is.

My colleague Trish Mumme in the Wednesday Advocate food section always has a few new ideas each week for how to get some real food, not too much, mainly plant based into my eating. She’s likely to agree with Michael Pollan – we shouldn’t be afraid to eat, and eat well, if we just use some simple common sense and basic guidelines.

And pig out once in a while. Maybe even on chips, but not too much.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio who loves cooking and teaching his son how to prepare a good eggplant parm; send him your seven word life plan at

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