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Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants

By Matthew Charles-Jones, Yackandandah Sustainability

In a departure from the usual approach of the Living Lightly column, I wish to review a book titled, “In Defense of Food,” (2009) by Michael Pollan.

Pollan explores a pervasive theme in the modern western diet – that of ‘nutrition.’  His exploration reflects on the reductionist idea that food can be described as simple packets of macro (complexes of proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients. He persuasively argues that whole-food is much more complex than this, and far exceeds the ability of science to accurately describe its value in terms of its components.  How else can one explain the terrific but counter-intuitive health claims offered on a box of coco-pops and its endless and mounting range of processed food cousins?  Indeed it is these items that make up the bulk of “food-like substances” in our supermarkets?

To counter this plethora of ‘food-like substances’, Pollan provides some really interesting tools to guide our food choices. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  This framework provides no reference to fast-food burgers, spreadable congealed vegetable fat, nutrition powders or energy drinks.  Instead he suggests a good measure of food may well be, “ …if your (great) grandparents would not recognise it, then avoid it.”  He proposes you eat foods (best done slowly, at a table and with friends or family) with less than five ingredients.  He also observes that the ‘health value’ of any food is inversely proportional to the number of health claims the packaging makes!

A wide range of studies are quoted that predictably observe that where diets are dominated by fresh and unprocessed food, people experience far fewer lifestyle related health complication, including type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, ulcers etc. and perhaps controversially, even a range of cancers.  Moreover, the industrial production of processed food is having powerfully deleterious effects on the natural world.

The French Politician and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826) observed “The destiny of nations depends on the way they eat.”  If that is so, what does the western diet suggest about western destiny?  To answer this, one ought consider the epidemic of obesity in Western countries!

So if you are interested in future, food and health, I urge you to read this book.  It will not give you recipes for the table, but it will give you cause to review your food assumptions and reflect on the true effect your diet is having on your health and the health of the land.