Nutrients and Food: Michael Pollan in the Times Magazine
Let’s summarize Michael Pollan’s most recent essay, appearing in last weekend’s NY Times Magazine: Forget about the nutrients – focus on the food.
This essay, like all of Pollan’s work, is truly worth the read. He traces the development of “nutritionism” – a peculiarly Western and American way of looking at food, arguing that it severs the table from its cultural and ecological ties, offering instead a reductionistic plan for eating that emphasizes “essential nutrients.”
The problem? Science doesn’t know everything – not even close.
As Pollan says, nutrition scientists have barely begun to unravel the incredibly complex web of connections and interdependences between foods. Eat a steak with coffee, he says, and the coffee inhibits the intake of iron. Eat a banana, eat some cheese, eat an apple – what you eat it with, depending on your blood chemistry, your age, your genetic makeup – there’s millions of variables that can affect how it affects your body.
And yet the way we eat in American has been profoundly affected by this kind of nutritionism, leading, Pollan believes, to valuing nutrients out of context over a more holistic and intuitive way of eating. This leads to bizarre health claims in the supermarkets, with sugary, preservative-filled granola bars getting cheerful healthy stickers and the simple foods sitting neglected in the produce department.
One other emphasis of this piece is the idea that sugar is getting “mainlined” into the American bloodstream. As whole foods are more refined and processed, and people turn more and more to convenience packages and fast food, these delicious and easy-to-digest foods are getting sugar into our bloodstreams in a way that can shock people from other cultures. Pollan says that perhaps we will adjust to this by evolution, eventually, but for now we are dealing with diabetes on a massive scale because our bodies are simply not built to handle this much sugar.
In the end, Pollan’s results are what we are hearing all the time: Plant a garden. Eat whole foods. Eat less sugar. Eat less processed foods. Eat less, period. And yet perhaps we need to hear them even more, to balance out the huge emphasis of advertising shouting at us every day that these “fake foods” are really more healthy for us, because they have some ostensibly essential nutrients added in.
What about you? Did you read this article? What did you think? What kind of next steps come to mind?