Recently I’ve finished reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. As someone who has always immensely enjoyed every aspect of food and yet has wanted to navigate towards a healthier diet, I’ve found an encouraging companion in that challenge in Pollan’s book. The way he has described our perspective on food historically up until today, and the corresponding change in the food culture to food industry is enlightening. I don’t want to sweat the calorie counting and just enjoy my more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience of food.
Within our lifetime, food has transformed so rapidly from food to foodstuff. You know why your grandma’s recipe is put on a pedestal and mostly deemed the “best ever”? It’s cos she was actually cooking and using real recognisable food. Today we are so focused on nutrients, on breaking down the necessary building blocks found in our food and counting calories. And on the other end of it, producers and farmers have been replaced by factories and scientists, placing our food under the microscope and isolating vitamins and flavo-iso-amino-omega-whatevers and synthesising it so we can inject it into foodstuff and beef up the marketing so they can wipe their conscience clean and say, but hey! Look! It’s healthy because we’ve put so-and-so in it! Beware the new buzzwords healthy, organic, nature fresh, blah blah especially when it’s splashed all over the front of the pretty bright and probably green packaging in the special aisle of your commodity filled supermarket. It used to be that fat was the enemy, or butter, or sugar, or alcohol, but then recently oh butter’s good for you, wine’s good for you, coffee’s good for you, etc. Food is good for you, not the things sold in supermarkets that resemble food. Looking at food merely in the context of nutrition paints an incomplete picture of the complex ways people interact with food.
In the 1930s, sparked by a debate on tooth decay being the result of improper hygiene or diet, Canadian dentist Weston Price began a study of the diets and eating practices of traditional or isolated groups unexposed to modern foods. He notes that “the common denominator of good health, he concluded, was to eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients.” Nutritious, fertile soil grows healthful produce, which provides us with the necessary nutrition for our health. If you eat poorly grown and processed junk, your health will be junk. You are what you eat. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately today the micro approach to nutrition is applied even to the production of common vegetables and fruits to grow them at an artificially fast rate, stripping them of the mysterious and miraculous effectivity of a natural environment, and then bombarded with harmful artificial pesticides just so they can survive the journey from seedling to supermarket shelf looking as perfect as possible. The rise of agriculture has led to higher food production with lower value, and an oversimplification of what was once a rich, complex, and diverse eating tradition of both plants and animals. Quantity over quality. Our relationship with food is also largely cultural, which makes eating more than just physically enriching, but also difficult to overcome when we’re set in unhealthy eating habits, such as going for “instant” packaged or processed food and overeating (due to poor portion control or not knowing when to stop).
Despite the options in the market, it’s difficult these days to really know what goes into your food, so Pollan suggests getting more intimate with it. Find out, where does it come from? How was it grown? Was it made in a lab or was it cooked, fresh, and enjoyed in a communal food experience? Allow it to nudge you to establish better relationships with who you get your food from. Better yet, grow your own if you can. He suggests three guidelines to better eating: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Which is simple, and makes sense, and only troubling if you are looking for a diet to dictate every calorie you eat, because these guidelines require you to exercise mindfulness well before you even put that fork in your mouth.
Since setting off on the path towards a healthier diet two years ago, I’ve noticed a real beneficial change in my energy levels, in my overall health and wellbeing, and most importantly, to me and to a lot of other people out there, I’ve discovered whole new ways of enjoying food. I still don’t really like salad, but I’ve opened my eyes to a world of delightful dishes that go far beyond steak and mashed potatoes.