Over the summer I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book about the various food production systems present in America today. It had a profound effect on the way I thought about food. I suppose I knew all along that those Cheetos I'd been scarfing down as a youth weren't very good for me, but I never knew had bad they were for the planet and for society as a whole. It was a motivating factor in making me reduce the amount of processed food I eat. And, oh yeah, it was the most enjoyable book I read all year.
Pollan has an article in this past week's issue of the New York Times Magazine which focuses on the rise of "nutritionism" in America's supermarkets and food culture. In short, he says Americans have shifted from eating food to eating nutrients. The article, which is itself an argument against simplification. His argument, in part, is that food, like a banana or a salmon steak, is a complex thing, and reducing it to its component parts -- its fatty acids and antioxidants -- and then attempting to pump up the good and reduce the bad, is a tricky and often dangerous endeavor. In other words, it's better to eat a banana than attempt to get the nutrients of a banana into a breakfast cereal.
If you want to be healthy (and he's not certain that looking at food as a means to health is necessarily a good thing), he has some fairly simple advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It reminds me a little of advice I heard once from the actor Jon Favreau (he of Swingers fame). He was speaking at the film school where I was a student. Someone in the audience asked him how he lost weight or gained weight for the different roles he played. Favreau said, "I have a revolutionary weight management program wherein if I want to lose weight, I eat less and exercise more, and if I want to gain weight, I eat more and exercise less." I can't believe he hasn't made millions as a diet guru yet.
Pollan expands his advice to ten basic rules of thumb, which include things like "Cook," and "Pay more, eat less," meaning to spend money on smaller portions of superior quality foods. He also urges people to do as much of their shopping outside the supermarket as possible. Generally speaking, I agree with this, although I think it's possible to eat well and shop mostly at your local supermarket. I heard a nutritionist (they are useful for some things) on NPR once recommend "shopping on the outer edge of the supermarket." Most of the good stuff is there -- the meat, the produce, and the dairy. Venture as seldom as possible into the aisles, since that tends to be the province of high-fructose corn syrup and transfats. I would also recommend eating processed foods only if you can see the person who processed them. It seems better to buy bread from a baker and sausages from a butcher. I'm not sure why, it just feels right to me. And that's, in a round about way, the point of Pollan's article. Eat food that's recognizable as food, and stop worrying so much about what's in it.