In 2008, we filmed a talk and interview with Michael Pollan in Portland about his then recent book In Defense of Food. In that discussion, Pollan explained the history of modern nutrition and how the so-called experts, nutritionists, often got it wrong. Deborah Kane of Ecotrust- Food and Farms, did the interview.
He was not seeking to bash anyone. Rather, Pollan refers to the ideology of “nutritionism” as a convenient way of categorizing food into good and bad camps based upon their nutrient compositions. It’s a reductive view that has not served us well over time. Instead, Pollan argues, culture is a much better teacher and has been around for much longer than science.
Though the interview took place eight years ago, there’s still a raging debate over what foods are healthy to eat and why they are either good or bad for us from a personal health perspective.
Today, the NYT came out with a post: Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? It’s intended as a survey of experts and an analysis of their views of common foods compared to the general public. On certain foods, there’s a wide gap between what the experts believe are healthy foods and what the public thinks.
It’s worth a read though I have a number of issues with it’s central focus.
First, the article is framed from the perspective of (health) experts versus the public perception. Is this food healthy? What does the public think? How does it match with what nutritionists think? There was not uniformity amongst the experts in what they deemed healthy. Saturated fats was singled out as being a contentious issue. Referring to the recent science, in moderation, some studies suggest that saturated fats (eggs, butter, red meat, etc.) are not necessarily bad actors, and some nutritionists have softened their views on this subject.
But what about other aspects of healthy foods that were not even mentioned? For instance, how the food is produced? Is factory farmed meat just as healthy or unhealthy as pastured meat? If shrimp is recommended by “experts” as healthy to eat, what about their declining populations due to over demand in the marketplace? Should we be encouraging people to eat more shrimp instead of other healthy alternatives whose populations are less threatened? Or, when examining the question of personal health, do other seemingly interrelated concerns (like the environment) not matter?
What about other aspects of eating that may impact personal health? Eating food for the pleasure that it gives us? For the communal aspects of eating in social settings? Healthy eating is more than about which specific foods may be better for us to eat, or not. Isolation impacts our personal health, so why not include its social factor. Food is a complex subject, as is our understanding of what impacts human health.
Should an article intended as an analysis of opinion over healthy foods ignore the impact those very same foods contribute to climate change? After all, agriculture contributes up to one-third of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions that impact climate change. How food is grown or raised, packaged, stored and transported all adds to its effects on global warming. That’s not small potatoes.
I think the folks at the Times would have been well served to reference one of their former contributors, Mark Bittman. Paraphrasing what he once said, when it comes to the question of eating healthy foods, let the final arbiter be flavor. Often whole foods taste better when they are produced under favorable environmental and animal welfare conditions. As one example, fear induced stress from poor living conditions causes animals to secrete a stress hormone that makes their meat tissue tough and less flavorful. Treating livestock humanely is not only a moral imperative, it’s arguably better for the eater and the farmer too. It’s also better for the environment which ultimately impacts public health.
When it comes to taking advice about healthy eating there is much to be said for the basics: use common sense, eat in moderation, avoid excess sugar and listen to your body. If you wish to take the essence of Pollan’s advice from the book: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.
For those more comfortable following the advice of health experts, do so with a healthy grain of salt.