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In defense of food review, part 2

As mentioned at the end of part one, Pollan goes on to tackle what we do eat, starting with Kerin O'Dea's experiment in sending ten overweight and diabetic Aborigines, who'd retained hunting knowledge, into the bush. In their coastal location they mostly ate seafood, plus birds, kangaroo, and witchetty grubs. "Hoping to find more plant foods" the group went inland, gettigh fish and shellfish, turtle, crocodile, birds, kangaroo, yams, figs, adn bush honey. (Doesn't seem like a lot of plants.) This vs. their urban diet of flour, sugar, rice, soft drinks, beer and port, powdered milk, cheap fatty meat, potatoes, onions, and "variable contributions of other fresh fruits and vegetables." After 7 weeks of eating like this (and presumably getting a lot more exercise) they'd lost an average of 17.9 pounds, dropped blood pressure and triglycerides, increased blood omega-3s, and improved their glucose tolerance, sometimes to normal levels.

Walter Willet said only 3.1% of the Nurses's Health Study (one of the few big population studies) followed a healthy diet, defined by him as non-smoker, BMI<25, 30 minutes of exercise a day, low trans fat, high poly to sat fat ratio, high whole-grain intake; two fish servings a week; RDA of folic acid and at least five grams of alcohol a day. Based on 14 years of study, he calcualted that if the cohort adopted these behaviors, 70-90% of heart disease/diabetes/colon cancers could have been prevented.

Western diet gets defined as "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains." He then talks about how in the early 1900s many professionals noted the almost complete absence of common Western chronic diseases in "native" populations. Little to know heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, hypertension, or stroke; no appendicitis (!), diverticulitis, tooth decay, varicose veins, ulcers, or hemorrhoids. Such diseases appeared "among natives living more and more after the manner of the whites" as Albert Schweitzer put it. Counter-arguments were genetics (refuted by similar problems faced by blacks and whites in America, or among immigrants) and demographics, but apparently age-adjust rates of diabetes and cancer are a lot higher. (Heart disease data is sketchy.)

Weston A. Price, a dentist, became consumed with the question of why people needed so much dental care. He suspected nutrition, not hygiene and went looking for control groups (now hard to find) from the mountains of Switzerland and Peru to the lowlands of Africa and the Everglades of Florida, summing up his findings in his Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. He smacks of crackpottery (article: "Dentistry and Race Destiny") and a monomaniac on diet. But he supposedly found a near absence of tooth decay among his populations, and that they were eating an average of 10 times the vitamin A and D of Americans, partly because processing robs foods of vitamins. A good way to preserve food is to take the nutrients out; calories are easier to transport than nutrients.

That connects with a couple of things in my life. One is my old edition of The Joy of Cooking, where the authors mention some unsourced study where rats, given a surfeit of grains, ate the germ and left the rest; with white bread we leave the germ and eat the rest. And when I started making bread with more and more whole wheat flour, or buying whole wheat instead of normal pita (neither with any preservatives) from Trader Joe's, I found how much more quickly the whole wheat breads went moldy (unrefrigerated). White pita could last a week in San Francisco, whole wheat three days. I don't remember times for my own breads, but 100% whole wheat bread definitely couldn't be kept around nearly as long as bread flour bread.

Price didn't identify any ideal diet; his subjects ranged all over, including the meat blood and dairy diet of the Masai. Wild animal flesh seemed healthier than cereals. Many prized organ meats, and almost everyone valued seafood, trading for dried fish eggs if they had to. He also looked at the health of animals, e.g. the vitamin content of milk from spring pastured cows and those eating winter forage. He and Sir Albert Howard saw problems with the new modern agriculture, where plants were drowned in simple artificial fertilizers (rich in the elements N, P, and K, like trying to feed people with fat, protein, and carbohydrate) and the wastes of the cities were not returned to the soils that produced their food. Pollan will later talk about the superior nutritional value of organic produce, from both superior soils and the fact that plants not spared all insect assault produce more of the phytochemicals we find healthy.

Changes in our foods:
* from whole to refined (white flour was more prestigious -- I remember that from Heidi; lasted longer; and tastes sweeter given a lack of fiber and finer grinding.) Modern steel grinding is finer than stone grinding, and can remove the germ, not just crush it and make it go rancid. And there's refined sugar, something of unnatural purity and lack of nutrients.

* complexity to simplicity (simple fertilizers; monocropping; domination of our diet by just a few plants, wheat corn and soy, and animals fed corn and soy.)

* quality to quantity: you'd have to eat three apples to get the iron provided by one 1940 apples, and several more slices of bread to get your RDA of zinc. Even our whole foods are as good as they used to be. Another reason is genetics, that we've been breeding plants for fast growth and high yield, which goes against nutritional density. (Easier to make more sugar or starch than to absorb more zinc, even easier for a fruit to bloat up with water.) Bruce Ames thinks that subtle micronutrient deficiencies lead to cancer, and that obesity may be related to people keeping on eating, unconsciously desperate for sufficient nutrient, in a futile but profitable cycle.

* leaves to seeds: our staple crops are grains and the legume soy, rich in macronutrients and stable, but poorer in phytochemicals and omega-3 oils. Omega-3s spoil more readily, so there's been an unconscious bias against them in plant breeding, and of course in food processing. He talks at length about the benefits of Omega-3 (acknowledging that some researchers make it sound like the Key to Everything), and quotes Susan Allport as noting that O-3s increase metabolism, possibly reducing obesity but also increasing hunger, perhaps explaining why populations migrate away from O-3s into things like the Western diet

* food culture to food science, from cooking taught by our mothers to food processed according to the needs of industry and the latest nutritionist fads, and medical intervention to sort out the problems. (Also see the antibiotics given cattle in grain feedlots, to counteract the bacterial bloating the grass-adapted ruminants otherwise suffer.)

Part III of the book looks at what to do. He notes that many of the offered explanations seem to conflict: lipid vs. carbohydrate hypotheses, Omega-3 deficiencies vs. refined carbohydrate excess. But we don't have to know what's mechanistically wrong with the Western diet to see that something is wrong with the Western diet -- though the food industry (odd phrase!) would love to have theories by which to advertise new, further processed, and profit-marked-up products.

Supposedly Americans spend 10% of their income on food, while French, Spanish, and Italians spend 15-17%. Of course, Americans have higher average income, especially on a PPP basis. Still, we can compare to %income (or rather, %GDP) spent on health care -- 15% in the US, 10% or less in most of the First World. Food+medicine comes to 25% in both cases... surely spending more on food and needing less health care -- they live longer -- is more pleasant?

* Eat Food: avoid foods your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food (yogurt in a tube? with more ingredients than milk and bacteria?) Perhaps avoid food incapable of rotting, though of course some preservation has been traditional. Avoid food processed to hit your evolutionary buttons -- added fats and sugars. Shop from the edges of the supermarket, not the aisles (produce, dairy, and fresh meats such as they are tend to be at the edges.) One thing he mentions is that in 1973 the FDA became much looser in labelling; before then, much of our yogurt or bread would have been "imitation" food, given all the additives.

And there's stuff about eating mostly plants, and the possible benefits of antioxidants in a food context, and following a traditional cuisine, and eating meals more slowly and avoiding snacks. But it's 2am and time for bed, and there probably won't be a part 3 of this.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jul. 20th, 2017 05:47 am (UTC)
Nice article..
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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