Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

While frantically trying to find a book on Middle Eastern trade regulations in the uni library for an essay a couple of months back, I spied Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" on a nearby shelf. I was way too busy to read it then, but I made a mental note to come back to it once exams and essays were over.

As I checked the book out last week, a note flashed up on screen saying that my library card expired soon. So soon, that instead of having the book for a month, I could only have it for 6 days. Is it a little ironic that the first time I ever find a book in the library that I actually want to read, my library card decides to die?

Anyway, I became determined that I would read all 200-odd pages in those 6 days. I know it took me the best part of a year to read "The God Delusion", but I was feeling optimistic. In the end, it only took me about 3 days to read the book. It's the stuff of undergraduate dreams: interesting, informative and well written. (The version I was reading also had a really sexy typeface. Oh yeh!)

Pollan sums up his argument as "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants". He questions the idea that we can be more healthy just by eating more nutrients, saying that fortified cereals and omega 3 diet bars are actually worse for us than just eating simple ingredients containing naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. We also eat too much because we stop when our plate is clean, not when we feel full, and lack a traditional food culture. Lastly, although animal products contain unique nutrients, like B12, we can obtain most of our dietary requirements more efficiently, cheaply and greenly in the form of vegetation.

For a long time, I have being trying to eat more healthily. I have chosen cereal bars over a piece of chocolate, and tried to resist the overwhelming desire to bake stuff. However, in the last year of so, my views have changed. Instead, I have shunned processed goods. I can't remember the last time I ate in McDonalds or Burger King, and don't think I have eaten a ready meal since first year. T recently made me a spaghetti bolognese using a ready made sauce, and it was so bland I wondered what the point was. Why spend £1.50 on Ragu/Dolmio/etc when you could buy a tin of tomatoes and some dried herbs for under a quid? Although I won't touch a ready meal, I'll happily have a big slice of homemade cake and some pork crackling. If the French can eat fatty, delicious food, why can't I?

Reading Pollan's work further convinced me. I had never questioned the idea of nutrition, and had taken vitamin supplements in the past. The idea that processed products are less nutritional makes sense, and going round a supermarket since, I was shocked at how little on the shelves was "food" in the purest form. While I cook most of my meals from scratch anyway, I have since started checking packets to see how processed things like mayonnaise and bread are. After all, the human race has survived for years without vitamin supplements, omega 3 milk and iron enriched water.

Sometimes I wish I could just stand in the supermarket and be evangelical. Tell people picking up ready meals that they are damaging their health, their wallet and the planet by buying it. Bin all the sugary chemical sweets in favour of some really good chocolates and toffees. I would love to turn back the clock and have an independent grocer, fishmonger, butcher and general store nearby. I think the food culture in Britain is burgeoning, but maybe I have a biased view as I actively seek information about food quality and origin?

Pollan's book is not without flaws. Many of his sources are quoted repeatedly, suggesting that some of his ideas don't yet have the diverse range of proof they need. He recommends a traditional diet, but doesn't specify what this means. Do you have to pick the traditional diet of one region and stick to it? Or can I have a roast dinner one night, then a curry, then a stir fry? Although there were a few passages that didn't entirely convince, on the whole I found that Pollan's theories fitted well with common sense. We should enjoy food as a pleasure, not as a fuel to be consumed quickly, alone with the television.

If I had the space, I would plant my own vegetable patch after reading this book. As I don't, I think I'll probably sign up for a vegetable box instead. I'm sick of going to the supermarket and seeing Thai asparagus for sale, when the grocers two doors down has British stuff in fresh.

Most of all, I'd recommend this book to everyone who is suffering at the hands of the Western diet. Anyone who is obese, diabetic, with high cholesterol and blood pressure, or on the brink of heart disease or stroke. I'd also recommend it to those of you who buy the diet range of ready meals, or who eat a special K bar for lunch in the hope that it will help you stay thin. It won't. Enjoy a nice ham and cheese salad and be happy instead.