Michael Pollan is a busy man. Aside from authoring best-selling books and hosting the new Netflix series Cooked, he’s an advocate, nay defender, of food. “Why does food need defending?” you ask? Well according to Pollan – who’s researched and written about the topic for 25 years – the Western, contemporary relationship with food isn’t doing us any favours.
Based on Pollan's best-selling book of the same name, the documentary In Defence of Food (watch it 8.35 pm Thursday 8 June, then on SBS On Demand) examines how technology, business and the marketing-led ideology of “nutritionism” influence what we eat, and why preventable diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular conditions, are increasing at a frightening rate.
Here, we sum up a few of the most interesting (and alarming) facts from the documentary, which features scientists, nutrition experts, physicians and food activists.
... And if you’re wondering about the seven words, here’s Pollan: “Everything I’ve learned about healthy eating can be summed up in just seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
“That other stuff,” he says, referring to processed food, “we shouldn’t even dignify with that beautiful word “food”. I call it something else; I call it “edible, food-like substances”.”
The diet most of us eat these days is ‘Western’
According to Michael Pollan, that means lots of meat, white flour, vegetable oils and sugar, with very little fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Why have so many of us adopted this diet? It’s inexpensive, accessible and processed to taste really good.
We have an inborn craving for salt, fat and sugar
“We’re biologically designed to like foods that are very high in calories, sugar, fat and salt,” says Kelly Brownell, Dean of Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Throughout history, humans have adopted this mechanism to cope with hardships, such as famines. Brownell adds, “Now food’s abundant and our biology’s mismatched with what’s occurring out there in the environment.”
Childhood obesity is becoming a big problem
Over the past 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity in America has more than doubled, but it's not just limited to the States. Dr David Ludwig, director of Optimal Weight for Life at Boston Children’s Hospital, explains, “Obesity can affect virtually every organ inside a child’s body and in some cases, result in Type 2 diabetes, the ultimate metabolic meltdown”. He goes on to (rightly) point out: “It’s one thing for an overweight adult to develop it at 50 and then have a heart attack at age 60. It’s a very different thing if the clock starts ticking at age 10.”
Hold up, why is this happening?
Short answer: technological innovation gave rise to cheaper, more convenient food manufacturing. Let’s use bread as a case study. It’s requires a few basic ingredients – flour, water, yeast and salt – and for thousands of years was made by grinding grains, such as wheat, between two big stones. This kind of flour (whole wheat) contained all of the seed, including the bran and germ. Dense and sometimes chewy, this was the bread most people ate until roller-milling was invented in the late 19th century and the softer, shelf-stable white bread became accessible to all.
What’s so bad about white bread?
When you get rid of bran and germ, you’re getting rid of important nutrients that lie within. Starch and protein aside, white bread is predominantly made up of carbohydrates, which break down into glucose and, as Michael Pollan explains, “flooding our bodies with glucose triggers the release of a very important hormone called insulin.”
Insulin, which lowers blood sugar in our bodies, is a necessary part of life. Here's how it works: “Your blood sugar rises because you’ve eaten,” says Pollan. “When you’re healthy, you’re pancreas senses the blood sugar rise, [your] insulin goes up, and the various cells of the body will take up the glucose.” This helps your blood sugar returns to normal. But there is a growing body of evidence that too much sugar will push your insulin levels to breaking point, hence sparking Type 2 diabetes.
“The people who are sufferings the most in the obesity epidemic today are the poor and the minorities,” says Dr Thomas Farley, former commissioner of the NYC Department of Health. “[America has] twice the rate of diabetes amongst African Americans and Latinos as whites, and it’s not because of their genes. It’s because of the marketing in those low income neighbourhoods of food that’s bad for people.”
This video by Bigger Picture Campaign (featured in the documentary), is a project bringing San Francisco-based poets and health care workers together to highlight the problem associated with diabetes.
Let’s go back to those seven important words
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
“Saying that we should eat food might sound obvious,” Pollan admits, “but these days, much of the food industry is built on a different idea: that we should eat the right nutrients. This way of thinking has a name – nutritionism.” He argues we should avoid packets with outlandish health claims and head for the produce aisle. “The healthiest food in supermarket is in produce section… and there are no health claims! The quieter the food, the healthier the food [likely is].” Basically, don’t trust everything you read!
The magic bullet
Dr Joan Sabaté echoes Pollan’s points. The Loma Linda University professor explains in In Defence of Food: “A single nutrient or a single food is not the magic bullet – it’s the combination of foods that’s the most important determinant of health.”
Watch In Defence of Food on SBS 8.35 pm Thursday 8 June, then on SBS On Demand.
If you’re interested health news, check out our Eat Well articles here.