Archive for Saturday, February 16, 2008

Healthy eating is having a flashback

February 16, 2008


— I am sitting at the breakfast table taking my medicine. This drug is a cup of coffee formerly identified by its native and urban origins: Sumatra and Peet's. But now it has been declared good for what might eventually ail me, if what might ail me is Parkinson's disease or colon cancer. Coffee has also been praised as a prevention for diabetes in Minnesota and cursed as a risk for diabetics in North Carolina, but I am in Massachusetts.

On my place mat is a bowl of Anti-Oxidants Formerly Known As Blueberries. These round little health capsules have been scientifically evaluated as a barrier against mental decline and cancer. Alas, they come from Chile, which is not good for my carbon footprint.

I am pondering an egg, which was once considered a suicidal act, death by cholesterol. Now it is praised for its carotenoids - lutein and zeaxanthin - essential for healthy eyes.

These healthy eyes are needed to read the newspaper stories in front of me full of the latest food health bulletins. The first dateline is New York City, which, you may recall, has joined the crowd in banning those evil trans fats that were once our salvation against those devilish animal fats. Now the city has also decided that calories of every dish should be posted in chain restaurants.

The second dateline is Seattle, which has predictably one-upped the East Coast. Its new law will not only list the calories but the carbohydrates, fats and sodium lurking in the beurre blanc, creme fraiche and Big Mac.

How did it come to this? How did eating become a science rather than an art? How did food become conflated with medicine? We now have shelves full of boxes with bragging rights promising better eating through chemistry. Meanwhile, our uncertainty is growing as quickly as our waistlines.

Imagine what our ancestors would have made of a book titled "In Defense of Food." They would never have believed that food needed a defense attorney. But one of the leading indicators of the fix we are in is how quickly Michael Pollan's manifesto vaulted to the very top of the best-seller list. There it sits, proof of the transformation of the land of plenty into the land of plenty of anxieties.

Pollan's last book raised "The Omnivore's Dilemma" - what to eat. He masticated the meaning of four meals for people, the earth and the agricultural industry. He single-handedly made "locavore" the word of the year for the New Oxford American Dictionary. Think global, eat local.

Now he solves the omnivore's dilemma with seven little words wrapped around a head of lettuce on the new book cover: "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants." (Not including the philodendron.) And the word that he's launching this year is "orthorexia," an unhealthy fixation with healthy eating.

"What other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?" he asks, recognizing the absurdity of the need for his own advice. Two different forces got us here. The first is "nutritionism," the idea fostered by science that food is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients. The second and more pernicious force is the $36 billion food-marketing industry that turns food into "food-like substances."

Remember the French paradox: wine, cheese and low weight? Well, the American paradox, Pollan writes, is "a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily."

His tips for the land of the overweight orthorexics are rather charmingly simple. Among them: Avoid products made with ingredients you can't read or pronounce. Avoid products making health claims on the package. Yes, eat plants. (But not the sansevieria.) But the best of them is: Don't Eat Anything Your Great-Grandmother Wouldn't Recognize As Food.

Frankly, I'm pretty sure my great-grandmother never saw an avocado, let alone a kiwi. But I am all for moving from what conservatives grudgingly call the nanny state to the great-granny state.

Even as we speak, someone working to combine the eating disorder with the great American paradox must be writing the very next best-seller: The Great-Granny Diet. You read it hear first. Meanwhile, the moguls of the agricultural-industrial complex will work up a Great-Granny product line. And we will soon see Great-Granny stickers on all the beleaguered fruit and vegetables that line the market walls.

In the meantime, I plan to begin eating at least one plant that my great- granny knew so well: the good old Theobroma cacao. Rich in flavanols, not to mention polyphenols, this is after all a known treatment for fatigue, coughs and anxieties - and maybe even orthorexia. What was it my great-granny called this plant? Oh yeah, chocolate.

- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Sharon Aikins 10 years, 4 months ago

Woo hoo, now that chocolates healthy, I'm going for it! With a side of celery of course.

Christine Pennewell Davis 10 years, 4 months ago

the day i let a book or expert tell my what and how to eat is the day I should be put in the ground. Common sense people not over indulgence. But a little indulgence is ok.

xtronics 10 years, 4 months ago

If you really want to filter out so of the miss information spewed by the press and our government , (and can understand a technical treatment of the subject), Check out the book by Gary Taubes :

Good Calories, Bad Calories

The 'low-fat' dietary mantra is not based on anything other than opinion and a cherry picked 7-country study that was worse that a correlative study - it was fraud.

sourpuss 10 years, 4 months ago

You're going to die anyway, so you might as well eat what you want. If it takes years off of your life, well, that is really your problem. It seems going through life obsessed with eating will make for a long, but food-obsessed life. Just enjoy life, for as long as you have it. "All things in moderation" is enough of a motto for me.

camper 10 years, 4 months ago

Sometimes your body tells you what it needs. So some of the things that can be bad for you are sometimes good for you (maybe Yogi Berra said that).

Richard Heckler 10 years, 4 months ago

It seems if one drinks plenty of water, eats plenty of fruits,grains,veggies,yougurt and gets some exercise everything should work fine. I cut way back on eggs(those tasty rascals) however we have our own chickens which are rather cute. Quit eating meat cuz it was wayyy too expensive only to find out its' not necessary....never looked back. Throwing in a little vino and brew can make the diet interesting.

If one is a meat eater then I say eat lean and local cuz corporate meat producers don't give a damn about the quality of the product only quantity and large profits.

Support your local meat,grain,veggie and fruit producers as often as possible. Oh my heart yearns for local avocado....yumo.

Since Bush does not give a damn don't expect the USDA to care much either... the fewer checks and balances on food the better. Why the hell does any kind of food need to come from China?

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