Saturday, June 14, 2008
You really are what you eat
Our obsession with 'nutrition' is making us sick. It's time we return to the love of eating real food.
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This message - central to Michael Pollan's latest, fascinating book In Defence Of Food - is beginning to sink in, in the wake of his recent visit to Sydney.
Pollan - a professor of science and environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley - argues that Western consumers are eating the wrong food and that we live in an era where nutrients have been elevated to ideology. He says instead of "worrying about nutrients, we should avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than nature".
In short, don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food.
Pollan's message is eat fresh, eat organically or eat food from farmers' markets, where you can question the growers about their farming methods. "You are what you eat eats, too," he maintains.
When it comes to vegetables, he says, plant a garden and grow your own food. Pollan is an avid gardener and the author of two of my favourite gardening books - Second Nature and The Botany Of Desire. During the recent Sydney Writers' Festival, Pollan told me that his work has actually been inspired by his gardening.
"You can learn everything you need to know about the human place and nature in the garden," he told me. "I think gardeners are more aware of where their food comes from and have more curiosity about the food chain. They don't simply accept the supermarket or fast-food version of reality that food comes in a package. They realise there is photosynthesis behind there somewhere, that there is a food chain and it leads back to the soil, which has an impact on the quality of the food. We know that because of our own gardening experiences."
Pollan emphasises that growing food isn't trivial, as it's an important part of the climate - change solution.
"If we are concerned about the carbon footprint of our food system - and we should be, as 20 per cent of the climate-change problem is the way we are feeding ourselves - then we should start to grow our own. Food we grow ourselves is ultimately the free lunch.
"With a little bit of time and some seeds, you can grow some percentage of your food with no carbon footprint whatsoever."
Pollan believes that there are important spiritual and philosophical reasons for home production.
"When we do something for ourselves - use our bodies to support our bodies in some way - we get out of the cheap energy mindset that has us using money as a proxy for everything we need done. We have specialised our lives to such an extraordinary extent - we have doctors take care of our health, chefs to cook for us, environmentalists to deal with the environment - everything is outsourced.
"I think that leaves us feeling rather helpless. We have forgotten the basics. If you are prepared to grow food and cook it for yourself, you realise you are not helpless ... that is the beginning of some of the very important changes that we need to make."
Pollan considers that using fossil fuel to replace labour and make us sedentary - then using fossil fuel when driving to the gym to get exercise - is one of modern life's great ironies. How absurd is that? As Pollan points out, gardening is good exercise and we can do a little bit every day.
In Defence Of Food argues that food is passed through families and cultures and when it comes to food, "culture is a fancy word for mother". Pollan claims that fresh, real food, which used to be passed down through the generations, has become confused with the notion of food used by nutritional scientists, food industry marketers and journalists - and this is making us sick.
According to Pollan, "lunch" should be taught in schools as an academic subject. "I think it is that important a life skill - to learn how to eat well, to grow food, cook it and eat it. This is as important as anything we teach in school right now. Because there are so many parents who don't know how to cook or garden, that chain has been broken and school is the place to intervene."
"The beauty about teaching 'lunch' as a subject is that you learn about so many different things," he says. "You can't learn about food without learning about ecology, without understanding co-evolution and Darwin, without understanding the carbon cycle and the energy cycles and what links us to the sun. You learn about chemistry, biology and you learn about physics, plus you learn about history and anthropology.
"Food is a brilliant vehicle for teaching a whole lot of other academic subjects. And it really hits home as it ends up on a plate in your house and you feel very connected to it."