The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

This is the second of three articles summarizing and reviewing Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food.  If you have not already read the review of his first section, “The Age of Nutritionism“, you may want to do that first.  

Pollan’s premise here is that most of our health problems in society can be traced to how (and what) we are eating.  If we’d just fix the food, then our health and most diseases would go away on their own.  The previous section debunked the myth that “Nutritionism” could fix the food, and showed that it does, in fact, cause diseases to be more prevalent.  But do we really have a problem is the question?

Pollan begins by giving us a wonderful example highlighting that yes, we do in fact have a problem.  He describes an experiment done on some Australian aborigines who have been living in the city for quite some time.  In the experiment, all of them move from the city back to the bush country, and remarkably, their health began to improve…dramatically.  Junk science you might wonder?  Well, not really.

He spends the bulk of his second chapter bringing to light some of the research done by men like Weston A. Price and others.  Price, a dentist in search of the truth behind what was causing tooth problems, traveled the world and found that native populations which were not exposed to a Western diet also lacked one important thing…Western diseases.  Not only tooth decay, but cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other diseases were notably absent from these cultures which refrained from the refined foods of the West.  So why wasn’t he readily believed and accepted?  The answer was two-fold.

First, at the time of Weston A. Price, in the 1930’s, it was understood that “the processing of foods typically robs them of nutrients, vitamins especially.  Store food is food designed to be stored and transported over long distances, and the surest way to make food more stable and less vulnerable to pests is to remove the nutrients from it.  In general, calories are much easier to transport – in the form of refined grain or sugar – than nutrients, which are liable to deteriorate or attract the attention of bacteria, insects, and rodents, all keenly interested in nutrients.”  Price concluded that the key to good health was eating “a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients.”  Those two ideas did not mix well together.

Second, with the industrialized society taking over (the WWII era), no one wanted to hear that they needed to eat locally grown, non-preserved foods.  The people wanted bigger, more industrialized cities, not more rural.  So, the nutritionists won out, and the supermarkets with the centrally located food were now entrenched.

In his third and final chapter for this section, Pollan again turns very evolutionistic.  Even though he does not credit God for designing food the way it is, he still accurately observes that foods do have unique traits that make them want to be eaten (smell, color, taste, etc.)  These unique traits often occur when the foods are ripe and ready to be eaten.  Amazingly, this also coincides to when the seeds are ready to be transported to the soil.  So what have we done in the West?  We’ve tricked our senses by adding artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and the like.  Ironically, he concedes that humans may evolve and eventually be able to handle our refined Western diet.  So, as an evolutionist, I am not sure why Pollan is really making his argument that we need to fix our diet.  If we really will evolve into “superhumans” as he supposes, then we should keep eating what we are eating and hope for the best.

His point for the section, though, is that good foods look, smell, and taste good.  They grow that way naturally.  It is only when we break foods down and then try to reassemble them that we get into trouble.   A good example of this is how we mill flour today.  The old-fashioned way kept all the parts (and nutrients) together as the grain was ground by stone.  The modern milling process removes the nutrients and gives us white flour.  We then must go back and add B vitamins and folic acid.  We break it down and “try” to reassemble it.  Short term, we solve the nutrient deficiency, but long term, we’re still missing some things.  “A whole food might be more than the sum of its nutrient parts.”    

The next issues he tackles are food diversity and quality.  Today, four crops account for 3/4 of our calories: corn, soy, wheat, and rice.  As omnivores, we no longer consume a wide variety of foods.  Now, combine this with the fact that the foods we are growing have less nutritional value in them due to the poor soils we’re maintaining.  “We’ve been breeding crops for yield, not nutritional quality.”  We’ve swapped quality for quantity.

Finally, Pollan spends a good deal of time discussing omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.  The key, he believes, is the ratio more than the quantity, and in America, we’re at over 3 times the traditional ratio.  The omega-6 fatty acids are primarily found in seeds (i.e. – grains) while the omega-3 fatty acids are primarily in the leafy portions of the plant.  And this ecological shift is the underlying problem of our food woes.

So, overall, Pollan does a remarkable job bringing to light the problems in the diet we all (or most of us) are accustomed to.  Before we can fix the problem, we have to know that there is, indeed, a problem.  Though not a scientific treatise, it combines enough detailed information in the form of a light, quick read.  It has been enjoyable, and I highly recommend it (thus far).  Stay tuned for the next article, “Getting Over Nutritionism”, which will cover how we go about fixing the problem that Nutrition-ism has not only caused, but also has failed to fix.

Posted in In Defense of Food.