Thursday, January 24, 2008

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After a holiday where I probably gained a pound per day, I returned to Toronto to find Bernice had printed a Michael Pollan article from the New York Times Magazine called Unhappy Meals. The gist of the essay is simple with a clear directive for how we should eat.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Pollan then spends the rest of the article explaining this mind-blowing manifesto and how the science of "nutritionism" is making us sick (see the CBC article). If you are too lazy to read the whole thing (by the way, literacy = critical thinking), he's even made a 9 point summation which goes something like this (which I've edited to be even shorter so you really should read the original);

"1. Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn't recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They're apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don't forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number -- or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer's market; you also won't find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less.

''Eat less'' is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. ''Calorie restriction'' has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. To make the ''eat less'' message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don't know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what's so good about plants -- the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? -- but they do agree that they're probably really good for you and certainly can't hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you'll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less ''energy dense'' than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (''flexitarians'') are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren't a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn't still be around.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of ''health.'' Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It's all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn't bordered by your body and that what's good for the soil is probably good for you, too."

Do yourself a favor, go print the article and digest it. It might be the healthiest thing you do on Robbie Burns day.

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