Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pollan and Bittman on Food

There is a lot of contradiction today in the eating department, but I found soul brothers in Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, who might be called, in the current jargon, foodies. Environmentally conscious, health motivated, list making foodies. Neither is a doctor. Neither is a nutritionist. Both are writers.

During the last week I read, not for the first time, books by Pollan and Bittman, about our relationships with food. The two have a lot in common. Their shared messages are about food, health and our environment. They have little good to say about the way many Americans eat, and much to say about changing from what is called the western diet to a plant based diet. Pollan’s book is In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008). Bittman’s book is Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating (2009).

Pollan opens with: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He says plants are what humans “should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”  Bittman says that to eat fewer of some foods and more of others will make you healthier, “much like trading in your gas guzzler for something more energy and cost efficient.” He says that trading in the western diet for older, more traditional diets, is “sane eating.”

Pollan attempts to define food, mostly by telling what food is not. He points out that large areas of supermarkets are selling “foodlike substitutes…products constructed largely around commerce and hope, supported by frightening little actual knowledge,” (quoting Joan Gussow).  His suggested foods are whole, unprocessed foods, without additives, derivatives and preservatives. Mostly plants.

Bittman, who is a food writer for the New York Times, says his guiding principle is “to eat less meat and junk food, eat more vegetables and whole grains.” He is not on the side of government policy, which he says supports industrial “Big Food.” Sane eating for him is eating fewer animal products and refined carbohydrates, like some traditional diets. He offers many suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bread pudding for breakfast? It’s there.

Pollan has plenty to say about commercially produced bread. He points out that in grandmother’s day, bread was made of a few familiar ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt. But now, for example, Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread contains eighteen ingredients before coming to the long list of two percent or less ingredients. He also notices that whole grain and white flour once were contradictions, but apparently aren’t any more. Industrial bread, he says, has become a complicated product of food science, is not food, and is only labeled “bread” because the FDA permits it. Bittman also points out the shortcomings of refined carbohydrates, including most commercially produced bread, bagels, cake, muffins, pizza, sandwiches, and sugars, and their relationships to type two diabetes.

I said they are list makers. First, Pollan: (1)Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; (2) don’t eat anything incapable of rotting (like Twinkies); (3) avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or include high fructose corn syrup;(4)avoid food products that make health claims because the boldest claims are often founded on incomplete and often erroneous science; (5) shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle, where the processed food products are; (6) get out of the supermarket whenever possible, and eat from the farmers’ market or a CSA box.

Next, Bittman: (1)eat fewer animal products than average; (2) eat all the plants you can manage (gorge on them); (3) make legumes part of your life; (4) whole grains beat refined carbs; (5) snack on nuts or olives; (6) when it comes to fats, embrace olive oil; (7) everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily; (8) cut back on animal protein gradually; (8) eat whole grains with other foods; (9) depend on seasonings; (10) always carry snacks to make impulsive stops for junk food less tempting. His suggested snacks include fresh fruit, nuts, hummus and crackers, cut up veggies, and others.

I was reading these books simultaneously, so some points are in one or the other, and I am not sure which.  Such as: (1) avoid eating anything with more than five ingredients; (2) eat local and organic; (3) eat vegan until dinner, and then eat a normal meal; (4) some meat is ok to eat if it is a side dish and not the main ingredient; (4) nutrition science focuses on nutrients rather than the whole food, and results in isolated nutrients, such as the acai berry, as ways to help obesity, chronic conditions or other problems, while nutrients do not act alone but in concert with the whole food; (5) the large amount of cattle raised to feed the world causes more pollution than does transportation.

Mark Bittman has a website: Michael Pollan has a website:

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