A Review of “Unhappy Meals”

The New York Times recently published a long article by Michael Pollan, a journalist who’s written widely on health food and nutrition, about how nutritionists and food manufacturers have combined (perhaps deliberately) to confuse us about what we should eat. It’s a good article and I recommend it. There are also some points I want to make in response. Pollan’s main argument is that over the last 20 years, nutrition has stopped being about real, whole foods, and is now all about “nutrients”: proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals, fiber, cholesterol, etc. Instead of going to the store to get bread or eggs, people go to get fiber and omega-3s; they get foods that have been altered and modified so that they are low–carb or low–fat or high in antioxidants. Pollan says that our understanding of food as a collection of nutrients began because food manufacturers didn’t want specific foods (such as meat or dairy) to be identified with health problems. The culprits instead became invisible substances like cholesterol and fat. This way food manufacturers could still sell low–fat or lean meat, instead of having people change their diets or eat less; and makers of processed food could pump high–sugar, trans–fatty food full of nutrients like B vitamins and added fiber and claim they were healthy. As nutritionists and food manufacturers encourage people to go food shopping for nutrients, rather than real, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, Americans continue to get fatter and unhealthier. This is partly because food scientists and nutritionists are constantly finding out they’re wrong about what nutrients are good and which ones are bad (does fat make you fat? Or is it carbs? Could cholesterol actually be good for you? What about fat, and which kind of fat? Has anyone ever actually seen a carbohydrate?). The tests and health studies that are done to determine these things suffer from many uncontrollable variables. As Pollan also points out, scientists discover more nutrients all the time. For every B vitamin or omega-3 fatty acid that food processors insert into the foods they manufacture, there may be dozens of other nutrients in natural, whole foods that we haven’t discovered, that have countless health benefits, and are left out. And how do we know if something like beta–carotene is good for you on its own, when it may be only beneficial when eaten in the context of a carrot? In my opinion, the real problem began post–WWII. Increased efficiency in science, technology and manufacturing led to better hygiene, better sanitation, better medications and a better standard of living for many people, and as a result many diseases such as polio and tuberculosis were practically eliminated in America. For this reason we now live longer than we used to. Unfortunately, these changes in our society led to the chemicalizing and processing of food, as well as to the increased abundance of food, such that we can all eat many more calories than our ancestors, and far fewer nutrients (even with all the emphasis on them). We’re spending much less on food than we used to (lower quality food is cheaper) but buying more. As a result, people suffer from “diseases of affluence” like heart disease, cancer, digestive disorders, overweight, arthritis, depression, osteoporosis, diabetes, and many, many more of the most common health concerns. Thus we get to the situation that Michael Pollan illustrates: instead of responding to this crisis with the answer that we should eat less (but better quality) food, and balance heavier foods with more fruits and vegetables, food scientists and manufacturers blamed invisible nutrients, and worked the situation to sell even more unhealthy food. While some nutrition science may have its value, the best choice you can make with regard to your diet is to eat the way that your ancestors ate (as Pollan puts it, don’t eat anything your great–great–grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, such as non–dairy creamer. I would include even something like pasteurized, homogenized, non–organic milk). I often recommend eating something based on its vitamins and minerals, but the real test of whether a food is good for you is if it makes you feel good (not just tastes good, but also makes you feel calm, happy, and energetic afterwards). Paying close attention to what you eat and how you feel later on will help you make more informed choices about what food is good for you. Then you won’t have to depend on a so–called expert who knows nothing about your body type, lifestyle, or perhaps even the true properties of food itself, to tell you what you should eat. Note: Pollan does have a very good list of 9 recommendations at the end of his article that I also throw my weight behind. Try them and see if you feel healthier—that’s the best way to judge.