nutrition for thought

Michael Pollan has published another thoughtful piece on food and health in The New York Times magazine section ("Unhappy Meals," January 28, 2007), exploring the ideology of "nutritionism" in eating, as opposed to nutrition (or just plain old food). He attempts to dismantle some popular scientific and journalistic approaches to food -- that foods can be broken down into their constitutive parts, that nutrients and micronutrients can be isolated, and that we can build a healthy diet around these isolated nutrients, divorced from their contexts in food and cuisine. He briefly muses on the American tendency to emphasize eating for health rather than for pleasure or socializing: "I’ll leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say, or socializing — makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe that it may make them more healthy."

Pollan is unquestionably one of the sanest voices on the topic of food consumption and production in American journalism today, and his recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, should be required reading for anyone who buys or eats food in the United States. But ultimately, he prescribes the same narrowly decontextualized approach to healthier eating which plagues American food practices -- change your individual behavior to combat what are really broad social issues. Pollan sums up his advice neatly as "[e]at food. Not too much. Mostly plants," with the emphasis on whole foods, farmer's markets, cooking your own meals, and refraining from overeating. Sound recommendations, sure, but as his article catalogues, the corporate food industry largely determines what kind of foods are available to most Americans (in the supermarket and even at the farmer's market), and has put heavy pressure on the federal government to curb health guidelines that might interfere with corporate profit.

A more effective national food policy would require rethinking and restructuring food production and distribution, and examining the situational contexts in which people consume food. Why do people so often forgo cooking at home for fast food? Why do we buy fortified breakfast cereals and processed foods rather than unrefined ingredients? Time is clearly one factor for many people, who already juggle many responsibilities and obligations (work, family, exercise, school, personal relationships, to say nothing of other hobbies, interests or leisure). Collectively, how can we make time in daily life for the cooking and grocery shopping necessary for better eating, given the constraints and restraints of modern social existence? And lastly, how can we decentralize and diversify food production to make more healthy, whole foods available locally, while minimizing negative impact on the environment? Until we address these questions at the level of social and public policy, nutritionism and chronic disease will continue facing off in research labs and media outlets everywhere.