Monday, January 29, 2007

A Bundle of Confusion for Decades of Health Obsession

As more and more information about food, the nutrients in food and the way food is prepared come out each day in newspapers, the nightly news and blogs like this, it's no wonder that Americans are increasingly more confused about what they should be eating. And that's the subject of a lengthy, but very rewarding piece at the New York Times by Michael Pollan (author of "The Omnivore's Dilema").

In nine words, here's Pollan's simple eating guide: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

And those are just the first nine words in the piece. After that, it goes off into about 12 pages that I would bet less than 5 percent of the people that start this piece actually finish. And that's too bad because a lot of the most interesting stuff comes near the end. For example, this…

"No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health."

Where have nutritionists gone wrong? One big misstep is their study of single nutrients in food. "People don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain," explains Pollan.

Furthermore, "As soon as you remove these useful molecules [nutrients] from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers."

Another problem: many nutrition studies are based on questionnaires that participants fill out themselves. The problem? People don't always tell the truth.

Consider this: America produces 3,900 food calories per person each day. However, Americans only admit to eating an average of 2,000. What's happening to the rest? "Waste accounts for some of the disparity, but nowhere near all of it," noted Pollan. Once again, the rest? People are either A) unaware of how much they're actually eating or they're B) lying.

Are scientists the only ones to blame for our confusion about what to eat? Of course not. There are many culprits:
"The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat."


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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.