Archive for March, 2011

Why Michael Pollan is Wrong

March 15th, 2011
By Craig Fear

Pollan blog

If you could encapsulate what you believe about food in three statements of three words or less, what would it be?

I’m prompted to ask this question for two reasons:  1) It’s fun and 2) Michael Pollan is wrong!

That’s right, I said it.  Michael Pollan got me thinking about this because everyone seems to love and quote his mini-tidbits of nutritional wisdom.   They’re becoming so commonly quoted that most people are unaware they stem from his writings.  Here’s a few you’ve probably heard:

“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

“Avoid food products that make health claims.”

“Shop the perimeters of the supermarket and stay out of the middle aisles.”

I love them and quote them myself all the time!  And here’s probably the most popular one of all:

“Eat Food.  Not a lot. Mostly plants.”

Sounds good, right?

Truth be told…I hate it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Michael Pollan as much as the next real food enthusiast.  His book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, is the Silent Spring of this generation.  It raised the red flag on industrialized agriculture and it made us look harder than ever at where our food is coming from.  In so doing he has given a voice to small farms, to sustainably grown food and to everything that is good and noble and important about our food system.

His follow up to that book, In Defense of Food, condensed the message in Omnivore’s Dilemma into a more direct look at the controversial events and studies that led to our modern-day ideas about nutrition, which he wryly calls “nutritionism.”  

Pollan cleverly describes the inherently flawed nature of all nutritional studies, especially those that have led to the lipid hypothesis, the theory that fat causes disease.   He attacks the forty-year government-pharmaceutical-medical-promoted war on fat, which he correctly points out has done nothing to improve our collective health.  Pollan blows apart the lipid hypothesis with sheer venom and wit:

“What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism, the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism–its supreme test and, as is now coming clear, its most abject failure.

At this point you’re probably saying to yourself, ‘Hold on just a minute.  Are you really saying the whole low-fat deal was bogus?  But my supermarket is still packed with low-fat this and no-cholesterol that!  My doctor is still on me about my cholesterol and telling me to switch to low-fat everything.’ I was flabbergasted at the news too, because no one in charge–not in the government, not in the public health community–has dared to come out and announce: ‘Um, you know everything we’ve been telling you for the last thirty years about the links between dietary fat and heart disease?  And fat and cancer?  And fat and fat? Well, this just in: It now appears that none of it was true.  We sincerely regret the error.’

No, the admissions of error have been muffled, and the recent mea culpas impossible to find.  But read around the recent scientific literature and you will find a great many scientists beating a quiet retreat from the main tenets of the lipid hypothesis.

The Elephant in the Room

Pollan contrasts the low fat mantra with nutritionism’s greatest enemy:  the almighty Common Sense.  In a chapter from In Defense of Food titled “The Elephant in the Room,” Pollan discusses the life and research of Dr. Weston Price.  Price traveled the world in the 1930s studying the diets of cultures untouched by civilization.  He found a wide variety of diets but nowhere did he find cultures eating low-fat or low cholesterol.  He found that most cultures relied heavily on animal foods be they milk, meat, or eggs and found that these foods were considered sacred for good health, child development, and fertility.  And nowhere did Dr. Price find type II diabetes, heart disease, or any of the other major epidemics that plague us today.

Of course Dr. Price didn’t find processed foods either, and processed foods are certainly the biggest culprit in our national health crises.   And that is exactly Pollan’s point, which he conveys beautifully.  It is not high-fat foods, which cultures have subsisted on for thousands of years, that are causing our health problems.  It’s processed, industrialized food, plain and simple.  As Dr. Price showed, wherever the foods of civilization go, so go their diseases–heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, digestive disorders, etc.  None of the foods in our supermarket, especially those in the middle aisles, resemble anything that traditional people ate.  Nor anything our great grandmothers ate.  And as our health epidemics escalate, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the elephant in the room.

So then what’s my problem with Michael Pollan?

After tearing down the lipid hypothesis, after tearing down the nutritional fads of the past forty years, after celebrating the wonderful diversity in traditional diets, he reaffirms the one-size-fits-all USDA low-fat-low calorie food pyramid by saying, “Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.”  This is not what Dr. Price found!  And it’s not what other researchers, missionaries, explorers, colonialists and scientists found when the Western world started coming in contact with so called non-civilized cultures.

So I think I can say it better.  Ready?  Here goes:

Eat Real Food.  Eat a lot.  Mostly local.

Let me explain.

Eat Real Food

First off, I realize what Pollan meant by “Eat Food” was exactly to eat real food.  This is really the essence of what he writes about.  But I think “eat real food” says it a little better and a little clearer.   But that’s where the similarities end.  The last two, “Not a lot” and “Mostly plants,”  I take issue with and believe I can make a much clearer distinction about what we should eat and why.

Eat a lot

So let’s look at his second statement. “Not a lot.”  Of course we should not overeat.  And of course Americans overeat.  I get it.  Everyone gets that.  But again this statement is reaffirming this idea that’s been conditioned into us which is that for good long term health we should not eat a lot of calories.  We have weight-loss programs, books, and marketing schemes making millions off this idea.

I say this all the time, and I can’t emphasize it enough:  It’s not how much you eat, it’s WHAT you eat that really matters.

In his groundbreaking book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, researcher Gary Taubes shows how subjects on long-term low-calorie diets do lose weight but how a heavy price is paid.  Subjects consistently report constant hunger, cravings, cold body temperatures, reduced energy, decreased blood pressure, anemia, inability to concentrate, and a decrease in sexual interest.  Upon completion of the diets, the subjects almost always overindulged and put the weight back on and more.

Taubes goes on to show that a healthy metabolism and a healthy weight are most influenced not by caloric intake or even exercise but by the quality of the food being consumed.  Thus those on nourishing, real foods, even without regular exercise, can maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. Conversely, those on nutrient-deficient diets, even with regular exercise, have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight and metabolism even at lower caloric intakes.

The Importance of Animal Foods

And finally, “Mostly plants.”  This is the one that really makes my eyes roll.  If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say that all you have to do is eat more fruits and vegetables, I’d be a very rich man.  Of course plants are an important part of most diets!  Everybody knows that.  They deliver essential nutrients in the form of minerals, vitamins, fiber, antioxidants and so forth.  But, let’s get back to common sense for a minute.

In his decade-long study of traditional peoples, Dr. Price did not find many cultures eating primarily plant-based diets.    Generally speaking if you were to take the USDA food pyramid and reverse it, you would find a much better representation of traditional diets.  Fat and protein formed the foundation.  Carbohydrate foods formed the middle and top.

Again, this is just common sense.  Humans have adapted to a wide range of habitats, many of which do not have fertile farmland.  In fact, there are more regions on planet Earth not suitable for farmland than those that are.  In those regions, humans fish, or they domesticate animals, or hunt, or do a combination of these things depending on the ecosystem.

A Complete Source of Protein and Cholesterol

There are a lot more reasons why animal food-based diets are a better model for health.   Unlike plant foods, animal foods represent a complete source of protein.  They also contain cholesterol, which plays dozens of essential roles in the body including the inflammation process.  If you have surgery or a dental procedure, your cholesterol will temporarily skyrocket.  Once the body heals itself, the high cholesterol comes down.  Likewise, remove inflammatory foods such as sugar, grains, and trans fats, and watch your high cholesterol come down.

Vitamin A and D

Animal foods contain vitamin D.  Plant foods do not.  Animal foods contain retinol, the true version of vitamin A.  Plants do not contain retinol.  They contain beta-carotenes, which are converted to retinol in the digestive process, albeit less efficiently.

Anti-nutrients in plants

Finally, many plants have anti-nutrients in them that are difficult on the human digestive system.  Grains, even whole ones, are not always the nutritious foods that they’re made out to be.  Gluten, the main protein in wheat, barley, and rye, is causing widespread problems in our culture right now.  It’s a very difficult protein for the body to break down.  Grains, as well as beans, nuts and seeds also contain naturally occurring substances called phytates, which block the absorption of a number of vitamins and minerals.  Sprouting, soaking, and fermenting neutralizes phytates at the same time it increases nutrient concentration.  However, few people do this anymore.   And don’t count on Kellogg’s to do it anytime soon.

Mostly Local

So when it comes to saying what we should mostly eat, I think “mostly local” says it so much better.  Saying we should eat “mostly plants” immediately gets bogged down in the controversial science of fats, carbs and protein–the very “nutritionism” ideas that Pollan is trying to escape from in the first place.  And “mostly local” is just common sense.  It’s large-scale agricultural practices and the corporate policies that promote them that are destroying our environment, destroying our health, and are in turn creating food shortages around the planet.   It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that these large-scale practices are NOT sustainable.

The answer lies in small-scale, sustainable food systems.  These can feed the planet, even in cities.  In fact, just today I came across this article about a UN report that refutes the notion that only industrialized agriculture can feed the world:

What Asia taught me about eating local

I have traveled extensively in Asia and my favorite part of Asia is the urban food markets.  These bustling, colorful markets are present every day, on the streets, on the sidewalks, in the alleys, at all times of the day.  The food is always fresh and, of course, always local.  It feeds entire cities.  This model may not be adaptable to the US urban landscape quite yet but even rooftops, balconies, lawns, and small backyards can yield a surprisingly diverse and large amount of food.  Sooner or later (and probably sooner), we’re all going to have to re-learn some of the ways our great grandparents went about raising food.

Finally, local, sustainably grown foods are healthier for you and for your children.  They’re better for the health of the animals.  They’re better for the health of our communities.  They keep farms alive and support local farmers. They promote biodiversity and prevent over development.   And they are less dependent on oil as industrial foods (including organic ones) must travel long distances from farm to fork.  To put it simply, local foods are just better for our planet.  Period.  Ironically, this is the essence of what Michael Pollan has so eloquently taught us.  I just think I outdid him at his own game.

So there you have it.

Eat real food.  Eat a lot.  Mostly local.

Your Turn

Think you can do better?  Try it!  It’s fun.  Leave a comment below with your own version.

6 Tips for Healthier Coffee Drinking

March 3rd, 2011
By Craig Fear

coffee steam 2

As a Nutritional Therapist, I’ve been told more than once that I have a gentle way of working with clients.  I don’t force diets and supplements down people’s throats.  I know we’re all at where we’re at health-wise for a variety of reasons that go well beyond just food itself and it can take time for changes to be instituted.   I understand people use food for mental, emotional reasons and that taking a specific food away can be akin to a huge psychological shock. 

On my intake forms one of the questions is, “Is there a food you are absolutely not willing to give up?”  This gives me an idea of how fast or slow we need to go when making dietary changes.  Chocolate, sweets and alcohol are just some of the obvious ones.  But by far the most frequent item is…yeah, you guessed it…coffee.

I always encourage my clients to minimize too much coffee in their diet.   It can stress the adrenal glands, liver, kidneys and stomach and can cause the excretion of vital vitamins and minerals as the body tries to rid itself of the caffeine.  It can contribute to blood sugar irregularities (see #5 below) as well.  I could go on and on about its negative health effects.  But I’ll never tell anyone they have to give up coffee.   If I did, the majority of the people I see would never come back!

However, it never ceases to me amaze when people do go cold turkey and never go back.  When they come back for a follow up and say they’ve given up coffee and feel great, I always feel like saying, “Umm…could you show me how to do that?”

Perhaps this is not the best way to start my very venture into nutritional blogging by admitting that I’m a coffee drinker.   It’s a habit that started long before I changed my own diet, one that goes well back to those all-night study sessions in college.  It’s also a habit that’s reinforced by my love of coffeehouses.  I like hanging out with friends there, I like to do work there, I like to listen to music there, and now, I guess I like to blog there as well.   And I know a lot of people who feel the same way.

So I have funny feeling a lot of people will identify with this blog because I know more people are NOT going to give up coffee than those that are.  So this blog is for you, my fellow coffee drinkers out there that scoff, smirk, sneer and roll your eyes at the seemingly endless barrage of how- to- quit -coffee articles out there and think, ”Yeah right”.  Because I’m right there with ya.

And God knows I’ve tried to give up coffee.  I’ve tried switching to tea and I’ve tried the coffee substitutes.   None of it has worked.  I even gave it up for 30 days once.  It made no difference.  Zippo.   I craved it as much on day 1 as I did on day 30.  I’ll never forget that first sip of coffee on the morning of day 31.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Of course, there’s a big difference between drinking a cup of coffee a day to say drinking 3 pots.  I know some of my Nutritional Therapist friends disagree with me on this but so be it.  Of all the toxic things we can put in our body, I don’t think a cup of coffee a day is anywhere near the top of that list.   I’m much more concerned with people getting sugar, chemicals and all manner of processed foods out of their diet.  These are the true culprits in our national health epidemics.  So if you’re eating mostly locally grown, nutrient dense sources of foods– including plenty of good healthy fats from grass fed, pastured animals– and if drinking a cup of coffee per day is your only nutritional vice, trust me, you’re way ahead of the game.

So with that being said, if you truly love coffee and there’s absolutely NO WAY you’re ever going to give it up, here are 6 tips that can turn a really addictive habit into a mild vice:

#1  Choose organic

Conventional coffee is heavily sprayed with pesticides.  There’s a plethora of organic choices out there.  At the very least, do this.  Better yet, support companies that promote fair trade practices.  You can usually find a few of these in your local health food store.  If not, here’s a few I recommend:

Equal Exchange

Dean’s Beans

Indigo Coffee Roasters

And finally, stay away from the flavored coffees (yeah, I know they’re yummy) which are usually full of artificial flavorings.

Note: The above links are amazon affiliate links. The cost is the same for you but Fearless Eating does receive a small commission to help cover the costs of this site.  I appreciate your support! Full disclosure here.

#2  Get the sugar out!

OK, this I realize is a tough one for a lot of people.  It was for me.  Until I did this I never realized that what I was really craving in my coffee was the sugar more than the caffeine.   And once I ditched the sugar, my palette became more attuned to the various types of roasts and regional variations.  I actually started enjoying the taste of coffee instead of the taste of sugar.  Try adding just cream (preferably raw if you can get it) in place of sugar.  That helped me get the sugar out once and for all.  The fat in cream will cut the bitterness of coffee.   Cream also has a natural sweetness that can help you wean off the refined white stuff.   Lastly, please do NOT use those flavored cream/creamer concoctions!  They’re made with hydrogenated vegetable oils, corn syrup and a whole host of other chemicals.  Now some of you might be saying, “Cream?!  What about low fat milk?  Isn’t that healthier?”  No.  As Bill Cosby once said, “Show me the cow who makes skim milk and then I’ll drink it”.  Low fat milk and all manner of low fat products are not health foods.  But that’s another blog topic for another blog day.

#3  Buy whole beans and grind them at home.

Coffee beans, like anything, will begin to breakdown and become rancid once the inner contents are exposed to oxygen and moisture.   To see this process with the naked eye cut open an apple and see what happens. The white flesh starts turning brown pretty fast.   This is due to its exposure to oxygen and moisture, the enemies of freshness.   They’re also the enemies of anti-oxidants, those things you hear about that create stability and health in living systems and ward off disease.  I’m skeptical about the anti-oxidant health benefits you hear about in coffee.  But if it’s true, those anti-oxidants will start to oxidize immediately after grinding, which is OK if you drink the coffee soon after.  After a few days however freshly ground coffee doesn’t taste so fresh anymore.   And if you get the sugar out, you can start to taste this pretty easily.

I use a simple Krup’s coffee grinder  to grind my beans at home.  It’s probably the most used appliance in my kitchen.  Here’s a link to the one I have if you’re in the market – (amazon affiliate link: full disclosure here).

#4  Keep it to ONE cup per day.

For starters, one cup is not a Starbucks twenty plus ounce mega -grande french vanilla frappuccino with whip cream and chocolate syrup.  Nor does it resemble a giant caramel coffee coolatta from Dunkin Donuts.  It’s eight ounces.  Your liver can handle that.  I know more than a few people who drink coffee all day long – five, ten, fifteen cups.   If you’re one of those, don’t even think about cutting down to one cup right away.  Reduce it slowly.  If you’re drinking ten cups, get it down to eight in a week.  Then get it down to five, and so on and so forth.  Other strategies for reducing the caffeine content include a second brewing from the same beans and including half decaf (Swiss mater method only) in each cup.

#5  Drink coffee after a meal.

For most people that would be breakfast, and it’s definitely better to wait until you have some food in your system before downing that cup of coffee.  Caffeine causes your body to release sugar into your bloodstream which in turn causes the pancreas to release insulin (another good reason to get sugar out!).  On an empty stomach this can cause a sharp drop in blood sugar which can then set up more sugar cravings. Guess what will help spike that sugar besides sugar?  Caffeine.  Furthermore, the caffeine in coffee can suppress your appetite causing you to go longer without feeling hungry.  This sets up further episodes of low blood sugar and further coffee and sugar cravings.  Having food in your stomach will help modulate this blood sugar response and keep those cravings at bay.

#6  Enjoy the heck out of it!

Yeah, that’s right.  We live in a world where we’re made to feel guilty about food:  don’t eat this, don’t eat that, this food will kill you, that food will kill you.  Of course, a lot of that is true, but you can take any food, create negative thoughts around it and actually make it unhealthier to consume with those stressful thoughts.  After all, stress depletes nutrients from the body, too.  So don’t feel guilty it, your one cup per day of organic, ground-at-home-with-cream-coffee.   Enjoy it!  I do every day.

Photo credit: coffee steam 2 by waferboard

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