Wow, I watched Michael Pollan’s PBS film In Defense Of Food and I highly recommend seeing it. I first rented it on Prime video, but then got the DVD from the library because I wanted to dive into it and remember what was said. As you may know, when I read great books, I take notes. Well, I did the same with this DVD. Below are my notes.

In Defense Of Food

Michael Pollan

I’m a writer, I don’t have a scientific background am I qualified to take people on this journey? I’ve spent a lot of time writing articles and tracing the food chain and showing people where their food came from, how it was produced, and following meals back to the farm. What I found from readers is they just really want to know is what should I eat. No wonder people are confused. Everyday there’s a different headline. Eat more fiber, drink less milk, eggs are bad, eggs are good.  I became absorbed in, yeah what do we know. What do we know about the links between diet and health? I decided to see if I could come up with some guidance for myself, my readers, my family, on how to eat if you’re concerned about your health.

I really thought the answer was more complex than it turned out to be.

Why does food need defending? It’s everywhere around us.

In the last 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled.  More children are getting a disease that use to be rare in children. Type 2 diabetes. Being overweight puts you at risk for getting the disease. Since 1975, the percentage of Americans who have type 2 diabetes has more than tripled and is expected to keep on growing. Four of the top 10 things that will kill you are chronic disease linked to diet: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes, so something is wrong.

The diet most of us eat these days is known as the Western diet. It’s mostly meat, white flour, vegetable oils, and sugar. And very little fruit, vegetables, and whole grain. It’s cheap, it’s convenient, and most of it has been processed to taste really good.

The food industry has got very good about getting us hooked on salt, sugar, and fat.  We are biologically designed to like foods that are high in calories because it was adapted when food was scares.

We are eating more processed foods than ever before. They now make up some 60% of our diet. The food industry makes its greatest profits through the most extensively processed foods.  The key ingredients in those foods, corn, soy beans, wheat, and rice, don’t cost the food companies much because government subsidies keeps the supplies high and prices low. The food companies turn those crops into things like hydrolyzed soy protein, mono and diglycerides, and high fructose corn syrup. 

What happened to the food? We look at what’s present and absent from food to understand where they went wrong and why people are getting sick. Take bread for example. It’s made from a few basic ingredients: four, water, yeast, and salt. We’ve been eating it for thousands of years. It’s very different than what we eat today.  The bran and the germ is the good stuff, but what’s it bread today lacks this and is mostly carbohydrates. This turns into glucose in the body. White flour lasts longer, but it’s been ruined as a nutrient food source.

We use to eat a lot of green plants.  They are one of nature’s best source of fatty acids called omega 3s and are vital to our health. Agriculture set in motion wheat, rice, and corn and these began to dominate our diet. Omega 3 fats are essential for optimal brain, heart, and immune health. Pasture fed animals eat plants that are high in omega 3.

Packaged foods today are packed with Omega 6 because they have a much longer shelf life. We need both, but eating too many 6’s blocks out the Omega 3s.  Omega 3 fats are essential for brain/heart health, and immune function. Scientist believe the loss of 3s increase disease, impairs development of kids brains so they don’t have optimal IQ, and increases greater risk of depression.

Perhaps the greatest risk to our health is one we’ve created.  We consume about 1000% more sugar per day than we did 200 years ago.  There are sugars in bread, condiments, crackers, hot dogs and all kinds of foods today.

We have a problem when soda cost less than milk, and it’s marketed as a normal thing to give children.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

We are at a fork in the road.  We have 2 options: surrender to the Western diet. Stay on processed food and fast food and wait for evolution to adapt us to it.  It will happen eventually, but there will be so much suffering before it happens. But there’s another option: We can take the more practical, more economical, and the more beautiful path. Simply change the way we are eating.

Everything I’ve learned about healthy eating can be summed up in just 7 words. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. That other stuff we shouldn’t even dignified as food. Edible food-like substance. That’s all that stuff in the middle of the grocery store. There are foods that scream they are full of whole grain goodness.  There are cereals that say they will save you from a heart attack. They don’t talk that way over in the apples and broccoli.  Why is that? Well, they don’t have packages or big budgets.

Nutrition is one thing, it’s a science, but nutritionism is an ideology. It’s the ideology that the nutrient is the key to understanding food. If you accept that idea, that the importance of a food are the nutrients it contains, you suddenly find yourself dragged along to tenant number two of nutritionism: the idea that since nutrients are invisible then it falls to experts to tell us how to eat. John Kellogg came up with Corn Flakes as a better solution to protein breakfast and made millions on it. They were eventually disproven by science.  We look at gluten the way we look at protein. Today there are millions of Americans eating a gluten free diet. 

The campaign to reduce fats in our diets is the best example of what can go wrong when the science of nutrition gets high jacked by the ideology of nutritionism. The industry came up with margarine. Doctors began to subscribe margarine in place of butter to reduce heart/ artery issues. In the 1990s, scientist discovered that eating trans-fats were not healthy at all.  Trans fats, saturated fats are what we should NOT be eating.  As it turned out, people who had more trans fats in their diets, had higher rates of diabetes and heart disease. Over time, many people began thinking that all fats were bad.  We need some fat and we would die without certain fatty acids.

How do we know what’s really healthy and what’s not? How can we tell the difference between food and edible food-like substances? I’ve come up with some common sense guidelines that I call Food Rules:

Eat only foods that will eventually rot

Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans

Avoid foods you see advertised on TV

If we’re going to eat real food, what kind of real food? This is somewhat controversial right now, but the answer is… mostly plants. There are people who demonize meat, but there’s no reason to do that because meat is a healthy food. Humans have eaten meat for a very long time. The problem is we just eat too much of it.

Every additional daily serving of vegetables and fruits reduces your risk of stroke by 5% and your risk of heart disease by 4%.  We only eat 2-3 portions of fruits/ vegetables in this country.  If we upped that by just 1 more portion, it would save 30,000 lives and $5 billion dollars in medical costs.

Replacing 1 serving of red meat was found to be associated with a 7-10% lower risk of mortality. 

Researchers have discovered a new finding that might explain some of the risks of eating red meat.
Stanley Hazen is a cardiologist: “We were looking for features in the blood that predicted near term risks for heart attack, stroke, and death.”  He seems to have found just that. A compound called TMAO but didn’t know where it came from, so they reversed engineered it. The answer came from red meat, which contains a substance called carnitine. Bacteria in our intestines feed on this and help turn it into TMAO. Hazen found the more TMAO we have in our blood, the more likely we are to develop heart disease. TMAO enhances heart disease risk by changing cholesterol metabolism.  If you have a high TMAO level, the more plaque you have in your arteries.

Dr. Elsworth Wearham is a vegetarian and is 99 years old.   He’s was a heart surgeon and retired at the age of 95. He says, “Eat a plant based diet.  It’s simple to have good eating habits.”

Colon specialist, Stephen O’Keefe spent years working in Africa, where he saw very little colon cancer. When he moved to the US, he was struck by the fact that African Americans have one of the highest rates of colon cancer in the world, even though many are genetically similar to Africans. He says studies have demonstrated that diet is the difference. Most Africans eat mostly plants and very little processed foods. Those plant based foods include fiber, which our bodies can’t digest. We understood for a long time that fiber was important. We thought it was important to help constipation, but O’Keefe’s study shows that fiber also feed bacteria in the colon that help to keep it healthy by producing a compound called butyrate. Our cells don’t produce it, but bacterial cells do. If you eat enough fiber, the butyrate maintains the health of the colon and prevents cancer. The less fiber you eat, the more bacteria you have that make harmful compounds that can and does lead to cancer. In just 2 weeks, we can (O’Keefe proved this in a study) influence our risks of colon cancer by switching to a plant based, high fiber diet.

We are not just eating for ourselves, we are eating for the trillions of microbes that inhabit us. Like the ones that help protect breast fed babies. The community of microbes inside us has become knowns as the microbiome.  Scientist are just beginning to understand how big a role these play in our health. We need a wide variety of intestinal microbes.

Researcher Jeff Leach thinks the people of Hadza in Tanzania can tell us a lot about how to cultivate our microbiome. The Hadza feed mainly on wild foods as our ancestors did. He collected stool samples from 500 Hadza. His goal, “are there certain foods that drive certain groups of bacteria and what does that tell us about the health of the person.”

To see more on Jeff Leach’s food project, see: http://humanfoodproject.com/

There are many good reasons to eat mostly plants.  Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food. If it came from a plant – eat it. If it was made in a plant (industrial) don’t.

There is no doubt that eating a wide variety of plants produces a better microbiome.

Don’t eat too much.  We are CONSTANTLY being tempted by food. People are eating more food, more often and in greater portions. The concept of eating meals together, where we stop what we are doing and eat socially is in trouble. We eat at our desks, in the car, while walking down the street. There were social taboos on this once upon a time and their all gone.

Brian Wansink, Director, Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University says, “We believe that we are master and commander of all our food decisions, but we’re not.  We make over 200 decisions about food daily and most of them are unconscious to us. Sometimes it’s the size of our plate.  The smaller the plate, the less food people take.”  Use smaller plates and glasses and serve the vegetables first.  Also, the order of food options makes a tremendous impact on what people eat. If we see poor choice food options first, our plates will be full of these.

Government policy has determined our food system.  It dictates what food sources we have, it determine what food products get supported and which ones don’t.  We need a system that promotes good health.

In 2012, Richmond California councilman Jeffery Ritterman, proposed a .1 tax on sugary beverages. He hoped it would stop people from drinking so much sugar.  He’s also a cardiologist. It didn’t work. People on a vote of 2-1 voted against the tax.

Make water your beverage of choice. Stop eating before you’re full. Eat more like the French do. It’s called the French Paradox. They take smaller portions and eat slowly. As Americans, we are some of the fastest eaters on the planet. Take as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it. Don’t eat anything our great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Break the rules once in a while.