Eat Food. Not Much. Mostly Plants.
He wrote about how dead rats were shoveled into sausage grinding machines. He explained, in nauseating detail, how diseased cows were slaughtered for beef; how guts and garbage were swept off the floor and sold as "potted ham."
Upton Sinclair even described how the occasional worker would fall into a meat-processing tank and be ground, along with animal parts, into "Durham's Pure Leaf Lard."
The Chicago meat-packing industry was in deep trouble after Sinclair's landmark book, The Jungle, was published in 1906. It caused outrage in America and abroad and meat sales fell by half. The book forced the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration.
Thanks largely to Sinclair, you can be relatively certain that your food is comparatively free of a variety of disgusting things.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of different ways to foul up our food supply and circumstances require that incarnations of Sinclair surface every generation or so to investigate our food supply.
Our modern-day Upton Sinclair is a journalism professor named Michael Pollan whose book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, explored the American food manufacturing system. The book's most significant contribution was the assertion that a combination of political and biological factors had done almost indescribable damage to the overall health of Americans.
Specifically, he traced how a single political decision made in the 70's having to do with farm subsidies led to a single grain — corn — being mass grown without the limitations normally imposed by supply and demand.
Corn became so abundant and consequently so cheap that manufacturers began looking for novel ways to use it. This led to the inclusion of high-fructose corn syrup in hundreds of products and the invention of a dazzling array of corn-based cereals and snack foods.
With all those cheap, salted, and sugared calories to be had, Americans grew increasingly fat and increasingly diabetic. Perhaps worse, though, was the wide-spread use of corn as cattle feed.
Cattle don't do well on grains. It makes them sick and they then require antibiotics. Furthermore, it changed the fatty acid content of their meat. Whereas normally the grass-fed creatures had omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratios more consistent with wild game or wild salmon, the corn-feeding turned them into hoofed heart attacks in waiting, the ingestion of which slowly clogged the nation's arteries.
Despite the billion-lumen light Pollan shined on the food industry, he didn't really pontificate too much on what humans should eat. He attempts to rectify that with his latest book, In Defense of Food.
His overall message?
Okay, on the surface that advice seems almost Forest Gumpian in its simplicity.
But you have to go deeper. Once you do, once you get into Michael Pollan's head and his gut, you realize that "eat food, not much, mostly plants," is a distillation of an entire dietary thought process; a Zen koan (minus a few syllables) that opens your mind up to a higher level of dietary thinking.
His thinking stems largely from the widely accepted notion that people eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases. If these diseased individuals stop eating a typical Western diet, they get better.
He cites the "civilized" Aborigines who developed diabetes and went back to the bush so they could eat more naturally and in doing so, heal themselves. Likewise, Americans need to escape the worst elements of the Western diet — heal themselves — by going back to the "bush."
Pollan laments the errors and inconsistencies in food science and, more importantly, the failure to rescind or even take responsibility for these errors. He wishes that the government or public health community would come out with something like the following:
Um, you know everything we've been telling you for the last thirty years about the links between dietary fat and heart diseases? 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.
But rather than just rail against what constitutes modern food science, he gives a dietary to-do list, most of which, maybe surprisingly, doesn't conflict at all with the bodybuilder or weight-trainer mindset. The following paragraphs detail some of the more significant suggestions on his list.
1. Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
We've had our own version of this at Testosterone for some time, which is, "Don't eat anything that comes in a box." Our version was based mostly on the notion that things that come in a box are generally highly processed, i.e., they get digested very, very quickly and cause a huge insulin surge resulting in, over the long run, decreased insulin sensitivity and undesirable body composition.
But it goes beyond that for Pollan. He decries the lack of nutrition in these foods; how they aren't even food anymore and that many of these so-called improvements — replacing one "bad" macronutrient for a "good" one — have made the food far less desirable, nutritionally speaking.
One of the examples he cites is dairy food. When dairies make their products low-fat, they have to go to great lengths to preserve the body or creamy texture; they have to put in food additives.
In the case of low-fat or skim milk, that means adding in powdered milk, which contains oxidized cholesterol that's much worse for your arteries than ordinary cholesterol.
Furthermore, removing all the fat makes it hard or even impossible for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that are the very reason some people drink milk in the first place!
Of course, the "grandmother rule" doesn't work very well in the aforementioned case as milk still looks like milk.
Neither would it necessarily work with bread. Traditional bread is of course made with flour, yeast, water, and a pinch of salt. Compare that with the list of two-dozen or so chemical ingredients in Sara Lee's Soft and Smooth Whole Grain White Bread.
"If not for the indulgence of the FDA, you couldn't even call it bread," writes Pollan.
Because the small percentage of whole grains in the bread would render it that much less sweet than, say, all-White Wonder Bread — which scarcely waits to be chewed before transforming itself into glucose — the food scientists have added high-fructose corn syrup and honey to make up for the difference; to overcome the problematic heft and toothsomeness of a real whole grain bread, they've deployed "dough conditioners," including guar gum and the aforementioned azodicarbonamide, to simulate the texture of supermarket white bread. By incorporating certain varieties of albino wheat, they've managed to maintain that deathly but apparently appealing Wonder Bread pallor.
Again, this "bread" might fool your grandmother, but she definitely wouldn't recognize Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt as food as it comes in what looks like a toothpaste tube. Oh it has some yogurt in it, but it also has about a dozen other ingredients in it, none of which your grandmother could discern as real food.
She might look at the "Berry Bubblegum Bash" flavor of Go-Gurt, scratch her graying head and wonder aloud how it could be that it has neither berries or bubblegum in it.
Other Frankenfood examples include breakfast cereal bars that have bright white veins representing, but having nothing to do with, milk; nondairy creamers, Twinkies that don't go stale, cheese-like food stuff that has no bovine contribution at all and, unlike European market cheese, is literally dead, kept in its refrigerator morgue until some fool deems to eat it.
He offers that perhaps a better rule would be, "Don't eat anything incapable of rotting."
2. Avoid food products that make a health claim.
The FDA actually approved the following health claim for Mazola Corn Oil, a product very high in the omega-6 fatty acids that most Americans get way too much of:
Very limited and preliminary scientific evidence suggests that eating about a tablespoon of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in corn oil.
Of course, if you continue reading, you see the "qualification" of this health claim:
[The] FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.
And then, to make it more head-smacking confusing:
To achieve this possible benefit, corn oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.
I don't know if the aforementioned example proves the FDA is corrupt or just stupid. It appears to be clear, though, that the American Heart Association is corrupt.
Consider that they've bestowed (for a fee) their heart-healthy seal on Lucky Charms, Trix, and Cocoa Puff cereals, in addition to Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drink, and Healthy Choice's Caramel Swirl Ice Cream.
Similar degrees of chutzpah are evident in the countless food manufacturers who claim their product to be chock full of antioxidants. Keep this in mind: all plants contain antioxidants of some kind, so don't think for a minute that the people who make Snickers Bars (which contain cacao from plants) haven't considered slapping a "Rich With Antioxidants!" label on their product.
Meanwhile, the products that truly contain rich amounts of antioxidants — the fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle — have no label to trumpet their nutritional value.
3. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
We all know this one. The periphery of the grocery store is lined with fresh food, food that rots, food that's alive. Those are the most nutritious foods. Of course, the suggestions isn't fool-proof as Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt is in the dairy case.
4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
Pollan recommends you go to a farmer's market whenever possible. When you go to a farmer's market, you eat food that's in season, food at its most nutritious. Eating in season helps you diversify your diet. If concerned with chemicals, ask the farmer how he or she deals with pests and fertility.
5. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
Pollan isn't against eating meat; he just recommends people eat less of it. Eating too much industrial meat exposes us to more saturated fats, more omega-6 fatty acids, more growth hormones, and more carcinogens.
He contends, though, that the benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods are probably the only point almost universally agreed on with nutritionists.
The explanation is pretty simple. We need to ingest antioxidants. They not only stabilize the oft-mentioned free radicals, they also stimulate the liver to produce enzymes that break down the antioxidants themselves. These enzymes go on to break down other chemicals as well, including whatever toxins happen to resemble the antioxidants.
In this way, they can neutralize carcinogens.
The more antioxidants in your diet, the more toxins you disarm.
6. You are what you eat eats too.
As discussed earlier in this article, cows and sheep are meant to eat grass, not seeds. If they eat too many seeds, they get sick and require constant antibiotics.
A grass-based diet for farm animals means the meat, butter, or eggs you eat, along with the milk you drink, contains fewer omega-6 and saturated fats, as well as higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.
Unfortunately, food manufacturers and food retailers have found another way to lie to us. While the meats they sell may be advertised as "grass fed," it doesn't mean anything. Allcows are grass fed until they get to the feedlot. That's where they're fattened up with corn.
Similarly, "free range" doesn't mean chickens were allowed to roam the countryside pecking at grasses and unsuspecting insects. It likely means they had a square foot or two of dirt to "range."
As far as cows, look for the words "grass finished" or "100% grass-fed." Only then can you be reasonably certain of getting healthy meat. As far as chickens, look for the word "pastured."
(To find a source of grass-fed beef or pastured chicken near you, go to eatwild.com.)
7. Eat like an omnivore.
Pollan recommends you add new species to your diet whenever you can. Diversity in diet means diversity in nutrients and antioxidants.
And keep in mind that while the grocery store offers a dazzling diversity of foods or food-like susbstances, most are made from the same four plants, three of which are seeds (corn, soy, and wheat).
8. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
Pollan points out that the designation "organic" isn't the last word in food quality. Yes, organic means the food was well-grown in relatively healthy soil and was nourished by organic matter rather than synthetic fertilizer, but that doesn't mean organic Oreos are healthy. It makes little difference to your body whether the high-fructose corn syrup its been fed is organic or not.
9. Eat wild foods when you can.
Wild plants are richer in antioxidants than their domestic cousins. Since they have to defend themselves against pests and disease without the help of man, they had to get tough — develop a bevy of interesting and potentially healthful (to man) phytochemicals — to survive.
Likewise, they tend to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
While they might be hard to find, consider purchasing and using purslane and lamb's quarters, two of the most nutritious plants (weeds, really) in the world.
Likewise, consider eating wild game when you can, too. They eat wild plants, so their meat is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, too.
10. Don't look for a magic bullet in the traditional diet.
Every year, it seems a new "magic bullet" food hits the mainstream. A couple of years ago, it was algae. Then it was wheat grass. Now it's the acai berry from the jungles of Brazil.
While they might be nutritious, no single food contains the answers to human health. Foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts and dietary patterns seem to be more than the sum of the foods that comprise them.
11. Have a glass of wine with dinner.
Despite not having great faith in individual ingredients, Pollan does seem to tout the benefits of the polyphenols in red wine, particularly resveratrol (which you might better recognize as Biotest's REZ-V), which study after study has suggested might be beneficial in cardiovascular health, fighting cancer, blocking negative effects of estrogen, and protecting the prostate.
After reading In Defense of Food, I can't help but think how bodybuilders, in their effort to have perpetual abs, have largely ignored nutrition, or at the very least gotten it horribly wrong.
We've jettisoned real milk for some nutritionally void and paradoxically more "harmful" type of milk; ignored entire categories of foods — carbs — when leaving them out might in the long run deprive us of valuable nutrients; been so afraid of fat or carbs that most of us find 15 or 20 "safe" foods and eat them day-in and day-out, thereby depriving us of countless, possibly essential nutrients; allowed ourselves to be hood-winked by labels that advertise "organic" or "grass-fed" or "low-fat" without realizing the potential loopholes; fallen prey to nearly every single wonder food or ingredient like blue-green algae or wheat grass without thinking that it's a combination of foods that constitutes health; and of choosing animal protein over plant-based products again and again in the puzzling belief that all our body needs to grow muscle is a single macronutrient.
I'm not asking you to necessarily change your dietary habits. I'm just asking you to think a little more about what you eat. It's a subject that deserves a little consideration.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants? It might not work entirely for strength athletes and bodybuilders, but we'd do well to consider taking a step or two in that direction.
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