I think it was Lewis Black who said we don’t know S.F.A. about what’s healthy to eat (paraphrasing here). I like this article on the NYTimes, which I will now quote in small chunks.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.
…a health claim on a food product is a good indication that its not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
…the food industry, nutritional science and…journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is…the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without expert help something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees is seriously unprofitable…
It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by nutrients, which are not the same thing….terms like fiber and cholesterol and saturated fat rose to large-type prominence.
Vitamins brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition.
The first thing to understand about nutritionis [and therefore nutritionists] is that it is not quite the same as nutrition. As the ism suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology….[a way] of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions.
The French paradox the fact that a population that eats all sorts of unhealthful nutrients is in many ways healthier than…Americans are. So there is…a question as to whether nutritionism is actually any good for you.
the food industry set about re-engineering thousands of products to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed the good ones and less of the bad, and by the late 80s a golden era of food science was upon us. The Year of Eating Oat Bran also known as 1988 served as a kind of coming-out party for the food scientists, who succeeded in getting the material into nearly every processed food sold in America. Oat brans moment on the dietary stage didnt last long, but the pattern had been established, and every few years since then a new oat bran has taken its turn under the marketing lights. (Here comes omega-3!)
its…easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.
The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.
People dont eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So what nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least thats how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods theyre found in, as weve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they dont 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. Big oops.
Whats going on here? We dont know.
To look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Heres a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:
4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.
This is what youre ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some genes expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesnt do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.
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.
Long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communications up and down the food chain, so that a creatures senses come to recognize foods as suitable by taste and smell and color, and our bodies learn what to do with these foods after they pass the test of the senses…. Health depends on knowing how to read these biological signals: this smells spoiled; this looks ripe; thats one good-looking cow. This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses with artificial flavors or synthetic sweeteners.
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. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating.
It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, wed have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. Thats not what were doing. Rather, were turning to the health-care industry to help us adapt. Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. Its gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now its working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, surely the cost to society estimated at more than $200 billion a year in diet-related health-care costs is unsustainable.
1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Dont eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldnt recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldnt recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.
2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. Theyre apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Dont forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kelloggs can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Dont take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.
3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.
4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You wont find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers market; you also wont find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.
5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. Theres no escaping the fact that better food measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils whether certified organic or not will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.
Eat less is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. Calorie restriction has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called Hara Hachi Bu: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the eat less message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I dont know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.
6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on whats so good about plants the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? but they do agree that theyre probably really good for you and certainly cant hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, youll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less energy dense than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (flexitarians) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.
7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it werent a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldnt still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet cant possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.
8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.
9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of health. Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. Its all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isnt bordered by your body and that whats good for the soil is probably good for you, too.