Mostly Plants: What to Eat
This is the last post of Part 3 of the series, Getting Over Nutritionism. This series is based on Michael Pollan‘s book In Defense of Food. In Part 3 of this book, Pollan gives tips on what to eat and why real food (no matter the fat content) is always the healthiest option. This post explains the last four tips Pollan gives (visit Part 3.1 and 3.2 to see the other rules he gives).
Image Credit: Austin Kleon – A Writer Who Draws.
- Eat more like the French. Or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.
It has been proven that people who eat a diet full of traditional foods are generally much healthier than people eating a Western diet. These diets include those of Japanese and other Asian diets, diets of Mexico, India, and Mediterranean, including France, Italy, and Greece. These diets consist of two dimensions: the foods the culture eats and how they eat the foods; both are very important to the health of the people (I will discuss their eating habits in the next post of this series). Traditions in a culture reflect a lot of the people, the environment, and the history of the people of the culture. Foods and the way cultures prepare and eat them show just as much. Eating spicy foods help people keep cool in warmer climates. Spices also contain antimicrobial properties, which help keep foods fresh for longer (an important feature needed in foods found in hot environments). It has been found that the hotter the climate, the more spices are found. Cuisines are not only there for health or biology, but also for religious, traditional, or practical reasons. But even more than any other cultural practice, eating is deeply connected to nature – connected both to human biology and the natural world. Many of the combinations of foods and how they are prepared are products of biocultural evolution.  For example, corn and beans are commonly eaten together in Latin America. Each of these foods are lacking an important amino acid that the other is abundant in; eaten together, they form a balanced diet when meat is not part of the meal.
- Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
As Pollan said, diets are products of an evolutionary process. With this in mind, new foods or food substances that resemble mutations could be an evolutionary improvement, but they probably aren’t – for example, soy. Americans are eating much more soy products than ever before, mainly because of the industry that can and wants to process and sell huge amounts of subsidized soy that comes from North and South America. But we are eating soy today in ways that Asian cultures (who have much more experience with soy) would not recognize; things like soy protein isolate, soy insoflavones, or textured vegetable protein from soy and soy oils (which make up a fifth of the calories in the American diet). These soy products are in thousands of processed foods, resulting in Americans eating more soy than even the Japanese or Chinese. Unfortunately, there are many negative effects of these food products. Soy insoflavones (that is found in the majority of soy products) are compounds much like estrogen that actually binds to human estrogen receptors (although it is unclear whether or not these phytoestrogens act like estrogen or only trick our bodies into thinking they are actually estrogen). Phytoestrogens have an effect on the growth of some cancers, menopause symptoms, and the function of the endocrine system. These uncertainties have rendered soy insoflavones GRAS (“generally regarded as safe”) status by the FDA.
- Don’t look for the Magic Bullet in the Traditional Diet.
Just as foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts, dietary patterns are more than the sum of the foods that comprise them. There has been much study and research on what exactly it is in these traditional diets that make them so healthy (Is it the olive oil? Fish? Wild greens? Garlic? Nuts?), but any time they pinpoint one single food of value, it is not sufficient to explain why people who live off of these diets live longer, have lower cancer rates than people living off the Western diet. It is obvious that the whole of these dietary patterns is greater than the sum of its parts. According to the current scientific standards of dietary guidelines, the French eat unhealthily (too much saturated fat and wine), Greeks get too much of their calories from fats (mainly by eating so much olive oil), yet the people who live off of these diets are significantly healthier than people who live off of the Western diet. Recently, some have began studying whole diets instead of individual foods and nutrients. Their findings support this idea that whole diets are more than their individual parts. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied and compared the Mediterranean and Asian patterns (which are high in fruits, vegetables, and fish but are low in red meat and dairy products) with the Western patterns (which is high in processed meat, refined grains, sugary foods, and dairy products). This study found huge amounts of evidence that whole dietary patterns (not specifically foods or nutrients) are what cause these people to be healthier.
- Have a glass of wine with dinner.
Although wine isn’t an X factor of any diet, it is a huge part of the French and Mediterranean diets. There has been an abundance of scientific evidence that shows there are health benefits of alcohol (along with centuries of belief and evidence). Although there are, of course, threats of alcoholism, it has been found that people who drink in moderation seem to live longer and suffer much less from heart disease than those who drink much more or not at all. Red wine in particular has unique protective qualities. There are heart benefits that increase with the amount of alcohol you consume (up to four drinks a day – depending on your body type – any more increases your risk of having other health issues). Therefore, it is recommended that men have no more than two drinks a day and women have one drink a day. It is important to remember that drinking a little bit daily is healthier than drinking a lot on the weekends. Drinking with food is also healthier than drinking without eating.