Not Too Much: How to Eat
In this post of the Getting Over Nutritionism series, I am discussing Michael Pollan’s chapter in In Defense of Food, entitled Not Too Much: How to Eat. So far, I have talked about why food is more than the sum of its nutrients and that a diet is also more than the sum of its foods; now I will discuss why food culture is more than the sum of its menus.
Pollan explains that what nutritionism misses when it sees the French Paradox (the fact that the French eat gobs of saturated fat and wash it down with wine, yet they are some of the healthiest cultures) is that these people have a totally different relationship to food than we have. Nutritionism looks too much into the chemistry of food rather than to the sociology or ecology of eating. The French don’t snack very often, and most of their foods are eaten in meals that are shared with other people. Their portions are small and they don’t have seconds, yet they spend much more time eating than we do. Because of all of these combined habits, the French eat much less calories than we do, and they enjoy them much more.
Image credit: Austin Kleon: A Writer Who Draws.
This post gives the first eating habit Michael Pollan suggests, along with reasons as to why these habits are so healthy. The next eating habits will be explained in the next couple of weeks.
- Pay more, eat less.
Pollan says, “What the French case suggests is that there is a trade-off in eating between quantity and quality.” The food industry in America has devoted more than a century to the quantity and price of foods rather than the quality of foods. Although times seem to be changing for the food industry, history shows that the guiding principle has been pile it high and sell it cheap.
Taste and nutritional quality quite often go hand-in-hand, yet they also often cost more. This is because their growth has been handled less intensively and with much more care. It is shameful, Pollan says, that many people cannot afford to eat high-quality food in the United States (and in many Western cultures). But, the people that can, should. There are countless benefits (such as reducing your exposure to pesticides and pharmaceuticals) to eating high-quality foods for you, for the farmer, and for the people who live near the farmer.
When you pay more for food, you tend to eat less of it, which is an important benefit. Although most people don’t want to hear the tip, eat less, it is something pretty much every American (or Westerner) should take more practice of, even if you are not overweight. Some scientists believe that restricting your calorie intake is the biggest link between diet and the prevention of cancer.
“Overeating promotes cell division, and promotes it most dramatically in cancer cells; cutting back on calories slows cell division. It also stifles the production of free radicals, curbs inflammation, and reduces the risk of most of the Western diseases.”
Although eat less is much easier said than done, we can take up the practices of other, healthier cultures. The French eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds, and the Okinawa people (which is one of the oldest-lived, healthiest populations in the world) practice something they call hara hachi bu: Eat until you are 80% full. American practices are usually that we do not stop eating when we are full (much less when we are 80% full), but we stop eating when our environments tell us to stop, such as when the bowl is empty, plate is clean, or when the TV show is over. According to Brian Wansink (a Cornell professor of marketing and nutritional science) says that Americans pay more attention to external cues rather than internal cues about when we should stop eating.
Paying more for food can help is in a few ways. One, if it costs less, in many cases – for our financial well-being – we need to buy less of it. When we pay more for higher-quality food, we are usually purchasing foods that require a bit more effort to eat. “The rise in obesity in America began around 1980, exactly when a flood of cheap calories started coming off American farms, prompted by the Nixon-era changes in agricultural policy.” Since this time, the price of sweeteners and added fats (mostly coming from subsidized corn and subsidized soybeans) dropped 20%, but the price of fresh fruits and vegetables increased by 40%. The 300 extra calories that Americans have added to their daily diet since 1980 has come from convenience foods like snacks, microwaveable meals, soft drinks, and all kinds of packaged food substances.
Not only are these extra calories cheap, but they require very little time and effort to prepare. If you had to peel, cut, and fry potatoes every time you ate French fries, they would be eaten much less often. In 1980 only 10% of Americans owned a microwave, but in 1999 83% of households had a microwave in their kitchen. “As technology reduces the time cost of food, we tend to eat more of it.”
Pollan explains, though, that the opposite would hold true as well – paying more for food (whether in money, time, or effort – or all three!) will cause us to eat less of it. It is all about priority. Many people cannot afford to pay more for food, but most of us do pay for things like fast internet, multiple phone bills, television, etc. These things are a priority for most of us. Pollan explains that paying more for food isn’t so much a matter of being able to, but more of a matter of priority. When I first started researching real food, I was overwhelmed thinking that we would never be able to afford high-quality foods. But, my husband and I made changes to our priorities, and because of that, we were able to make eating real food work for us. Most Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than people of any other society. If we took a step back and made high-quality food a priority, we might see that it is possible to spend more on food each week (and therefore, eat less of it).
Although you will start to eat less food, you will not be hungrier. Real, whole foods are more filling and tastier. Your taste buds will be satisfied, and so will your stomach. “Choose quality over quantity, food experience over mere calories.”