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 nutrient parts as well as the fact that a diet is also more than the sum of its foods; in this post 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.
- Eat meals.
There is a common (yet untrue) belief held (especially among Americans) that snacking between meals is better for you than simply eating three meals a day. Because of this belief, people have began snacking much more and eating meals much less. There is a fourth meal that we eat that lasts all day long. We eat this meal while watching TV, studying, driving, etc.
“It is at the table that we socialize and civilize our children, teaching them manners and the art of conversation.”
When a family eats whole meals together, parents can be in charge of portion size, eating and drinking behaviors, as well as implement social norms about greed, gluttony, and waste. Eating meals together is less about filing and fueling ourselves and more about developing language and culture. Many families say and believe that they eat together three or four times a week, but when researchers put cameras in homes and watched them eat their meals, it turns out they eat their “meals” together much less than the families realize. In reality, mom might prepare something for herself and sit at the table eating it alone for the majority of the time; dad and kids each prepare themselves something separately – microwaving or opening packages of food – and eat at the table with mom only for as long as it takes to eat (and not all at the same time). In these kind of situations, Kraft or General Mills decide portion sizes, and the social value of a family sharing food is lost.  Also in these situations the family members tend to eat more because they have exactly what they want, therefore, the food companies who have made these products encourage this type of “family meal.” They market to each family member – “low carb for the dieting teenager, low cholesterol for dad, high fat for the eight-year-old, and so on) – and create these meal replacements so that even the eight-year-old can prepare his own meal safely.
Snacks are also a threat to the meal – and possibly the biggest one. Historically, work used to be a place free of food for the most part, causing people to go the five or six hours between lunch and getting off work without food. But now, many workplaces have kitchens full of candies and other kinds of snacks for you to bring back to your desk. Business meetings and conferences are full of bagels, muffins, pastries, and sodas. Economists at Harvard calculate that the majority of the calories we take in are from snacks – and these are not snacks consisting of fruits and vegetables. Instead, snacks are filled with refined carbohydrates, hydrogenated oils, corn sweeteners, and salt.
In order to overturn the rise of snacking and to eat and share more real meals, start with these rules of thumb:
- Do all your eating at a table.
“No, a desk is not a table.”
- Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) gas stations make more money by selling food and cigarettes than they do selling gas. The foods they are selling are, for the most part, (except maybe for the water) all highly processed, nonperishable snack foods and extravagantly sweetened soft drinks in huge bottles.
“Gas stations have become processed-corn stations: ethanol outside for your car and high-fructose corn syrup inside for you.”
- Try not to eat alone.
A growing number of Americans eat alone. It has bee found, though, that light eaters eat more when they eat with other people (most likely because they spend more time at the table), and people who over-eat tend to eat less (because they are more likely to over eat when they away from people watching them eat). When we eat alone, mindlessly watching TV or driving a car, we eat more.
“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from mere animal biology to an act of culture.”
- Consult Your Gut.
Psychologists have found that most Westerners use outside (mostly visual) cues to determine when we stop eating.
“The larger the portion, the more we eat; the bigger the container, the more we pour; the more conspicuous the vending machine, the more we buy from it; the close the bowl of M&Ms, the more of them we eat. All of which makes us easy marks for food marketers eager to sell us yet more food.”
It is important to take other things into consideration besides our eyes, does this food smell as good as it looks, does the last few bites of this cake taste as good as the first, I could eat more of this, but am I really still hungry? It is said that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to realize that you are full, yet most people finish meals in less than 20 minutes. Because of this, our feeling of being full has almost no say in when we stop eating. Therefore, eating slowly can help us to eat less. The long, lleisurely meals the French have contribute to their ability to tell when they are full. Brian Wansink asked a group of French people how they decided when to stop eating, they said “When I feel full.” But most Americans said, “When my plate is clean” or “When I run out.”
In his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, Wansink gives dozens of tips on how to better use your senses to determine when you are full: Serve smaller portions on smaller dishes, serve foods and drinks from smaller containers – even if this means repackaging, leave empty bottles, bones, etc. on the table in order to see how much you have eaten or drunk. Use glasses that are taller rather than wider (because people tend to pour more in shorter, fatter glasses), leave healthy foods in sight, and unhealthy ones out of sight (or to make it even easier, don’t buy so many unhealthy foods), leave serving bowls in the kitchen instead of putting them on the table in front of you (this discourages grabbing for seconds).
- Eat slowly.
As said previously, this can help you know when to stop. But it is important to eat slowly in a different way as well. Eat deliberately and with knowledge.
“Slow Food is well grown and well prepared [it is] enjoyed at leisurely communal meals… it elevates quality over quantity and believes that doing so depends on cultivating our sense of taste as well as rebuilding the relationships between producers and consumers that the industrialization of our food has destroyed. ’Food quality depends on consumers who respect the work of farmers and are willing to educate their senses.’”
Eating slowly is to have knowledge of what is involved in taking food out of the earth and on to the table. It also means to eat deliberately; eat from freedom rather than of compulsion. Don’t eat thoughtlessly or hurriedly, but have knowledge and gratitude about the food you consume. There is no gratitude (or even knowledge usually) about eating a hamburger who’s meat came from a feedlot and a slaughterhouse who’s workers knew nothing of the animal, and cooked with an artificial grill flavor.
Something that can help gain knowledge and gratitude for your food is to involve yourself in food production by doing things like planting some herbs or foraging edible greens or wild mushrooms. This brings us to our last rule:
- 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 that implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that food is a product of industry, not nature; that food is fuel, and not a form of communion, with other people as well as with other species – with nature.”
If you want to get fresh foods, plant a garden; the food you grow there is more fresh than any you can buy – and in the long run it can save you money. The work you put in to growing your food contributes to your health before you even sit down to eat it. Pollan explains that it is extremely satisfying to enlist your body to its own sustenance. And even when problems arise in your garden, it gives you a much bigger appreciation for the farmer you can fall back on who somehow knows how to always get it right. 
“When the basket of produce lands on the kitchen counter, when we start in on the cleaning and cutting and chopping, we’re thinking about a dozen different things – what to make, how to make it – but nutrition, or even health, is probably not high on the list. Look at this food. There are no ingredients labels, no health claims, nothing to read except maybe a recipe. Its hard contemplating such produce to think in terms of nutrients or chemical compounds; no, this is food, so fresh it’s still alive, communicating with us by scent and color and taste.”
When you grow your own food, you have taken control from the food scientists and processors. You now know exactly what is in your food – and what is not in it: you do not have to worry about high-fructose corn syrup, ethoxylated diglycerides, or partially hydrogenated soy oil. You don’t have to worry because you know that you did not ethoxylate or partially hydrogenate anything, and you didn’t add any additives (unless you begin with a can of soup – then you should worry).
The last paragraph of this book is too great and too inspiring to summarize, I just couldn’t do it justice without letting you read it for yourself:
“And what these acts subvert is nutritionism: the belief that food is foremost about nutrition and nutrition is so complex that only experts and industry can possibly supply it. When you’re cooking with food as alive as this—these gorgeous and semigorgeous fruits and leaves and flesh—you’re in no danger of mistaking it for a commodity, or a fuel, or a collection of chemical nutrients. No, in the eye o f the cook or the gardener or the farmer who grew it, this food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on the other, and all o f them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight. I’m thinking o f the relation ship between the plants and the soil, between the grower and the plants and animals he or she tends, between the cook and the growers who supply the ingredients, and between the cook and the people who will soon come to the table to enjoy the meal. It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by. The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many things to worry about, but “health” is simply not one of them, because it is given.“