Thursday, February 1, 2007


  • Required reading: Unhappy Meals, an excellent piece by Michael Pollan in the NYT magazine this past Sunday about eating food vs. eating nutrients, and how in our culture we've come to depend too much on the latter. At the risk of giving the whole thing away, I have to quote his rules of thumb for a healthy diet that come at the end of the piece:
    1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t 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 Kellogg’s 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.) Don’t 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 won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t 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. There’s 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 don’t 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 what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll 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 weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t 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 can’t 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. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.
    But seriously, go read the whole thing.

  • Top Chef: I missed the final episode, but I see that Ilan won, despite the fact that most of his dishes are straight off the menu of the restaurant he works at, despite his complicity in the attempted shaving of Marcel, despite the fact that he seems to be a whiny little bastard all the way down. Even if his food was more happening than Marcel's (and of course you can't taste things through tv, so it's impossible to have a truly informed opinion) -- what a tool. On the other hand, as Anthony Bourdain observes, being a manipulative, conspiratorial, vindictive, weasely little shit is hardly an impediment to a career as a chef, and Ilan's ability to get others to do his dirty work is a useful skill in the profession. So -- sigh. Ok. I guess it's a sign of the show's integrity that two of the least likeable contestants were the ones that made it to the finals. (Bourdain also muses that while Marcel has a long way to go to be a chef, he might have a promising future as a food blogger. Ouch!)

    (My god. I'm blogging about a TV show. Excuse me; I have to go take a long, searching look in the mirror.)


T said...

Oh, it's ok to blog about TV occasionally :-) I almost wrote about "Top Chef," but then got distracted.

Anyway, I thought the last episode was fairly boring--it seemed clear from the way it was filmed that Ilan was always going to win, though we were rooting for Marcel, annoying little git though he is.

Oh, well--so it goes, and I have to give Marcel a lot of credit for hanging in there.

Rob said...

Yeah, see, I don't quite buy the Marcel-as-annoying-little-git thing. Just look at the quality of his enemies: the thoroughly loathsome Betty, the egomaniacal bully Frank, and of course Ilan, the weasel-coated weasel with weasel filling. We see a lot more of people slagging him than of him actually doing anything annoying. (Thinking of Sam hollering at him in the grocery store, Betty blaming him for her nasty little failed creme brulees.) Maybe it's just my fascination with molecular gastronomy coming out, but Marcel always seemed to be the one who was really focused on his food and willing to take risks. And that despite a big whomping pile of hate being dumped on him.

On a loosely related note: did you know Padma Lakshmi is married to Salman Rushdie? They should have had him on as a guest judge. Though I guess he still has to avoid the limelight.

An Briosca Mor said...

Rob, how does your advocacy of this statement from #1 mesh with your current fascination with molecular gastronomy?

Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Don't know about your great-great-grandmother, but if someone had asked mine to cook up some of that molecular gastronomy for dinner, she probably would have dug some furry, beady-eyed animal out of the ground, skinned it and fried it up. (Of course, at least one of my GGGMs was living in West Virginia, so chances are she probably did do that, fairly often...)

Also, do you think that Dino and my dining destination of last week, Ray's The Classics, treat meat more as a flavoring than a food? My dinner sure was flavorful, how about yours?

Rob said...

Eh. The article's talking about buying Snackwells in the supermarket, not eating laser-cooked seared-on-the-inside sashimi at Moto. And as for the meal at Dino, it was damn flavorful, though it might have been healthier if I'd gotten a different ap. I see no contradiction.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

t said...

Yeah, point taken about Marcel being more annoying in the minds of his competitors than on screen, though I'd still make a case for him being an annoying little git. But for a *long* time, all I wanted was for Betty to be eliminated. Ick. Nor was I ever fond of Ilan. Basically, Elia got my vote because (a) she's cute; and (b) she made mushroom soup :-)

I did know about Padma Lakshmi being married to Rushdie--that's a hoot, isn't it! I'm not too fond of her, but she's a hell of a lot better than the other woman on there. I think they should just import Heidi Klum and Nina Garcia from Project Runway. At least they have some personality!

Rob said...

You know, the thing that's really annoying about Project Runway is how the editing is so plainly intended to ramp up the suspense. I can't stand to watch the damn show because of it. They're a little more skillful about it on Top Chef, but it still makes sitting through the judging kind of a trial. PL says something like "you three had the worst dishes in the competition. Two of you will stay, and one of you will be going home tonight. Betty, please pack your knives and go." Post editing it's more like "You three (closeup of Michael)(Cut back to PL) had (closeup of Cliff)(Cut back to PL) the worst dishes (closeup of Betty)(Cut back to PL) in the competition. Two of you will stay (closeup of Tom, looking serious)(PL voiceover) and one of you (closeup of the guest judge, not looking serious because he's too much of an industry heavyweight to have to)(Cut back to PL) will be going (closeup of Michael, sweating) home (closeup of Cliff, looking stern) tonight. (Closeup of Betty in her stupid little hat)(Cut back to Pl)(Cut to Tom, still looking serious)(cut to the guest judge, wondering why PL is speaking so slowly) Betty. (Closeup of Betty doing that annoying wide-eyed thing) Please pack your knives and go." It's enough to make a man go gibbering into the night.

T said...

Indeed it is enough to make a man--or a woman!--go gibbering in the night. And that's precisely why I find Project Runway easier to watch, despite the stupid suspense (and the supposed "release" of the guitar strumming they use to indicate the suspense is over)--because I'd just plain rather *look* at Heidi Klum or Nina Garcia. Not to mention that they--plus Michael Kors, of course--are much more entertainingly snarky than the TC judges.

Incidentally, the new one--Top Design--is set up to be the sad sorry sack of shit stepchild of the other two. The judges don't seem to have any personality so far, and the "walk 'em through it" guy (forget his name) is just bizarre--certainly no Tim Gunn or Tom Coliccio.