The Culture of Food

Well, for those of you who are following my blog – I’m back from a sunny vacation! (which is why I haven’t posted in anything in a little while, my apologies)

While I was waiting for a few hours in the airport, I started to read Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food.” I’ve only made it into the first chapter, but what an extraordinary book – nothing less than what I would have expected after reading his earlier book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” 

Pollan begins his newest book with a simple statement: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Vegetables.” The simplicity of these words almost seems crass. Read it again, and it seems like common sense. Read it yet again, and you wonder, “why can’t everything think this way?”

“Eat food” of course means that we should be eating whole naturally occuring foods – as opposed to foodlike substances or edible food products. In his book, Pollan references the phenomena of “Western Diseases” such as high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, diabetes and cancer which occur at significantly higher levels amongst cultures that consume a large amount of processed “food products” as opposed to eating real food. My homeopath has even told me that the healthiest patients she sees are almost always recent immigrants from countries such as Africa where they have lived off their land and eaten unadultered food.

“Not too much” of course suggests that we not stuff ourselves until we’re ready to burst and have to loosen our belts after dinner. I read an article a couple years ago about our bodies’ mechanisms for feeling full. Unlike the bladder where stretched bladder cells send a signal to our brain to say “I have to pee… right now” digestion is more of a chemical process that takes time to register with the brain. This is why when you eat too fast, your body will be full before you realize it. Then, by the time you do realize you’re full – you’re REALLY full.

Evolutionarily speaking, this was a useful survival characteristic for humans, since food was not always easy to come by. When food was plentiful, it was to the caveman’s advantage to be able to eat more than he should, since his next meal could be days away. Furthermore, that first feeling of “I’m full, I can’t eat anymore” which originates from the small intestine, also tends to subside after about 20 minutes, which would allow that same caveman to keep devouring his meal if there was more food to be had.

Fast forward to more modern times (but not quite present time) where food was abundant, but also an integral part of our culture. We ate together, we enjoyed our food and company. We ate slowly, socially, and happily. Well, if you’re eating slowly, you’re much less likely to overeat, since your digestive system actually has time to tell your brain that it’s full. And if you’re socialized and happy, you’re also much less likely to be turning to food and overeating for comfort.

Finally, the last part of Pollan’s statement, “Mostly vegetables,” is one that we’ve been hearing a lot from vegetarians, animal rights activists and environmental activists. Someone from the David Suzuki Foundation told me that students often ask him what saves more water – taking showers or taking baths. His reply – eat less meat. For every 1 kg less meat that you eat, you will save water equivalent to an entire year’s worth of showers! Think about that!

Growing meat is also a caloric deficit. In other words, it takes about 40 calories of inputs to produce 1 calorie of meat. ( Pollan uses a clever analogy of a hunting wolf to illustrate this predicament. Imagine a wolf that spends 100 calories to chase a rabbit, but only gets 20 calories from eating that rabbit. The wolf is worse off because he has lost more energy chasing his meal than he gained from the meal itself. If the wolf were to continue with his calorie deficit with each hunt, he would eventually starve and die. This is essentially what we’re doing with much of the meat that we are growing today through unsustainable farming practices. But the caloric deficit we are creating in many of our modern meat farming practices is creating a deficit in the planet, and not in our bodies – which is why many people, including myself, have found the vegetarianist-environmentalist link so difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately, we are inseperable from our planet, and if with every meal we are creating a deficit in our environment, what do you think is going to happen to us down the road?

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