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Book Review: In Defense of Food, Part I

January 7, 2010

I received a $25 gift certificate to Barnes and Noble for Christmas, so I bought the book “In Defense of Food”, which I think I’ve heard good things about.

The book is broken up into three parts, so here is my review of Part I:

Part 1: The Age of Nutritionism

The first part of the book mainly focuses on how the American people began to move away from discussing foods (such as fruits, vegetables, red meats, etc.) and focus on the nutrients in foods (fats, carbs, vitamins, etc.)  This began in 1977 when a Senator from South Dakota tried to pass nutritional guidelines that said “stay away from red meat and dairy”.  The voters in his state were, shall we say, less than pleased, since many of them were cattle farmers.  Thus we have moved from foods to nutrients, which we don’t know much about and barely begin to research, especially regarding the interactions of all of the nutrients in certain foods.

Anyway, here are some of the interesting points that I found:

  • How we only speak in terms of nutrients now, such as polyunsaturated, cholesterol, fiber, etc.  Even professional may only speak this language.  This could explain why the dietician we had give a lunch talk at work a few months back never really answered my question “Can you give examples of foods with transfats?”  The only thing she could say was “Transfats are bad.  Here’s a website about them.”
  • “This brings us to one of the most troubling features of nutritionism, though it is a feature certainly not troubling to all,  When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods, any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. If foods are understood only in terms of the various quantities of nutrients they contain, even processed foods may be considered to be “healthier” for you than whole foods if they contain appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”  This is convenient to food manufacturers who stand to make significantly more money on processed foods than whole foods.
  • Nutrition labels, while informative, can also be the “advertisements for the chemical principal of nutrition.” Furthering the nutritionism and getting away from whole foods.
  • The “lipid hypothesis” is the idea that dietary fats are responsible for chronic disease.  Hopefully this will be disproved, since it puts the public’s focus on “non-fat”, “low-fat” etc. Since WWII, while we consider that our foods have improved (with all of these “fats are bad” concepts), heart disease and obesity related diseases have SIGNIFCANTLY increased.
  • However, transfats are bad.  Not only do they raise bad cholesterol, but they lower good cholesterol.  Basically, don’t eat margarine!
  • Our Puritan roots do not lend well to realizing the pleasures of food (as in enjoying foods and the eating process).  “Like sex, the need to eat links us to animals, and historically a great deal of Protestant energy has gone into helping us control such animal appetites under strict control.  The naked act of eating was little more than unavoidable . . . and was not to be considered a pleasure except with great discretion.”
  • Despite the “lipid hypothesis” being disproven, it should not be replaced by the “carbohydrate hypothesis” in which fats are simply replaced by carbohydrates, which, SURPRISE, can lead to weight gain.
  • As stated before, the focus on single nutrients does not explore the interactions between the nutrients in foods.  “The olive oil with which I eat tomatoes makes the lycopene they contain more available to my body.” Etc.
  • Nutrition science currently focuses on the results of “too much of a bad thing” in lieu of “too little of a good thing”.  Again more of the Puritan bias “Bad things happen to people who eat bad things.”

Part I makes me curious has to what the author’s recommendations are regarding foods, especially regarding certain fats, such as dairy fats.  When we were kids, my mom had us drink whole milk, since the high fat content allowed our bodies to absorb more calcium (important to kids with growing bones).  So maybe fats are bad!?!  SURPRISE!!

Review of Parts II and III are soon to come!

In other news, I finally got home around 11pm.  I had to stop by Kroger on the way in to pick up a few items!  Oh Kroger, how I’ve missed thee!  I can’t believe that Boston doesn’t have 24 hour grocery stores!  I then chatted with my dad and proceeded to set up his wireless (for obviously selfish reasons!)

Today I’m supposed to meet up with Amy (the bride) for some shopping and last minute preparations.  But it’s snowing, so I don’t know how the roads will be!?!

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