On food

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Before we start, I want to make one thing clear: this is not a post recommending that you should become vegan. I have no problem with people being vegan if that’s how they want to eat and they can source a healthy diet from local and sustainable ingredients. If that describes you, great. It is not, however, something I would recommend to everyone. Generally there are very few things I would recommend to everyone, because individuals are different.

I reference food a lot on this blog because it’s something we all have in common. Everything that lives requires nourishment. There are two aspects to this that I want to discuss:

  • quantity – you need access to enough food to keep you alive, and:
  • quality – you need your food to nourish you so that it keeps you healthy.

The first point is pretty obvious. There are various recommendations as to how many calories a person needs per day, depending on how energetic their lifestyle is (and many lifestyles are likely to become a good deal more energetic in the future). But the second point is that not all calories are created equal.

This is also fairly uncontroversial. If we imagine two people who get exactly the same number of calories, but one of them is getting their calories from a balanced diet while the other one only eats chocolate-chip cookies, I don’t think we need to be Nostradamus to forecast which of them will be healthier.

On the other hand, there’s a fair amount of wiggle-room in that happy phrase “a balanced diet.” Human beings are omnivores, and they can adapt to a surprising range of diets. The Inuit, for example, contrive to be healthy while eating heroic quantities of fat and hardly a vegetable of any kind – not surprising when you consider their environment. Then you have the Maasai of Kenya, who traditionally live off their herds of zebu and consume a lot of milk, blood and fat. They also thrive on it, in spite of eating levels of cholesterol that would give the average dietitian a panic attack.

Now there is probably a genetic component to some of this, but that reinforces my earlier point that individuals are different and one size will not fit all. I don’t know if there are any vegan Inuit, but if there are they may well struggle with such an alien – to them – diet. (Do get in touch if you are, or know, a vegan Inuit; I’d be interested to know if my guess is correct.) But you don’t need to be pre-adapted to an extreme diet to have particular dietary need.

Consider the various allergies and food intolerances that plague so many people today. This would appear to be a comparatively recent phenomenon, and it’s hard to resist linking it to the rise of industrial food production. We know from the history of infant formula, for example, that what was supposed to be a scientifically correct replacement for a natural food turned out to be seriously deficient (missing essential vitamins in this case). I would be wary of believing that we have a comprehensive grasp of human nutritional needs even today, especially given the degree of individual variation that I’ve already mentioned.

I would love to see research done on the incidence of gluten intolerance in those who eat traditionally baked and thoroughly leavened bread compared to eaters of the curious bread-like substance produced via the Chorleywood process (that’s your usual supermarket loaf). There are already widespread concerns about its nutritional value. If you really want to be put off processed foods, I can highly recommend Joanna Blythman’s book Swallow This (Fourth Estate, 2015). After all, the phrase “processed food” itself means “food to which something or other has been done, which we aren’t telling you about” and if that doesn’t bother you, well, it probably should.

There’s also evidence that our food has become less nutritious over time, due to the depletion of agricultural soils. Plants are extraordinary things, but you can’t expect them to conjure nutrients out of nothing. I’ve read that there are some (US-grown) oranges which contain no vitamin C at all. This can’t be a healthy development.

In the last century, a Canadian dentist called Weston Price did some research into traditional diets versus the typical Western diet of the time. Originally he was interested in the effect on dental health but he later widened his focus to consider overall health. He was able to correct for genetic variability by comparing members of the same tribe – even siblings, in some cases – some of whom had moved into town and were eating a modern diet and some who we still eating the traditional way, whatever that meant for them.

His conclusion was that people did far better on the traditional diet, widely variable as that might be. Those who moved to the Western diet tended to suffer from chronic health problems that had previously been rare or unknown amongst them, such a diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. These problems are of course rampant throughout the industrialised world. It’s hard to see this as a coincidence.

Now if you suffer from a chronic health condition (full disclosure: I am myself a Type 2 diabetic) you will be dependent to some extent on medication. The pharmaceutical industry probably won’t vanish overnight, but it’s still a potential issue in an uncertain and probably troubled future. If you could control your condition through diet, that issue would go away. As Hippocrates is supposed to have said (presumably in Greek): “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”

This is all well and good, but what can we do about it in practice? Well, let’s return to the quotation from Michael Pollan at the head of this article:

  • Eat food – what Pollan means by this, as he explains in the book, is to avoid what he calls “edible food-like substances”, i.e. most of the stuff you will find in the food aisles of your local supermarket. I would expand this advice to suggesting eating food where there are the fewest number of steps between you and the producer: grow it yourself if you can, or get it direct from the grower (proper farmer’s markets are always worth patronising), or at least get it from a local greengrocer or butcher where you have some chance of finding out where it came from. When we lived in Kent, we used to shop when we could from a small independent butcher with their own slaughterhouse; they claimed that all of their meat came from a one-mile radius of the shop. Such places are all too rare, but they exist. Seek them out.
  • Not too much – prioritise quality over quantity. You will spend more on food, but you will also get more for your money. There is an obsession with cheap food, especially in the UK. If you can buy a chicken for £3.50, a lot of corners have been cut in the production of that chicken. Buy less other stuff that you don’t need, and spend the money you save on food. It will change your life.
  • Mostly plants – if you have to eat industrially produced food, you will do yourself less harm with fruit and veg than eating factory-farmed meat. I was a vegetarian for many years, and it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. If you can’t afford to eat meat every day, because you’re buying the good stuff, well, you don’t have to.

Being conscious of what you eat will also lead to enjoying it more. Food can be one of life’s great pleasures. We treat it as if it were an inconvenience. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. I recommend concentrating on the food eaten by peasants, in whatever cuisine you fancy; that will give you cheap, simple, but nutritious meals. If you have good quality ingredients, you really don’t need to do much to them to create a good meal.

Moreover, getting closer to the practicalities of how food is produced – ideally growing a bit yourself – will have you in a much better place in the event that you need to provide for yourself in the future. There’s a hilarious scene in the film Withnail and I in which two clueless young men are faced with trying to turn a live chicken into dinner. If you find yourself in that position, you really don’t want to be those guys. There are plenty of books – John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency is the classic – but there’s no substitute for practical experience.

Now I’m not saying this is necessarily easy. The way we live now is not set up to support this kind of eating, and that’s not an accident. Where I live now, my food-buying choices are two supermarkets and a small weekly market which sells some fruit and vegetables of unknown origin. A lot of people are in that position. In modern society, people tend to have either time or money, but rarely both together. You’re going to have to work around that in whatever way you can, with the resources you have where you are.

But food is not a luxury. Fifty years ago, people in the UK used to spend a far greater proportion of their income on food than they do now. I was alive then, and there definitely weren’t food riots. It’s a question of priorities. At the very least, be informed about what you eat, and make your choices deliberately. You’ll learn a lot, and maybe it will change the way you see the world.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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