This American Diet
Around the world, mealtime traditions are closely tied to cultural identity. We polyglot Americans are all over the map, associated with everything from our grandmother’s cooking to microwave dinners, from local produce to fast food. Since the 1970s, when diet became the focus of government agencies, medical researchers and manufacturers, we have gotten fatter and sicker. Today many Americans are returning to traditional ways of eating, finding the future of food in the past.
The documentary Food, Inc. shines a light on the U.S. industrial food system, a profit-hungry superbusiness that would prefer to keep consumers in the dark about certain unpleasant truths, from the dangers of chemical fertilizers, genetically mutated crops and contaminated foods to the cruel treatment of animals. The film’s narrators, Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation, 2002) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006), explain how high-quantity, low-cost production has led to a decline in food quality, as grazing cows have been moved to disease-ridden CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and amber waves of grain have given way to corn used largely in processed foods.
In his 2008 book In Defense of Food, Pollan exposes what he calls the “thirty-two-billion-dollar food-marketing machine,” which feeds consumers dubious statistics about nutrition and health in order to sell processed foods. He looks at the reductive ideology behind our obsession with single components of foods, such as saturated fat, cholesterol and fiber, and pins the rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes on the abundance of scientifically “fortified” processed foods. Pollan encourages readers to enjoy eating again, with the advice, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
What’s for dinner? As nutrition labels get longer and more indecipherable and food claims multiply (“natural,” “sugar-free,” “antioxidant”), the answer seems to get ever more complicated. But according to food journalist Michael Pollan—who calls that question “the omnivore’s dilemma” in his 2006 book of that name—it is really quite simple. Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto demystifies the canon of nutrition literature, condensing decades of competing scientific theories into a simple rule: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (One reader retorted, “Ate plants. A big heap. Still hungry.”) Pollan is on a mission to restore real food to the American palate and bring enjoyment back to the table, where meals alive with culture, taste and history belong.
Pollan praises the wisdom passed down by English agronomist Albert Howard in The Soil and Health: Human health is inextricably tied to the fitness of the entire food chain, from soil microorganisms to bacteria in human intestines. Howard spoke out against the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, claiming they strip the soil of nutrients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finally caught up, now naming such fertilizers as a cause of nutrient decline in American produce.
Nutritionism, a term coined by Australian sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis and made popular by Michael Pollan, refers to the reduction of food to its nutritional parts. In the 1970s public-health officials launched campaigns maligning saturated fats and cholesterol as the culprits behind many chronic diseases. Nutritional science, in partnership with a food industry eager to promote miracle cures, such as antioxidants and omega-3s, has dominated American food culture ever since. “The way we eat,” Pollan says in Food, Inc., “has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.”
As scientists persist in studying the health effects of individual nutrients, the food industry continually seizes upon the science to make a profit. The media makes celebrities or demons of a revolving cast of nutrients, and food manufacturers scramble to reengineer products—or simply change the labeling—to fit the latest fad. As Food, Inc. reveals, such companies can spin any diet trend into revenue. Furthermore, agribusiness conglomerates use their clout to lobby for labeling and other regulations that favor their products. Manufactured items have climbed to the top of the food chain: Corn-syrup-sweetened cereal “fortified with fiber” has shoved fresh, natural breakfast food off the plate.
Nutritional science has a history of biting off more than it can chew. Nineteenth-century German chemist Justus von Liebig created a “complete” baby formula that omitted vitamins and several other elements necessary for growth. More recently the U.S. food industry fumbled with trans fats, which proliferated in processed foods as an alternative to “unhealthful” saturated fats and turned out to be even deadlier. Nutritionism, the touting or shunning of isolated nutrients or chemicals in association with health claims, has not made Americans healthier.
More than half a century ago botanist and organic farmer Albert Howard warned against advances in agricultural science that alter the natural processes of “earth’s green carpet.” In The Soil and Health, Howard describes the consequences of applying “poisons” to the soil and treating its components rather than the entire ecosystem. This reductive approach to soil leaves it nutrient-depleted and unhealthy, and the effects of this move up the food chain, causing health crises in livestock and humans. “Disease,” Howard claims, “is the punishment meted out by Mother Earth for adopting methods of agriculture which are not in accordance with Nature’s law of return.”
Heart attacks and other outcomes of cardiovascular disease account for approximately 600,000 annual deaths in the U.S. Doctors have prescribed “heart-healthy” diets that run the gamut from anti-fats/pro-carbs to anti-carbs/pro-fats and that often shift the crux of eating from food to nutrient intake. In 1973 the food industry was ready to take up the American Heart Association’s charge to remove saturated fats from our diet. The FDA obliged by overturning a portion of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, decreeing that imitation foods no longer needed to be labeled as imitations if they were deemed nutritionally equivalent to the original. That change loosened the regulatory belt on manufacturers of processed foods and allowed them to bolster sales of their chemical foodstuffs through “health” claims.
As it turns out, the hydrogenated oils that replaced saturated fats created a newer, nastier enemy: trans fats. In the 1990s studies revealed trans fats raise levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which causes clogging of the arteries, a symptom of cardiovascular disease. By the time a trans fats backlash began (creating new opportunities for nutritionist claims on food packaging), these oils were found in about 40 percent of foods on supermarket shelves.
As perhaps the most demonized nutrient in history, fat could really use a public-relations overhaul. The well-kept secret is that there are “good” fats and “bad” fats, and the good ones, such as omega-3 fatty acids, are essential to our diet. Fat’s bad rap began with the lipid theory, a scientific opinion that dietary fat and cholesterol are the bread-and-butter of cardiovascular disease. It became official with the Dietary Goals for the United States (the McGovern Report), issued by a Senate committee in 1977. Adopted by public health officials and touted by anyone who could earn a buck from it, the low-fat diet became a national sensation.
The age of nutritionism had begun: Steak became merely a vehicle for saturated fat, the egg a ball of cholesterol, cane sugar a killer. Synthetic foods were marketed as healthful alternatives to the real thing. Vegetable oils and starches replaced the fats in yogurt and cheese; corn syrup took the place of sugar in cereal and juice. The food industry made a fortune selling engineered foodstuffs—which replaced besmirched sugars and fats with simple carbohydrates and trans fats—to a frightened and confused populace. The result? Americans got really fat.
In the beginning there was fat. As one of the three life-sustaining macronutrients (the others are protein and carbohydrates), fat is a staple of the human diet. But in 20th-century America, when scientists, government agencies, the media and food producers began pushing the link between dietary fat and cholesterol intake and heart disease, common sense got lost. As it turns out, clinical trials have not pinned down a direct causal link between saturated fat consumption and increased risk of heart disease, cancer or obesity. Low-fat diets—which replace traditional fats with processed fats and complex carbohydrates with simple, processed carbs—are potential causes of all three.
The increase in nutrient advice, proliferation of fad diets and a fashion for thinness (and the vilification of overweight people) have coincided with an escalation in eating disorders, from compulsive overeating to anorexia nervosa and other variations on self-starving. A newly dubbed disorder, orthorexia nervosa, is an unhealthy obsession with healthful eating. Fat is essential to good health, and anorexics, orthorexics and others who forgo dietary fat may experience high cholesterol, nutrient depletion, depression, hair loss and the compulsion to overeat.
Eating disorders—abnormal approaches to food consumption that interfere with a person’s mental and physical health—are listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and are usually treated as psychological problems. They are also a growing field in neurobiology, as studies have begun to suggest that certain fatty foods may affect the brain the way some narcotics do, causing food addiction.
But American society, by focusing on dieting and weight and constantly searching for a quick fix, seems to be missing an important point. Eating, as Michael Pollan explains in In Defense of Food, is about more than just keeping oneself alive with the proper nutrients—it is tied to nature, cultural identity, family tradition and pleasure. It simply feels good to eat, and as it turns out, feeling good may make us healthier. While Americans count calories and deal with heart disease, diabetes and obesity, the French suffer relatively low rates of obesity and coronary heart disease despite fairly high levels of saturated fat in their diets. This so-called French paradox, while unexplainable by scientists, demonstrates that a dietary pattern is greater than the sum of its parts.