Food & Drink · Nutrition

Food Wars: The Struggle for Healthy Eating

About ten years ago, I was at a party and met the wonderful writer Michael Pollan. It was his twin nieces’ Bat Mitzvah. He kindly spoke with me for quite a while as I peppered him with questions about his latest book, In Defense of Food (2008), which I had just finished. Eminently readable, full of fascinating details, this book helped me understand things like why organic food is better, for example. It’s not just the lack of pesticides; organically grown food actually has more nutrients and vitamins.

Pollan also gave us his wonderfully simple guidelines for healthy eating: “Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” I told him I was an expert on eating disorders and he said he was seeing the emergence of a new one: Orthorexia, defined as a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet.  He said he was seeing more and more people who were as relentless about a “healthy diet” as anorexics are about weight loss. I asked if that included people who cornered him at parties and grilled him about where to get grass-fed beef in New York.

Since that time, this disorder has gained more attention, though it is not yet an “officially” designated condition. The past ten years have seen an explosion of interest in and controversy about just what comprises healthy eating. Despite Pollan’s well-reasoned (and research-based) guidelines, new diets and regimes abound. Many of them advise completely contradictory rules—like the Paleo diet, which emphasizes meats, eggs, and fish vs. the vegan regime, which prohibits almost everything but vegetables and fruits.

Both diets recommend avoidance of processed foods, which have quickly become public enemy #1 to health conscious individuals. Food is also now also being seen as a type of health intervention. Eating right is not just a matter of getting vitamins, nutrients, and energy. It is now recommended by some that you pay attention to the microbiology of your gut, your “microbiome.” Gut bacteria, it turns out, are very important, and eating foods that promote the right ones can help protect you against disease and even depression. The major thing to avoid? Once again, processed foods top the list.

Just as cholesterol laden foods were once considered poison, and people were eschewing eggs and replacing butter with margarine (both of which are no longer recommended), processed foods are now considered the devil’s own work. Much data supports this position: as developing countries become more Westernized and their citizens have access to fast, processed foods, rates of obesity and disease have risen accordingly.

Bee Wilson, the author of The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World, tracks how junk food has caught on, how traditional diets have been modified or abandoned all over the world, and why more people are getting fat and sick. Wilson says, “Over just eleven years, from 1988 to 1999 the number of overweight and obese people in Mexico nearly doubled.”

When the popularity of “fast food” started to grow in the 1960s, housewives felt freed from the pressure to cook from scratch by the introduction of new products (remember TV dinners?). Giant corporations and conglomerates rose to support, promote, and profit from this trend. According to Laura Shapiro, writing in  The Atlantic, “By the ’60s, however, (initial)…resistance…(to fast food) had abated. Speed, convenience, and the addictive nature of salt and sugar had done the trick, aided of course by voluminous advertising.”

Our eating habits changed dramatically as a result. People began to replace the traditional “three squares” with the fattening habit of constant, all day snacking, so much so that many people hardly ever experienced real hunger (and had trouble even identifying it—another cause of obesity). We even stopped drinking water, replacing it with sugary soda. Shapiro reports, “Today a third of all the calories consumed by an American adult comes from chips, protein bars, and the like. Soft drinks have had an especially pernicious impact: In America, consumption of them took a big leap in the ’70s, and with that came unprecedented rates of obesity.”

A healthful food revolution began around the same time, propelled by counter-culture values and popularized by natural chefs like Alice Waters. She opened her Bay area restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971, and went on the write several groundbreaking cookbooks, promoting a “fresh and local” movement that became the basis for an entire culinary philosophy.

Shapiro writes:

“We’re now 50 years or so into an unprecedented run of culinary activism known as “the food revolution”—a loose term, but in general think farmers’ markets, school-lunch reforms, chefs rampant on TV, and middle-class kitchens stocked with olive oil and preserved lemons. That revolution is driving the politics of food, too: Federal policies targeting agriculture, hunger, nutrition, and food safety have jumped to the headlines and spurred a tremendous amount of local and national organizing. And, of course, we have celebrities—including chefs, nutritionists, movie stars, and Michelle Obama—telling us how to eat for optimal health and reminding us of the sacred importance of family dinner.”

Though many of us are aware of the guidelines they are not always easy to follow, especially for lower income families, who can feed their children more efficiently, cheaply, (and popularly) with MacDonald’s than shopping for organic foods, bringing them home, and cooking from scratch.

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  • bev May 21, 2019 at 8:28 am

    Totally true! Even in France, food is the new pergatory… The argument between the traditional eaters (read cream, cheese, meat, wine and vegetables as a small side) and food rebels ( think of these as the good guys in Star Wars) is raging. Both see themselves as completely and undeniably right and the other side as at best derranged, at worst people who want to destroy the world or at least the French economy and all life as we know it. I cross my fingers for a reasonable compromise…

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