An average Jane on health and nutrition

Posts tagged ‘Pollan’

Pollan and Microbiomes

“One case I thought was absolutely fascinating is this difference in the gut of Japanese people and Americans. There’s a very common bacteria that we all share, that all humans have in their gut, and it’s involved in digesting polysaccharides of complex carbohydrates and plants. And the Japanese version of it has a gene that allows it to break down seaweed that we can’t break down. When you eat seaweed in a Japanese restaurant, you’re not getting the nutritional value from it that a Japanese person is getting. And they actually traced the source of that gene, and it came from the bacteria that hang out on seaweed in the ocean. In other words, the bacteria who first learned how to digest seaweed. Through the eating of enough seaweed, this bacteria that is common in the gut of the Japanese borrowed this bit of genetic information and uses it now to digest seaweed. And so now it’s a permanent part of the genome of that bug.

There’s an example of how the microbiome evolved to take advantage of a change in the environment — i.e., Japanese eating of seaweed — probably because they needed to. And the same thing is true with, say, dealing with a new toxin, detoxifying, and other changes in our environment. It’s kind of evolution on fast forward. That’s probably critical to our ability to adapt to change, and it may become more critical as we face more rapid and radical environmental changes.”

 Fascinating indeed… an entire world of possible understandings of human biology with a door just opening to it. If this is actually true, the notion that two people eating the same exact food may actually get different nutritional benefit from it will be proven. The problem, of course, is that it then becomes much harder to give people the one-size-fits-all nutritional guideline that the government and some nutritionists so desperately want to do, and many Americans so desperately want to know. And yet, we need to get past this idea anyway. We need to accept and understand that our bodies work differently, and that saying otherwise is often in competition with the increasing body of evidence we’re discovering.

And also:

“I would try to create incentives that drive diversification. I still feel that the great evil of American agriculture is monoculture. It really does contribute to so many problems at the level of the field and the pests, but also at the level of the diet. The thing you learn is the importance of diversity in what you eat, and to the extent you would drive diversity [in farm policy] you would also be creating raw materials for cooking rather than raw materials for processed food, which are mostly corn and soy.

I love this term “specialty crop.” That’s what the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] lingo is for anything you grow that you could actually eat — fruits and vegetables. Corn and soy and rice and wheat, these are commodity crops — in the case of rice you do eat it directly, but everything else has to be heavily processed first. Right now, we actually have laws that prohibit farmers receiving subsidies to grow commodity crops from growing specialty crops. They get fined. If you’re growing corn and soy, and you want to put in 20 acres of tomatoes because somebody’s doing some local canning deal in your county and you want to get in on it and diversify, you get fined. I know farmers who have been fined forty or fifty thousand dollars for doing that. That’s unconscionable. We should be encouraging farmers to diversify, for both economic and ecological reasons.”

Have not looked into the fines thing, but if true.. yikes. Wth, America.

These are snippets from interview with Michael Pollan:

I will be doing some further research into these notions and claims over the next few weeks, and as things continue to involve. Fascinating time to be paying attention to nutrition science.

– J


Why I’m a Pollanite

I was going to post snippets of an interview with Michael Pollan (and I’ll get back to that) but then I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned my appreciation for Michael Pollan, and why. So let’s do that first.

In Defense of Food was the book that really got me interested in eating well, and in health in the broadest sense of the word.

I really like two things about his work. 1) He doesn’t typically exempt himself. He speaks of ‘we’ – the eaters, the Americans, whomever and 2) I find his thinking to be rational, level-headed, common sensical. Even in the instances that could be considered accusatory (to Big Industrial Farm, to Fast Food, to whatever) his point isn’t really to lay blame. It’s to say, ‘I see this as bad, and here’s some evidence for why. If you agree, here’s what we can do instead.’

There is a problem laid out, there is documentation for why it’s a problem, and there is a feasible alternate suggestion. What’s past is past.. some bad food decisions, some blips in health. Let’s move forward, rather than dwell. (Incidentally, this is also the underlying motivation behind SparkPeople, which I love. Very “you’re not perfect, but you don’t have to be.” You just have to try.

I speak largely of American food choices in my blog because a) that’s where I am and b) for better or worse, a lot of our brands and foods are seeping into other developed countries. However, America, for all the junk we export food-wise, has a lot of really, really excellent options.

There are, of course, going to be obstacles, challenges, difficulties for the average American eater. But the biggest one, by far, is not thinking that changing your habits is possible. I don’t have time to cook, good food is expensive, I don’t like vegetables.. there are a million excuses. There are just as many workarounds.

The most common excuse I hear – and I don’t discount its partial validity – is that healthy food is more expensive.

When I picked up In Defense of Food, I was working at Walmart. I had worked there during college, and now that I’d graduated, I was still, a year and a half later, sending out job applications and looking for work that paid more, used my degree more, was more fulfilling for my interests.

When I picked up In Defense of Food, I was making around $9.15 an hour, living in a $350/month apartment with two other girls, and driving 20+ miles to work in a 10-year-old Hyundai with 150,000 miles. I had student loans more than my rent, and a questionable grasp on finances. I ate like a lot of recent-college-grads. Frozen pizza, pasta, burgers, fries. The occasional vegetable and fruit, but far less than good for me.

I did not (still don’t) have kids, or faced any of the specific financial and time constraints brought about by children, and I don’t discount those as tremendous challenges, especially in this day of single parents, of two working parents on opposite shifts, of the astronomical costs of quality daycare. I also acknowledge that in so many ways, even with my meager scenario, I was and am much better off than a lot of people. But for a lot of us, for the average Joe and Jane, there IS something we can do.. but we need to want to do it.

Some people look at their challenges, and find ways to make things work for their situations. And I believe that just about everyone can do that, in some way. What is your situation? What are your challenges? What can you do, for baby steps, that will make your food choices better, give you a few minutes to cook?

There are the questions we need to ask ourselves.


The notion of healthy food being more expensive is a complex one. On the surface, on the one hand.. yes, in some ways. There are healthy items that are more expensive, and there is also the time-cost to preparing food that needs cooking, not microwaving. But it’s not quite that simple.

If you are looking to simply replace your current diet with “healthier” (organic, all-natural, whatever) versions, it will probably be quite expensive. That $3 frozen preservative-filled pizza from Discount Grocery will jump to $7 if you get the all-natural organic frozen pizza over at Fancy Grocery. But if you’re looking at Fancy Grocery for a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, they’re generally about the same (sometimes even cheaper!) and usually taste much better. That brings us to what I call the Whole Foods Fallacy.

The joke goes that the chain should be called Whole Paycheck, because if you buy your groceries there, that’s what it’ll cost. Again, if we’re talking the organic frozen processed stuff.. yeah, probably true. I do a modicum of shopping at Whole Foods, and it very rarely includes a trip down the processed aisles. What I do buy at Whole Foods is fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, cheese, and – when I buy it, which isn’t much – meat or fish.

Fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods are no more expensive than other chain grocery stores, and taste delicious. Nuts and spices I can get in the small quantities I want as a single person cooking just for me.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are always cheapest (and tastiest) when they’re in season. If you’re like me, you know that apples are in season in the fall, and watermelon in the summer, and you think maybe corn is late summer? But that’s about it. Someone asks me when kiwi is in season and I’ll suggest they google it. Eggplant? That…seems summerish? Maybe? I don’t know, do I look like an eggplant farmer?

I’ve noted a hole in my education regarding fresh fruits and vegetables. There are several cures, however. 1) internet. Thank you, google. 2) Join a CSA or shop the farmer’s markets in your area. In your CSA box you’ll only get what’s fresh and growing now, and the farmer’s markets, that’s what they’re bringing. You’ll either learn through seeing it frequently, or buy in season because that’s your only option anyway. Or 3, the awesomely lazy version) Find the produce varieties at the store that is the cheapest, and then get the best-looking and smelling of those. Note that this isn’t foolproof. 🙂

 I digress.

Michael Pollan.

For my situation, when I first picked up the book, re-assessing my finances and prioritizing better food was a necessary step. Pollan has a stat about the comparatively low percentage of our budgets Americans spend on food, compared with the French, Italians, etc. That stuck with me, and made me rethink the notion of cheap and plentiful, in favor of quality, if a bit less.

But the thing I like most about Pollan is that, for all the complexity of some of the subject matter, In Defense of Food is still very readable, accessible. This is a book you can pick up, as a general interested person, and read without a lot of complicated jargon interfering. No small task.

Have you read anything of Michael Pollan’s? Do you agree or disagree with his position on food and health?

– J