Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What took me so long?

For someone who has read as much as I have about food and nutrition over the past year or so, I have no excuse for not realizing that Marion Nestle is the wisest sage on the topic before now - and really should be anyone's starting place. One reason is that I just chose books from my local library and they did not have her books. But after seeing her referenced by so many of the people I respect I ordered her books for pick-up at my library. So far I have read most of "What to Eat" and haven't yet started "Food Politics" but with the continuation of snowpocalypse I should be able to make a dent in them both.

What to Eat is almost 600 pages, before the notes start, and probably 800 total. I'm about 400 into it and kind of losing steam. However, I highly recommend it. In fact, it's probably a good book for purchase and it's available in soft cover. I saw it in a Barnes and Noble window perched on a display with 20 other recent diet books. I couldn't believe they sullied her academic work by placing it next to "Skinny Bitch" and other such atrocities which tell you how to get skinny by cutting out whole food groups.

So let me explain why I love it. OK - for starters, Dr. Nestle is perhaps the most respected nutritionist in the country, so I trust her. ( I also like Dr. Katz from Yale) She looks at every study, understands epidemiologic methodology, nutritional chemistry and biology, is skeptical of everything, and has no bias towards one food group or another. She's not a weirdo - she has no "food agenda". She also does not come at the topic of food nutrition from one perspective - and this to me is her most valuable asset - she is a clinical nutritionist, professor, policy advisor (maker) arguably a journalist and perhaps most importantly, in addition to all the other hats she wears, she's also a mother. This is a problem I see with Pollan. He doesn't seem to get the difficulty of dealing with all these issues as a parent trying to put food on the table. He has one teenage kid and he and his wife both have uber-flexible jobs (professor/artist). I'm sorry, but that is not the same as having both parents work full-time and try to impart healthy nutritional habits to 2 or 3 kids. Marion Nestle describes rushing through supermarkets with whiny kids trying to throw Danimals in the cart, etc.

So she describes at the start how no matter where she is, or who she's talking to, everyone has the same question: "What should I eat?"

This book is like taking a walk around a grocery store with Dr. Nestle answering your every question, providing just enough science to help you understand (although I still seem to have trouble absorbing it for some reason-honestly I don't know what happened to my brain-I think it has to do with the fact that every time I read there is a part of my head that is thinking I should be doing 10 other more productive things, so I'm not really concentrating) and offering even more ideas you hadn't thought of.

My favorite aspect is that she debunks all the "cut out this food" and "eat tons of that food" reactionaries. I have always said, you can find a study to prove anything and being a person who understands just enough to read the studies is kind of dangerous. You have to be able to discern if the methods were sound, and put the study in context of all the other nutritional studies out there. So for big groups like dairy, fish, meat, grains, she says, they're healthy in moderation, especially the low-fat versions, but they are not essential or evil. You can get your nutrients from other places if you don't add in that group. Her main tenet is, and I'll put this in bold, Don't eat so much. Calories are calories and you probably need to eat a lot fewer of them.

She more or less gives similar advice as Pollan, but with more definitiveness on what is actually worth purchasing (are organic eggs worth the money?) and more non-chalance about what this study or that study says. She is very concerned about fish safety, high-fat, high-sugar foods, and is vehemently against marketing junk food to children. On this point I find myself in more and more agreement - especially as, Alex begged me for Fruity Pebbles, while I was reading and he was watching Spongebob. My kids know that stuff is off limits, but they really want it-and love it.

She also confirmed many of my own conclusions that I reached by doing lots of reading - namely that refined flour (anything not 'whole wheat') is basically eating sugar, sugar in general is pretty bad and over-eaten, that fish is sadly problematic, that corn/soy subsidies are basically ruining the health of the country. She confirmed that most granola/power/energy bars and flavored yogurts are full of sugar and nonsense. She also explained how milk is processed, and believes that skim milk is almost as nutritious as whole and much better for you, and she's still suggest limiting saturated (animal) fats, even in sustainably raised animals (here I think she and Pollan differ slightly, although he does say to use meat as a 'flavoring'). The reductions in cholesterol are pretty limited. She also very carefully explains how to read labels, and figure out the nutritional qualities of foods yourself. I knew a lot of this, but I realize many people don't and either way it's really time-consuming.

She does write a lot about the various ways that the food industry uses money and politics to confuse the public, especially children and their parents. I have to say, the amounts spent on marketing to kids are extremely alarming (billions of dollars) and she has me convinced. I don't see why food companies need to market to children any more than cigarette companies do. Before I had kids I didn't really get the need to protect kids from so many of the things that adults are exposed to, but needless to say, now that I'm a parent, I completely agree with that. She finds the practice of adding a bit of whole grain or vitamins to junk food cereals and then selling it as nutritious to be especially insidious.

Pollan has a gift for elegant one-liners, "Eat food. Mostly greens. Not too much." or "Don't trust anything that tells you on the package that it's healthy."

I think the second rule actually summarizes several hundred pages of her book. If you just follow that advice, it cuts out all those sugar and chemical-laden "fiber bars",  sweetened yogurts, and perhaps 80% of processed foods in general. If you want to know why, you can read her book - but if that's too much reading (and I admit that it's a lot) then Pollan's advice works fine too.

I also really like her blog, Food Politics as well...

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