Eat Food

I recently read “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. It’s not as weirdly fascinating as his earlier book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but it has a lot of interesting information.

What I found most interesting was the shift in the recommendations of the McGovern commision on nutrition in 1977. This was the first attempt to recommend a national diet for the U.S.; previous commissions had just set the desired limits of certain vitamins. The 1977 commission was originally going to say something along the lines of “eat less fatty food, such as meat and dairy products.”

This statement expressed the majority opinion of nutritional scientists at the time, although it had relatively little support from scientific studies. It’s very hard to do a scientific study of a dietary shift, as is pretty clear if you think about it. You can’t have a proper control group, as people are obviously aware of what they are eating. You have to trust people to correctly report what they eat, which they will not do. So you can do a reasonably study of dietary supplements, but you can’t do a reasonable study of a significant change to overall diet. An inevitable effect is that nutrition recommendations tend to focus on supplements, which may or may not actually be the healthiest choice. So whether it is indeed healthier to eat less fatty food remains an open question, which may never be finally resolved; some recent studies suggest that it makes no difference.

Anyhow, the McGovern commission ran into immediate political trouble. The meat and dairy lobbies were certainly not happy about a recommendation to eat less of the food they produced. There is no lobby for people to be healthier–no specific industry benefits from healthy people. So the recommendation was changed to “eat more low-fat foods.” Note the significant shift from “eat less” to “eat more.”

Also in the 1970s the U.S. Farm Bill introduced a major shift, from paying farmers to let their fields lie fallow to paying them to actually grow food. That certainly makes sense on the surface. But the result was a massive increase in the amount of food being produced in the U.S., mostly in the form of corn. The price of corn dropped, and there was a lot of corn on the market looking for buyers.

So we had a lot more food being produced, and we had a government suggestion that people should eat more low-fat food. Fortunately all that corn could be turned into corn syrup, which while being a high-calorie food is low in fat. Many new product were created, labelled as being low-fat and therefore healthy. The general trend was that people started eating these new low-fat, healthy foods in addition to the meat and dairy they were already eating.

Eventual result: the massive increase in obesity and type II diabetes that we see today. This is not to excuse people for over-eating; for most of us, eating food is a choice. But people were given bad information, and they were given cheap unhealthy food, and the result is not unexpected.

Pollan’s overall recommendation for diet is “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It’s an interesting recommendation mainly because it sounds reasonably simple, yet many people do not follow it. By “eat food” he means that one should eat traditional, well-recognized types of food, and to avoid synthetic food products. Eat pasta, bread, milk, fruit, vegetables; don’t eat artificial foods with long lists of ingredients some of which you have never heard of. Avoid food products which make extensive health claims.

All very sensible advice, yet somehow difficult to follow in our culture.


  1. rskrishnan said,

    February 29, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    I think some of this is attributable to the (unproven but very strong) belief among some U.S. policy makers that “the market” will fix all things. The companies that make stuff, lobby to push their produce, if it turns out they make crap, well … they’ll lose market share/$$/profits and will stop lobbying 🙂 . I think Rube Goldberg would be pleased!!

    The same belief leads to endless debates about health insurance/retirement benefits – pretty much anything that affects the population at large.

    Nice and simple logic except for the fact that we have a generation of people who bear the costs while the market “corrects” to a saner policies (diet/insurance/pensions).

    There has to be a better way – specially considering that we don’t a “people for the people lobby” !!

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    February 29, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

    I certainly agree that market think is very strong.

    But it’s also worth noting that a major component of our diet is the Farm Bill, which is more or less the opposite of a market solution. I do think that some form of the Farm Bill is appropriate: an unregulated market is not a good system for farmers, where one bad year can put them out of business and thus lose a great deal of hard-earned local knowledge. But the current Farm Bill is very very bad for consumers. It is rigged to give much more money to factory farms which produce vast quantities of unhealthy produce and are bad for the environment to boot.

  3. ncm said,

    March 5, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

    Nowadays any time a vendor has an ingredient they would like not to mention on the ingredients list — most typically another cow manure extract — the FDA obligingly allows to be listed as “natural flavor”. You may be sure that any “food product” that contains any “natural flavor” has stuff in it you would not buy if it said what it was.

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