Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Good Food

Food has become the ultimate fashion statement. We are now more concerned about what we eat than what we wear.

One of the sanest voices in food matters belongs to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That’s his succinct advice to those who want to enjoy their food and be healthy as well.

Pollan distinguishes between food and food products. Food represents health and wholesomeness, food products don't. How to tell one from the other, given that 17,000 new food products are introduced in the West every year, gets more difficult every day. "Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," advises Pollan. "Mom knows best" will not work because moms are as confused as the rest of us. That's why "we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of the modern food products." Carrots and spinach and apples and bread and cucumber are food but Breakfast-Cereal Bars and Go-Gurt are not. Pollan alerts us to the insidious power of the modern food industry. Walking down supermarket aisles, the average shopper is tempted by food products with fancy names, shiny wrappings and outrageous health claims. If health is the goal, we have to resist those temptations.

The goal of the American food industry for a century has been to increase quantity and reduce prices, not to improve quality, observes Pollan. Better food costs more, so the wise alternative is to pay more and eat less. "Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful," acknowledges Pollan, "but most of us can." At less than 10 percent of their income (the current economic meltdown has increased this percentage for families throughout America), Americans spend less on food than citizens of any other nation. Paying more for food grown in good soils will not only contribute to the health of the eater by reducing exposure to pesticides but also to the health of those growing the food and those "who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown." There is also strong evidence that "Calorie restriction" improves health and prevents a host of diseases.

A plant-based diet is rich in antioxidants, fiber and Omega-3s and contains fewer Calories than a meat-based diet. A plant-based diet is clearly a healthier choice. "Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food."

The larger point Pollan makes is that we have taken the joy out of eating. Reductionist science, the rise of "nutritionism" and the culture of fast food have made us forget that food is not only fuel but also communion. Food is pleasure and family and friends. It is memory and hope and continuity of traditions. Food is our connection to the web of life around us. Is there a way to bring back these sensibilities into our frenzied lives? "Cook," recommends Pollan. "And if you can, plant a garden."

I try to follow the advice of people like Pollan and, to some extent, succeed. My problem occurs during the weekends, particularly on Saturdays. That’s when my weekday regimen falls apart as I indulge in korma, biryani, kabab, tandoori and assorted sweet dishes in the endless cycle of invitations among the Bangladeshi Diaspora in California’s Silicon Valley. I feel guilty and vow never to repeat until, of course, the following weekend. Making up for dietary lapses with vigorous exercise five days a week does little to remove the pangs of my conscience. One of these days, though, I intend to come clean and it will only be good, tasty, wholesome food all week long, week after week.

No comments: