A New Year’s Resolution “In Defense of Food”

December 29, 2015 | 10:00 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Congratulations, you’ve nearly survived the holidays! The gifts have been unwrapped, lavish meals cooked and eaten, countless cookies consumed, and maybe the family is getting restless after all that togetherness. Now what? For inspiration during this last week of the year, I give you a movie review and a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution that—for once—could have real lasting impact.

This Wednesday night in prime time, PBS stations across the country will air a new documentary based on the best-selling book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In the film, as in the book, author Michael Pollan tells the story of our broken food system and offers advice for making change through our daily food choices.

The film is a damning critique of the food industry and a public that, for decades, has been all too ready to believe its marketing. Pollan examines early processed food “marvels” like Wonder Bread and corn flakes, both of which involved stripping nutrients out of food and then adding vitamins back in. Ingenious! He walks the aisles of a modern supermarket, noting the health claims screaming from cereal boxes—“heart-healthy,” “high in protein,” “gluten free,” and wonders aloud why apples and broccoli make no such claims. “Well, they don’t have packages. They don’t have big budgets. The quieter the food, likely, the healthier the food.”

“Nutritionism” and our broken food system

Throughout the film, interviews with health experts are interspersed with Pollan’s engaging narration as he recounts more than a century of nutrition fads that turned out to be faulty. In the late 1800s, protein was deemed unhealthful, and the refined-grain breakfast cereal was born. Starting in the 1950s, fat became public enemy #1, and Americans were sold on margarine and fat-free cookies.

Over the years, Pollan asserts, the public became preoccupied with “nutrients” rather than “foods,” and a cult of what he calls “nutritionism” arose and persists to the present day. Simultaneously, we have a population that is overweight, plagued with diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, and unsure of what to eat.

On the positive side, the film features case studies of innovative nutrition education projects. These include a South Bronx program training at-risk youth to be gardeners and chefs, growing vegetables hydroponically and preparing them all in the same building. Many of these kids are eating salads fresh vegetables for the first time in their lives. Their teacher contends, “If you expose people to locally grown healthy food they tend to like it,” but notes that people make decisions based on what they can afford and what is available in their neighborhoods, which is frequently junk food.

Simple rules for healthy eating?

A major message of the film is that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle (who also advises UCS, and has a great blog) contends that you don’t have to be a scientist to know how to eat.

“Everybody can eat a healthy diet…without knowing thing one about the biology of nutrients,” Nestle says. “Just go around the outside of the supermarket and pick up fruits, vegetables, meat, and stay out of the processed foods, because they’re fun to eat once in a while but they shouldn’t be daily fare.”

And Pollan offers his own rules for healthy eating. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” To back up the latter point, the film cites UCS findings about the reduction in cardiovascular diseases (and health-care costs) that would come from eating more fruits and vegetables. There’s also, “Make water your beverage of choice.” And you might be skeptical about “Use smaller plates and glasses,” but food psychology research shows you’ll eat less!

Good food for all and the role of public policy

Finally, Pollan touches on government’s role in creating our unhealthy food system, and the role it could have helping Americans eat a healthier diet. (Of course, there is push-back to that notion from food corporations, who have responded much like the tobacco industry before them.)

And this, I think, is the most important piece of the puzzle. While all of us, as individuals, can make better food choices, those choices alone can’t solve our food and public health crisis. That’s because we are surrounded every day by food environments that make healthy choices difficult. And people at the bottom of the economic ladder have the hardest time, by far.

Just last week, I read Washington Post op-ed by a young woman who says she ate only unprocessed foods for a year. Tucson-based Megan Kimble joined a CSA for weekly deliveries of fresh local vegetables. She learned to can tomatoes, and ground her own whole-grain flour. She wrote a book about the experience.

I too have made yogurt at home—in a slow-cooker, using locally-produced organic milk. I’ve pickled home-grown hot peppers and green tomatoes. These DIY foods were delicious, and I felt self-sufficient and very pleased with myself. Look what I made! Take that, agri-food conglomerates!

But I know these sorts of adventures-in-urban-homesteading are a luxury mostly reserved for people like me—an upper-middle class, educated, childless person—who have the time, tools, and money to experiment. Even farmers markets are out of reach for many. If we want to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to healthy foods, public policies will have to begin prioritizing that outcome.

And they must, because our nation’s health is at stake, and with it, our future.

A New Year’s resolution to fix the food system

That’s why UCS has joined with partners to launch Plate of the Union, a campaign to mobilize a broad range of Americans—including farmers, scientists, community activists, thought leaders, chefs, and ordinary citizens—to call for healthy and affordable food that is also fair to food workers and sustainable. If we’re successful, the next president will take bold steps to improve our food system.

So check out In Defense of Food on PBS this week (Dec 30, 9pm/8 Central, check local listings), and by all means, resolve in 2016 to eat more salads, drink more water, cut back on sugar, and bake your own whole-grain bread.

But also take the next step: Join us in making food political, so we can fix our food system for everyone.

Find out how.