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In Defense of Cake

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” which manages to be both obvious and mind-blowing at the same time. Pollan  warns against attaching ourselves to the minutia of nutritionism while looking for silver bullet solutions to our eating woes: fat is bad, no wait good; carb is good, no bad; whey protein; gluten; sugar etc. etc. Pollan shows, convincingly, that we lack a full understanding of how foods interact in the body, and that by chopping them into tiny parts, we are undermining the complexity of the system. His advice is to just eat food; real food; a practice that seemed to work for us up until the introduction of the industrialized Western diet. He shares some really great advice for simplified healthy eating: shop the outskirts of the grocery store; nothing with more than five ingredients; and my favorite,  if it celebrates a health benefit, you should avoid it.

But my fascination is the psychological baggage that seems to have shown up with the belly baggage of the Western diet.

Our diet is making us unhealthy, but more importantly, unhappy. So my question is, why do we do it?

I could go on a major rant about politics and the evils of the food business, but I’ll leave that for the Pollan’s of the world. For me, one of the most devastating factors behind the survival of this parasitic diet is much more simple: we’re already doing it.

We’re lazy. Inertia is a powerful force to overcome, especially with a practice that lends itself so easily to habits and traditions. We eat constantly, at least three times a day, and have for our entire lives, so it becomes a mindless, routine activity. We know what we like, we know where to get it, we know what it costs – we know our diets inside out. Change would require a lot of energy. And since we’ve been eating a lot of hamburgers, we don’t really have the energy for it right now.

When the modern Western diet was originally introduced, sometime in the 50s maybe, it seemed like a great option – delicious, easy, cheap and backed by a powerful marketing force. Slowly but surely, families got on board. I’m sure it didn’t quickly; the good ol’ home cooking of the early century was itself inertia that needed to be overcome. To their credit, the food powers worked hard to make it happen. Now here we are, discovering the faults of our ways and trying to undo all the dids. Without the marketing budget.

For many of us, better food options are not hard to adopt, especially for those of us in California. The alternatives are bountiful, cheap and delicious. I’ve been trying to work in some changes myself, and yet every time I arrive home from shopping, I wonder how I ended up with all the same stuff as usual. It’s the supermarket trance.

But we can overcome. We did it with smoking.

What does it take? Maybe a little bit of joy…

My favorite quote in the Pollan book was this:

“In one experiment, he showed the words “chocolate cake” to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of the French eaters to the same prompt: “Celebration.”

Not that I want to tell all Americans to be more like the French, but maybe there are ways to bring the joy back to our eating.

A friend of mine had an idea for a grocery store that I thought was terrific. Set everything up by recipe. So instead of going to six different aisles to get all the ingredients for spaghetti and meatballs, you go to the ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ section. Or the chicken souvlaki section; or maybe even the cheese souffle section if you’re feeling ambitious. The point is, this arrangement introduces people to new ingredients and new foods while overcoming uncertainty. It helps people break out of their molds, explore and discover.

For those of us with a bit less ambition, even a dinner party can help. Introducing guests to delicious healthy meals in a communal setting is a great way to make the behavior stick. My vegetarian friend has almost converted me thanks to a bunch of delicious meals, wine, music and company – all of it sans meat.

Sharing meals, exploring recipes, or just chocolate bliss. Even when everything else is the shits, food can be joyful. And there’s nothing like joy to stop inertia.

For me, happiness is a ripe cantaloupe. You?

  1. lora
    September 25, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle offers another great overview of food systems and includes a historical perspective that considers why indeed we bought into the current circumstances. My vote is for direct connection to local farms – if it’s possible where you live, a CSA subscription (community-supported agriculture) introduces you and “forces” you to explore with new foods and to be creative with what the seasonal harvest and that particular farm has to offer. I’ve eaten tons of new vegetables and fruits for the first time, ever, because of my CSA box and have reconnected to cooking and meal planning in an entirely new way! Thanks Simon, really interesting post here.

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