Ellen Goodman

Hungry for some certainty

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ellen Goodman
February 15, 2008

I AM sitting at the breakfast table taking my medicine. This drug is a cup of coffee formerly identified by its native and urban origins: Sumatra and Peet's. But now it has been declared good for what might eventually ail me, if what might ail me is Parkinson's disease or colon cancer. Coffee has also been praised as a prevention for diabetes in Minnesota and cursed as a risk for diabetics in North Carolina, but I am in Massachusetts.

On my place mat is a bowl of antioxidants formerly known as blueberries. These round little health capsules have been scientifically evaluated as a barrier against mental decline and cancer. Alas, they come from Chile, which is not good for my carbon footprint.

I am pondering an egg, which was once considered a suicidal act, death by cholesterol. Now it is praised for its carotenoids - lutein and zeaxanthin - essential for healthy eyes.

These healthy eyes are needed to read the newspaper stories in front of me full of the latest food health bulletins. The first dateline is New York, which, you may recall, has joined the crowd in banning those evil trans fats that were once our salvation against those devilish animal fats. Now the city has also decided that calories of every dish should be posted in chain restaurants.

The second dateline is Seattle, which has predictably one-upped the East Coast. Its new law will not only list the calories but the carbohydrates, fats, and sodium lurking in the beurre blanc, crème fraîche, and Big Mac.

How did it come to this? How did eating become a science rather than an art? How did food become conflated with medicine? We now have shelves full of boxes with bragging rights promising better eating through chemistry. Meanwhile, our uncertainty is growing as quickly as our waistlines.

Imagine what our ancestors would have made of a book titled "In Defense of Food." They would never have believed that food needed a defense lawyer. But one of the leading indicators of the fix we are in is how quickly Michael Pollan's manifesto vaulted to the top of the best-seller list. There it sits, proof of the transformation of the land of plenty into the land of plenty of anxieties.

Pollan's previous book raised "The Omnivore's Dilemma" - what to eat. He masticated the meaning of four meals for people, the earth, and the agricultural industry. He single-handedly made "locavore" the word of the year for the New Oxford American Dictionary. Think global, eat local.

Now he solves the omnivore's dilemma with seven little words wrapped around a head of lettuce on the new book cover: "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants." (Not including the philodendron.) And the word that he's launching this year is "orthorexia," an unhealthy fixation with healthy eating.

"What other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?" he asks, recognizing the absurdity of the need for his own advice. Two different forces got us here. The first is "nutritionism," the idea fostered by science that food is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients. The second and more pernicious force is the $36 billion food-marketing industry that turns food into "food-like substances."

Remember the French paradox: wine, cheese, and low weight? Well, the American paradox, Pollan writes, is "a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily."

His tips for the land of the overweight orthorexics are rather charmingly simple. Among them: Avoid products made with ingredients you can't read or pronounce. Avoid products making health claims on the package. Yes, eat plants. (But not the sansevieria.) But the best of them is: don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

Frankly, I'm pretty sure my great-grandmother never saw an avocado, let alone a kiwi. But I am all for moving from what conservatives grudgingly call the nanny state to the great-granny state.

Even as we speak, someone working to combine the eating disorder with the great American paradox must be writing the next best-seller: The Great-Granny Diet. You read it hear first. Meanwhile, the moguls of the agricultural-industrial complex will work up a great-granny product line. And we will soon see great-granny stickers on all the beleaguered fruit and vegetables that line the market walls.

In the meantime, I plan to begin eating at least one plant that my great-granny knew so well: the good old Theobroma cacao. Rich in flavanols, not to mention polyphenols, this is after all a known treatment for fatigue, coughs and anxieties - and maybe even orthorexia. What was it my great-granny called this plant? Oh yeah, chocolate.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

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