Are we all just “armchair experts” on nutrition?

Ugh, nothing is worse than an armchair expert. I know, because I used to date one.

But how does being an amateur nutritional expert actually hurt us in the end, you ask? Because our knowledge is only as good as the source it comes from.

In an article on the Organic Gardening magazine’s website, food and nutrition author Michael Pollan spoke about America’s relationship with food, and how planning a meal has become a confusing jungle of scientific jargon. Pollan made perfect point after point in this article, that I kept finding myself nodding my head to, and saying, “Exactly!”

Photography by Spencer J. Eggers (Organic Gardening)
Author Michael Pollan speaks at Southern Methodist University stage earlier last month about nutrition literacy in the U.S. The picture he paints isn't all that pretty.

“We are becoming armchair experts on antioxidants, saturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, polyphenols, folic acid, gluten, you name it,” Denise Gee reported on Pollan’s recent presentation. “It’s self-medication, often in irrational ways. We don’t even see foods anymore. We only see nutrients.”

He then makes the jump from today’s food knowledge stupor to America’s once Puritan roots. “Puritans have trouble with all the activities in which animals also engage. Eating is one of them. So we prefer to treat it as a scientific matter.”

I find this theory a viable one, and one worth exploring. Man has always thought it can do “better” than Mother Nature. Well, look at the high rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes we’ve got today. Man has done a bang-up job, huh?

It’s become so confusing trying to eat healthy today, when you listen to mainstream “studies.” For instance, Pollan mentioned how depending on the direction of the wind, certain aspects of our nutrition are demonized. One day, it’s salt. On another, it’s gluten, or on another, it’s sugar. One day coffee is the root of all evil, yet another day it’s great for combatting strokes. Reports on foods are “all over the map,” and terribly conflicting. And this is just day-to-day. No wonder we grasp onto the smallest amount of stability in nutrition news and stick to it.

Antioxidants good for me? Great! Let’s stock up on it, and I’ll be healthier than most.

What’s worse, though, is trying to fit in what’s “good” for us while cutting out the “bad” nutritional element of the week. With “fortified” and “enriched” food everywhere you look in the supermarket, it’s not surprising that the food industry’s attempt to make their food “better for you” is actually overkill. The entire supermarket is chuck full of too much of a good thing, which Pollan says is leading us from the frying pan into the fire. Just the numbers alone say a lot. Pollan told his audience that over the last 30 years, men are 17 pounds heavier on average, and the average woman is 19 pounds heavier.

And all those market foods with extra vitamin- or nutrient-fortified/enriched foods are pre-made, convenient, “novelty” ready-to-eat foods. America is the go-fast nation. We don’t buy raw ingredients to cook meals for ourselves or our families. The majority of Americans grab easily microwavable foods that tout healthy-sounding buzz words on the packaging, and feel good about it. We think we’re eating healthy, because we’re told that the more omegas and vitamins we eat, the better. But we don’t really know to what degree, and the healthy amount we should consume. Why watch what we eat? It says healthy. So the more I eat of it, the better, right?

Oh my goodness, no.

In the end, we are a society simply bombarded with advertising campaigns and hidden agendas from the food industry.

I say hidden agendas, because in a world of complicated alliances, it’s difficult to be honest about food health in mainstream media when big-wig food industries have everything to lose. Hell, we live in a country where Oprah was forced to apologize to the beef industry over a comment she made on her show. She said in passing that she wouldn’t want to eat another burger after hearing of the unpalatable food safety practices in meat-packing plants. But because it was someone the people – the masses – listen to that cast them in a negative light, the truth could have been very damaging. Though no dips in their profits were recorded, they had to make the preemptive strike before they did start to lose customers.

Photo by Lindsey Gemme
Photo by Lindsey Gemme Seems harmless enough - grains stripped of all nutrition, which are then added back in again (kind of counter-intuitive, but who am I to say?). But an entire nation not eating the food/nutrients it's supposed to turns to the food industry to "add it back in" in other places. And they've fortified and enriched foods so much, we may be overwhelming our bodies with "the good stuff."

Every year when the government releases its nutrition guidelines for America, it’s laced with the undertow of kissing the feet of milk, beef, and soy industries, among others. This throws the integrity of a health-minded government agency giving us sound judgment on food choices right out the window. It’s hard to say “cut out red meat from your diet” or “cut out cow milk and drink this instead” for health when these big industries depend on Americans buying their products – for good, or ill. If they lose customers, Americans lose jobs (among other monetary motivators).

So if we don’t listen to the advice of all of these confusing and terribly unhealthy claims made by the food industry, what is an American to do?

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” Pollan offered. “And have a relaxed attitude about food. Don’t be a fanatic. Oscar Wilde had a wonderful amendment to the saying about all things in moderation, he says: ‘All things in moderation, including moderation.’ That’s the sum total of food wisdom.”

I always knew I liked Wilde for a reason.

And I loved Pollan’s “Food Rules” so much, I have re-written them here in my blog, for your convenience:

Pollan’s Food Rules

• “Avoid products containing ingredients a third-grader can’t pronounce.”

This one I cannot applaud enough. Food should just be that. Just a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at a local convenience store to just grab a pre-fab meal to hold me over for a long night at work. After 15 minutes examining, comparing, and contrasting the ingredients and nutrition labels of five different “foods,” I felt sick to my stomach. A burrito, which was about 10 inches long, took nearly all 10 inches JUST TO LIST THE INGREDIENTS. The others weren’t much better, and filled with stuff that certainly did not sound like food, but chemicals and things I couldn’t identify. Make this a cardinal rule in your house: If it has more than 3-5 ingredients, and full of stuff you can’t identify, put it back on the shelf.

• “Don’t buy any foods you’ve ever seen advertised on television.”

I like this. Anything processed and advertised by a big food corporation is automatically suspect.

• “Just imagine your grandmother, or your great-grandmother (depending on your age), as you’re rolling down the aisle in the supermarket. If she would not recognize something as a food, it’s not a food.”

Ha – unfortunately, both of my grandmothers came from the age of canned food. Especially being blue-collar, my family had to keep an eye on dimes and nickels. One of my grandmothers had six children to feed. Canned, processed food allowed them to do that. So – instead, buy like an Italian grandmother. I think many of you know what I’m talking about 😉

• “Shop the perimeter of the store. That’s where the live food lives.”

Good point. Shelved, non-refridgerated, or non-showered products do not have fresh, real food in it.

• “Don’t eat until you’re full. Eat until you’re satisfied. The Japanese have a rule called hara hachi bu, which means, ‘eat until you’re 80 percent full.’ That’s a radically un-American idea. But if we adopted this, and had our children do the same, the positive results would be profound.”

This is dynamite advice. If you’ve eaten until your stuffed or full, you have eaten more than you can realistically burn off. If you eat light and you get hungry later, that’s what snacks are for. The less you stress your stomach out and other digestive organs, the better off you’ll be. “Full” is actually a last-stop warning sign for your body.

• “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry.”

Ha! Good point. If you’re eating just for taste (hmmm, that twinkie sounds good right about now), you’re not eating to live. You’re living to eat.

• “Do all your eating at a table. And no, a desk is not a table.”

I don’t know, I can’t always do that 😉 I practically live at my desk at work during the workday. But when you’re eating at a table and concentrating on the task at hand – eating – it’s easier to tell when you’re full. With no other distractions, you’re paying attention to what your body’s telling you instead of who just emailed you and needs an answer ASAP. You won’t be so inclined to wolf down that oversized sandwich and run!

So, my hat is off to you, Mr. Pollan, and I salute your pragmatism.


One thought on “Are we all just “armchair experts” on nutrition?

  1. I agree with this sentiment. However…

    Such unscientific claims are also regularly made by the organic industry through magazines, the internet and other channels that bypass good scientific practice. It must also be remembered that the organic industry also has the same agenda to sell you a product. They will (and do) put on an act of ‘the little guy against the evil goliath corporation’. They will trash the opposition – whether justified or not – and attempt to create scares about this or that causing cancer / heart disease and other ailments.

    The true issue here is to be critical about claims by any industry that fail to publish through academic channels. Ask yourselves whether this is genuine advice given based on evidence produced using the proper scientific method or whether in their “own labs” and published only in their own business newsletter they have rigged the tests to say exactly what they want them to say and buried data they do not like the look of.

    Can I recommend a personal favourite guy of mine. His name is Ben Goldacre and I cannot recommend enough his book Bad Science. He is a Medical Doctor who has been critical of malpractice by pharmaceutical companies who put profit before research principles. He is also a big crtitic of the alternative medice industry, self-styled nutritionist Gilliam McKeith (with her fake PhD), homeopathy and other practitioners of bad science.

    His Blog

    If you choose to read his book (soon) I look forward to discussing it with you 🙂


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