Quick: Name three “junk” foods. Now, name three diets that people swear by. Got them?
For the former, perhaps you named a snack chip, fast food item, and any sugary soda. For the latter, you could have identified the Atkins, Okinawa, and Mediterranean diets. Now, try to find a common thread. The foods are salty and sweet, from grocery stores and from restaurants. The diets, all of which have legitimate claims to success, are as different as day and night. Atkins is a protein diet, with restrictions on carbohydrate intake. The Mediterranean diet is known by its healthy fats, such as olive oil. And the Okinawa diet, based on the study of uber-healthy seniors in Japan, deduces the value of rice and fish. The common thread? It might just be modern food science.
As traditional cultures have remained thin and healthy, such as in the Mediterranean and Okinawa examples above, modern Western cultures, and Americans in particular, are getting fatter at alarming rates. While there are many candidates for blame – ranging from prosperity, to the hectic pace of modern life, to inactivity – a consensus is forming around the plentiful and easy to absorb calories consumed in processed foods.
Many have advised against modern processed foods, and I’ll offer two spokespeople here. Michael Pollan is among the leading voices against what he describes as “edible food-like substances” and in favor of what he calls, to use a technical term, “food”. The easiest distinction between the two might be that your grandmother would recognize the latter, but not the former. If you haven’t read one of Pollan’s books, I highly recommend it. Last year, I read In Defense of Food, which offers the advice “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” You should really read the whole book, but Pollan offers the introduction for free on his web site.
For a more humorous take on all of this, I’ll refer you to John Durant’s appearance on The Colbert Report. Though a resident of New York City, Durant is known for his hunter-gatherer or “caveman” diet. The same principle applies as with Pollan’s teaching – modern food has evolved beyond our bodies’ ability to process it – although Durant pushes his diet to the extreme and is willing to even look like a caveman, while Pollan champions farmers markets and retains his Berkley professor persona.
Now, the big question: how far is far enough? While Pollan and Durant make some sense in the abstract, eliminating everything that is at all processed leaves virtually nothing left to eat in modern American society. For the purposes of the Pounds Off Playoff, let’s define processed foods as all processed, or refined, carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, sweets, etc.), as well as other highly processed foods, such as lunchmeat and American cheese. We’ll knock out non-caloric foods as well, such as diet colas. However, we’ll allow some of those things that grandma would recognize (the sweet, beloved grandma who served romaine with olive oil and vinegar, not the awesome, beloved grandma who served pizza with gin and tonic), even if the cavemen wouldn’t know some of them.
Bottom line: When in doubt, err on the side of whole foods, or as close as possible.