I’m reading yet another fabulous book, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (also author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which will likely move up my reading list queue), and need to share some thoughts. I hope i’m not infringing on copyright here, I have no idea what percent of the total book I’m going to be quoting, but i give all credits to Pollan and maybe he’ll sell another book or two and we’ll call it even.
First, the premise: Pollan is discussing the “American Diet” and the health consequences of our recent tradition of mass producing everything we consume. He alludes to the common practices of eating alone or in the car – not enjoying a meal as experience as our predecesors have. For Americans, it’s about consumption, not food (the subtitle of the book is: An Eater’s Manifesto. i’m totally an eater, so i dig it). He is a proponent of whole foods for several reasons, of which i will leave to the book. But, unbeknownst to me before i read, generally we talk about food now in terms of nutrients instead of foods, something that has a deep impact on our view of food and our eating habits. Not to mention our biblical interpretation. Keep reading, it’s good.
“Most nutrional science invoves studying one nutrient at a time, a seemingly unavoidable approach that even nutrionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. ‘The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,’ points out Marion Nestly, a NYU nutritionist, ‘is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet and the diet out the context of the lifestyle.’
“If nutrition scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done. Scientists study variables they can isolate; if they can’t isolate a variable, they won’t be able to tell whether its presence or absence is meaningful. yet even the simplist food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutrition scientist you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: Break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring subtle interactions and contexts and the fact that the whole may well be more than, or maybe just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.
… it encourages us to take a simple mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient, get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways…”
i don’t think Pollan needs much explaining here. By looking at the little things outside of the big picture, we may miss something. He gives examples of the FDA advising people to increase intake of a particular vitamin, yet when this is done in isolation, rather than by ingesting the whole carrot, there is actually an increase chance of heart disease (or other named-by-Pollan malady, i’m not going to look it up).
it’s funny that when it comes to food, we’re trying to get the smallest form of the good thing. we’ll buy cereal with added potassium rather than eating a banana or potato. Why? There’s nothing wrong with the nana or the tater. (Pollan has his hypothesis in the food industry…). In fact, the nana and the tater are actually better than the marketed and labeled cereal with added in “nutrients.”
i’ve seen a similar approach to living the quote/unquote christian life. we have some reductionist tendencies when we read the scripture, minimizing things down the smallest letter of the can and can-nots rather than enjoying the whole of the life we’re directed to live – one of love, faith, charity and peace. when you live in such a manner, you will naturally fall in line with they nitty gritty details that eons of church history has split hairs over. if we’d just eat the carrot, we’d get what we need.
i woke up the other morning quite perterbed about an imaginary discussion i was having with a friend over a social issue upon which christians have a tendency to pounce. regardless of my view of said social issue, i have real qualms over the way it’s been handled by both congregants and leaderships alike. maybe we need to stop worrying whether s/he is getting enough vitamin X and just offer them a carrot. and make sure we’re eating our carrots as well – maybe we’re not vitamin X deficient, but there are plenty of vits and minerals that we could be lacking. however, that is not our habit. instead, we offer them artificial supplements, trying to change their vitamin intake of something we only think would fix their life. but what they need is a carrot. we’re no different than the Pharisees trying to stump Jesus with “but who is my neighbor?”. Reductionist theology in it’s finest.
we have no idea how the whole picture fits together, we only know how to enjoy the whole food, in a whole diet, in a whole lifestyle. and if it’s manufactured and labeled healthy, it’s probably not. the real stuff doesn’t need a label because a carrot doesn’t lie (though the ones in my garden taste much better than the ones in the grocery store!). and you can’t manufacture love, faith, charity or peace. there is no substitute or supplement.