“You are what you eat eats.” –Michael Pollan, author
In my last entry of this series, I left off questioning why we have in general become so reliant on nutrition in synthetic, encapsulated form. Now I’m the first to admit that it’s easy to get lured in by the supplement hype–compounds like resveratrol (typically found in wine, now synthesized into potent capsules), and concentrated fish oil come to mind as the most marketed recently. Who wouldn’t want to live longer (supposedly), or reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s?
I’ve definitely bought my share of vitamins and nutritional supplements over the years—some claiming to boost energy, others to ease stress or build immunity to illness—even though I know that there isn’t a lot of evidence backing up most of these claims. I get sucked into the marketing, like millions of other people looking to improve their health. So I can understand how the supplement business is raking in $23 billion a year and growing.
I believe there is a place for herbal remedies, natural supplements, and the like–but not as a substitute for a wholesome diet. There are certain herbs that have been used for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years for health reasons, and can be a useful addition to a healthy diet. But this is not how most people are using supplements. We get inundated by advertising from large corporations looking to cash in on a growing market, who have built a culture in which we obsess about consuming all of the “essential” nutrients in the formulated, synthetic doses the industry deems appropriate. And all the while the health and wellbeing of our society is actually declining.
Keep in mind that supplements are different from ‘superfoods’. Certain foods pack a strong nutritional punch (think dark leafy greens, berries, quinoa, and chia seeds) and are therefore considered particularly beneficial to consume, hence the honor of beeing deemed a ‘superfood’. While companies do indeed try to profit off of these foods as well, and there seems to be a new trendy superfood every year, the supplement market is where I see the most cause for alarm.
Do it Like the French
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and several other books, newspaper and magazine articles, and radio presentations, describes this as the ‘American Paradox’. It’s an ironic twist on the American invention of the term ‘French Paradox’, a term implying that we can’t understand how a culture that consumes daily doses of cream, wine, cheese, and fatty meats could have such healthy citizens, while diet-conscious Americans are falling victim to heart disease and diabetes at much higher rates. Really, it comes down to the very simple fact that French culture still revolves around natural, unprocessed foods, often locally and organically produced. In general, they do not obsess about whether they’ve taken 500 mg of this or that nutrient twice daily; rather they incorporate wholesome foods into their diet that balance the small portions of rich foods they also enjoy.
The French also still appreciate moving–walking, gardening, cycling–natural ways to incorporate exercise into daily life in an enjoyable way. Instead of anxiously popping resveretrol pills in hopes of gaining an extra year of life, they sip on quality red wine in the company of friends and family. And I think they really are on to something–and have been for centuries. Conversely, the American tendency is to follow fad diets (i.e. Atkins, paleo, etc.) or buy dozens of supplements, oblivious to the stresses these synthetic versions of nutrients place on our bodies.
Many of the vitamins and minerals in supplements are in forms that the body cannot readily absorb. Even worse, unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements do not have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which means the products don’t have to undergo clinical testing in humans. That saves the companies billions of dollars, but also means that the health claims are unsubstantiated, and in many cases supplements (including protein powders) have been found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals or other toxic chemicals. There are a few recently added guidelines (as of 2007) to try to ensure purity and consistency in supplements, but the oversight is heavily lacking.
If you think about wellbeing holistically, our health is not determined solely by the nutrients we consume, but also by our mental state, our stress levels, and our relationships/support networks. The French culture (and others like it) is still at least partly defined by the art of eating slowly, and with company. It all flows together–when you eat in this manner, you tend to eat less, and enjoy it more, enhancing the benefits. And even on a purely nutritional level, scientific studies have proven time and again that nutrients isolated from the food source from which they are derived never seem to work as optimally as when the food itself is consumed. The benefits we get from eating fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains are synergistic because of a complex suite of complementary phytonutrients and dynamic interactions that we don’t fully understand yet.
Know Thy Food
Pollan takes the ‘American Paradox’ analogy a step further by describing our nearly complete estrangement as consumers from the food production process, and from the origins of our food. I believe that this is the fatal gap in awareness that allows the paradox to exist. Growing up, I was never consciously aware (nor was taught) that walnuts grew on trees or carrots grew in the ground. It didn’t affect me that the entire existence of bananas depends on a very few banana plants that are still able to produce seeds and thus keep the species alive (but just barely); to me, they were just always available at Albertson’s, every day of the year, in all their seedless glory.
The closest I got to agriculture was driving past southern California strawberry fields covered in pesticides (not that I knew about that as a child), day laborers hunched over the plants with bandannas covering their faces. I feel somehow deprived of a connection to the earth I should have been raised to respect; a connection that, if nurtured in today’s younger generations, has the potential to improve our understanding of natural systems and encourage a greater environmental ethic within each of us. But most of us are deprived of this knowledge partly by a culture of convenience, but also by an industry whose profits depend on our obliviousness to the destructive and wasteful processes that keep the system in place.
Our awareness of meat production is even more dismal, partly because the gruesome realities of ‘efficient’ factory farming are kept purposely hidden from the public. Pollan visits some of these sites, however, and in in The Omnivore’s Dilemma describes the sickly state of cows who are fed an unnatural diet of corn (which they can’t digest properly and therefore have constant stomach problems), antibiotics, hormones, and lard–yes, they are fed their own fat. It is a depressing state of existence, the result of capitalistic economies of scale that completely disregard the much more balanced and healthy processes and scales developed by nature. The cows are unhealthy, the people that eat the cows are unhealthy, and the land that sustains them all becomes contaminated.
Yet there exist tiny pockets of resistance to the chemically and genetically modified corn-based industry in America. Small holistic family farms that still allow their cows and chickens to graze in grassy pastures, farms that work with the seasons and for the land rather than against them. Pollan describes one such farm (Polyface Farm, the subject of many articles and documentary segments since) in detail.
Polyface’s owner, Joel Salatin, developed a farming system that is nearly 100% self-sufficient and provides meat, vegetables, fruits, milk and eggs to a strong base of loyal local customers. The meat from his animals consistently tests clean of the bacteria frequently found in Tyson chicken, plus is free of hormones, steroids, and other drugs pumped into factory-raised animals. Farms like Salatin’s don’t simply fulfill some whimsical ideal of organic farming–they actually provide insight into a very modern understanding of complex natural systems. Salatin recently emphasized this point in a rebuttle to an editorial in the New York Times that declared sustainable meat production is a ‘myth’. Farms like Salatin’s defiantly cast off the artificial construct of NPK, the Green Revolution myth that by simply inputting measured quantities of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium into the soil, industrial agricultural outputs can increase indefinitely.
As the ramifications of the Green Revolution are now being felt in the form of droughts, pollution from pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, dust storms, erosion, exhausted fields, and famine, more and more people are finally starting to take heed of the alternative voices in agriculture. Voices that have for decades tried to remind us that the soil is not just an equation of simple minerals, but a complex web of living organisms–bacteria, fungi, insects–and non-living nutrients and minerals all in particular balance with each other to create soil quality. By stimulating this natural balance rather than wiping it out with chemicals, we can create a much more sustainable and efficient food production system, at scales that make sense environmentally.
Thankfully there is also a growing grassroots movement to re-connect children with the food we eat by developing school gardens and using experiential learning to teach children about everything from nature to nutrition, build confidence, and provide them with fresh fruits and vegetables that they are excited to eat. I am inspired every time I read about these programs, like the Garden School Foundation, or Bronx Green Machine.
The concepts of sustainable agriculture, the slow food movement, and mindful eating all link to an ethic of individual and societal wellbeing, an ethic that is yet to be adequately cultivated (or perhaps I should say returned to) in our culture.
I suppose just as we have become reliant on a reductionist approach to science, trying to understand the world in tiny fragments without always connecting these back to the bigger picture, we have also started treating our bodies like factories that we can manipulated with specific inputs–500mcg Vitamin C, 50mcg calcium–to achieve specific outputs–cure common cold, grow strong bones–without appreciating the wondrous complexities that really make us tick both mentally and physically. We don’t yet understand fully how all of the chemical and electromagnetic signals absorbed by our bodies work together to structure our physical and conscious selves.
We are, however, incrementally learning that the mind and body are intricately linked, and scientists are slowly realizing that ‘health’ is impacted as much by our attitude and mental state of being as it is by physiological determinants (or perhaps these are one and the same, ultimately). Dr. Bruce Lipton explores these aspects of medical research in a book called The Biology of Belief, which I’ll delve into in my next blog entry.
In the meantime, I think you can have you’re cake and eat it too (and why wouldn’t you want to eat a cake if you had one??), but if you ask me it tastes all the richer if you make it yourself with good quality ingredients grown in harmony with nature, and enjoy it with a special person. And maybe even with a glass of wine just for the pure enjoyment of it–not because of any particular wonder chemicals it may contain.