So begins a super-sized article by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine section (link). In bite-sized, easy-to-digest portions, Pollan serves up a heaping helping of the recent consensus on the health benefits of a varied, low-calorie diet:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
Throughout the article, Pollan cautions against the reductionist, component-by-component view of food that he calls “nutritionism” — the idea that we’ve identified all of the important compounds in foods (nutrients), and that we can therefore mix and match nutrients to create novel food-like products, without being concerned about components whose benefits have not yet been identified, the interactions between individual nutrients, or the tradeoffs between eating one thing and not another.
Toward the end of the article, Pollan gives a nod to calorie restriction (CR), and connects the lifespan extension benefits of CR to the whole-food, slow-food themes of the article:
“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.
Overall, I found the article to be a measured and enlightening treatment of a complex subject: How can ordinary people sort through the vast and rapidly growing literature on diet and nutrition in order to make the best choices about their food intake over a long and healthy lifespan? I field a lot of questions from my friends (scientists and non-scientists alike) about what we all should be eating — and what we should be reading about what we should be eating. I have a feeling I’ll be referring many people to Pollan’s article.