The silence of the yams

IMG_5462I was a little late to the feast when it came to In Defence Of Food.

My secondhand edition of Michael Pollan’s healthy eating treatise is garnished with words like ‘bestseller’, ‘must-read’ and ‘Book of the Year’.

The year in question was 2008 and – though time and food fads may have moved on since then – common sense hasn’t. Pollan’s recipe for eating holds true.

A bit like the ‘whole foods’ that he repeatedly praises, Pollan’s central thesis is served fully formed: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

It’s simple. And it’s a theory that frees you from focusing (or obsessing) on vitamins, saturated fats, free radicals, metabolic syndrome or any other effects of the foods or food-like products you eat – the ones that may or may not cause obesity, cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

Pollan’s advice won’t work for everyone. In fact it’s unlikely to work for most. Food producers make money from industrially growing their produce, food companies from refining it, doctors from treating the effects of eating it, and Big Pharma from making new drugs to better treat the diseases caused by the effects of eating it.

'Mostly plants.' Borough Market, London Pic: Clare Kleinedler

‘Mostly plants.’ Borough Market, London
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

And our brains, which crave glucose, don’t complain when we give them more and more of the stuff, usually from refined carbohydrates.

This is the food industry that whole foods (described by Pollan as ‘food that your grandmother would recognise’) are up against, and have been for the past 50 years. Not as profitable as processed foods, a simple vegetable can appear mute in the face of the multi-billion euro marketing yell of the food industry.

It’s ‘the silence of the yams’, as Pollan puts it.

There may have been a time when we regarded processed food as better for us (margarine, conveyor of spreadable trans fats, was marketed in the 1950s as healthier than butter) but that Atomic Age attitude has long since disappeared. Now we eat it because it’s cheap and there’s lots of it.

And it’s there too, in your face. Walk into any supermarket and compare the screaming colours of the centre aisles to the vegetables around the outside.  Away from the supermarket watch TV, browse social media, go to a sports’ event or a gig – and count the ads.

Amidst the noise, the claims, claims and more claims, the appeal of simple, non-scientific advice is strong.

Does it work? I’ve no idea. Neither does anyone else, definitively at least.

But I’ll err on the side of the Neolithic people whose tomb I visited last week, and the hundreds of generations since, up to the mid-20th century, by eating food, not too much, mostly plants.

Washed down by a little wine.
_____

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