Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Polyface Farm (you'll have to read Omnivore's Dilemma to know)

I've gotten really into Michael Pollen this past year. Future Farm House directed me to one of his talks which can be found at the Philadelphia Free Library Podcast, I heard him a couple times on NPR, his books kept coming up in conversation with friends, and I also really enjoyed the essay he wrote for the New York Time's Sunday Magazine several weeks ago.

Not sure what took me so long with all this exposure to Pollen, but I finally picked up Omnivore's Dilemma. I'm about one-fourth of the way through and enjoying it a lot so far. I don't know exactly what I expected (I mostly heard him speak about his follow-up book, In Defense of Food), but I'm loving the way Pollen weaves in history and science throughout his narrative.

While I was riding home from work the other day on the trolley, I read one particular passage that plucked something inside of me:

One might think that people would stop eating and drinking gargantuan portions as soon as they felt full, but it turns out hunger doesn't work that way. Researchers have found that people (and animals) presented with larger portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise. Human appetite, it turns out, is surprising elastic, which makes excellent evolutionary sense: It behooved our hunter-gather ancestors to feast whenever the opportunity presented itself, allowing them to build up reserves of fat against future famine.

And also

The power of food science lies in its ability to break food down into their nutrient parts and then reassemble them in specific ways that, in effect, push our evolutionary buttons, fooling the omnivore's inherited food selection system. Add fat or sugar to anything and it's going to taste better on the tongue of an animal that natural selection has wired to seek out energy-dense foods. Animal studies proves the point: Rats presented with solutions of pure sucrose or tubs of lard---goodies they seldom encounter in nature---will gorge themselves sick. Whatever nutritional wisdom the rats are born with breaks down when faced with sugars and fats in unnatural concentrations...Food systems can cheat by exaggerating their energy density, tricking a sensory apparatus that evolved to deal with markedly less dense whole foods.

The feeling that welled up inside of me as I read this two paragraphs was: relief. It was not my fault that I want to eat all the time and I want to pick junk food (or even just bread and cheese) over lettuce. It is in my genes; it is how I am engineered.

In thinking about the powerful sense of relief I felt upon reading that human beings are hardwired to seek out energy-dense food, I realized that that relief is carried upon the back of a much larger feeling inside of me, namely, shame. When I eat certain foods or certain portions, I feel like I'm doing something "bad" or "wrong." The relief I felt depends upon the idea of shifting blame off of my conscious self and onto my genetics.

This blame-game is so deep inside of in my thinking that sometimes I can mistake it for relief, gratitude, or even a sense of accomplishment. All of these emotions can mask ideas that I have about what I do and don't deserve, ideas about my value as a person.

As a middle class American, what I eat does say something about me as a person and my political choices (I think Pollen would agree). As conscious decisions, based on my true value system about who I want to be, these choices are distinct from the voice inside of me that tells me "bread, bad; lettuce, good." My true value system tells me to make my eating choices balancing my realistic desires with what's best for the environment and also best for the animals involved. Valuing thinness over fatness, that's not my value system; it's ingrained in me, as my reaction to this Pollen passage demonstrated, but it's not mine.


Julia said...

This reminds me of what the wonderful professor I did research for over two years of college (who did her postdoctoral work in the eating disorders unit of the psychiatric hospital at Yale) always said about food. She said that one of the goals of treatment for patients with eating disorders (but I think really, for anyone, because most of us don't talk to ourselves about nutrition in a healthy or positive way) was to get to a place where you accept that food is not a moral issue. And then begin to live and hunger and eat in a way consistent with that belief. Which I think is a good way to conceptualize it. Great post! May I borrow the book when you're done?

drh said...

That last para you wrote is very interesting; and you recognize and state that part of making those distinctions about food choices is partly possible because you're a middle-class American, and we have the financial luxury of making those sorts of choices about our food as well as knowledge and awareness about food, its nutrient value and its source.

The part about food tricking us out is fascinating and it explains so much. Processed food is so insidious, even for those of us who have the advantage of awareness and choice. I KNOW that potato chips are bad for me--bad bad bad, but sometimes I can't help myself. Think about underclass people who a) don't have as much disposable income to spend on a wide range of food choices; b) probably don't have access to higher-quality food because of store locations and store selection; c) don't have the same knowledge about nutrition and the realities of processed food; and d) have been genetically hijacked. Yikes.

Could someone please pass me the M&Ms?