Saturday, November 12, 2011

Avocado Adventures

Recently I read a very interesting book called In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan. It's about how many of the "diseases" associated with a Western lifestyle appear to be directly linked to the Western diet. (I put diseases in quotes because these are not, strictly speaking, caused by any sort of pathogen: I'm talking about things like heart disease, cancer, late-onset diabetes, obesity, and other similar ailments. And by Western diet I don't mean "someone who lives on Big Macs and milkshakes", but "pretty much anyone in America who buys food from the grocery store and isn't eating some unusual diet".) In Defense of Food  also talks about "nutritionism", the belief that food can be thought of as merely human fuel and reduced to its constituent chemicals. In this mindset it's easy to make food healthier -- simply remove the "bad" nutrients and replace them with "good" ones. This mindset has been the guiding policy of the American food industry for nearly the entire past century.

Now, on the face of it, this position appears reasonable. It has, in fact, had some dramatic victories, such as the discovery of vitamins. The near-eradication of such "diseases" as beriberi and scurvy stands as a monument to its success. Pollan is not saying that nutritionism is necessarily wrong, just incomplete. He makes a good point when he argues that while modern science may be able to identify all the components in a type of food, it is much less able to figure out how all those components work together in the digestive tract. There may very well be important interactions we don't know about between the nutrients in food during the digestive process that help make it healthy, in which case manually tinkering with the balance of those nutrients may not be effective or helpful. Evidence that simply knowing the nutrient value of foods is not enough is not hard to come by. For starters, there's what's known as the French Paradox: the French eat a diet that by nutritionism's standards is wildly unhealth, yet they enjoy far better health on the whole than Americans. And that's not just because Americans are an unhealthily eating lot: according to studies, Americans are the most health-conscious people on the planet, while paradoxically also suffering from some of the highest rates of the aforementioned Western diseases.

The evidence points to the typical Western diet (even of health-conscious people) being the culprit. Again, evidence for this is easy to find: time and again, scientists during the 1900's noticed that when indigenous people switched from their native diets to the Western diet, invariably Western diseases (or "diseases of civilization") soon followed. In a dramatic demonstration of how these effects can be reversed, a group of middle-aged Aborigines in Australia suffering from ailments such as obesity and type 2 diabetes went "back to the bush" for a few months and experienced dramatic improvements to their health. (You can find a link to a quotation from the book detailing this experiment here.)

Now, some of you may be thinking to yourselves, "If the price to pay for the luxuries of modern living is being a bit obese and a higher risk of cancer and heart disease in old age, I think I can live with that." And indeed, I would be inclined to agree with you. Neither Pollan nor I are advocating a return to pre-Industrial Revolution-style conditions in order to escape diseases that, while nothing to sneeze at, are nothing compared to what mankind struggled with prior to modern medicine and agriculture. However, the question is whether there are only two alternatives: live a healthy life without modern conveniences or an unhealthy one with them. According to Pollan there is a third option, namely, living a healthy life by taking advantage of the conveniences of modern life.

Doing so, however, will require a bit a rethink of our approach to food. According to Pollan, more and more of the food found on grocery store shelves isn't so much food as it is "edible foodlike substances". While preserving food (such as by drying, salting, smoking, etc) has been around pretty much forever, much of the processing done to food on the shelves today is much, much, younger, and Pollan argues that we haven't had enough time yet to fully understand what we're doing with out diet. Prior to industrialization every culture on Earth had some sort of traditional diet that they ate and had been eating for hundreds if not thousands of years, and those diets obviously worked, else the culture wouldn't be around to be eating them. In contrast, industrialization and the accompanying changes to our food supply (and they have been dramatic changes) have only been around for 150-200 years, at most. Of interest is the wide variety in those pre-Industrial diets, many of which would not be thought at all healthy according to modern nutritional science. For instance, people have survived and thrived on diets consisting almost entirely of plants, and almost entirely of meat, and ones everywhere in between, often with large amounts of nutrients that are considered extremely dangerous today (various kinds of fat, etc.). This suggests that we ought not be too dogmatic about what we think we know about food.

There are many other things I could expand upon, such as the fact that the majority of nutrients in the Western diet now come from just four species: corn, soybeans, wheat and rice, while the number of species in the world's collective cookbook stands at over eight thousand. Or that the higher incidence of Western diseases is not simply a matter of more people living to older age, but a demonstrable effect based on diet (and lifestyle. Pollan reminds us that the two cannot really be separated). But this post is already long enough, and I'd just be poorly parroting the book, which is well-written and an interesting read. Pollan's advice boils down to seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" and while I have never been one to pay too much attention to my diet before, I was so intrigued by the ideas in this book that I've decided to try to eat a healthier diet by a) paying even less attention to health claims by food than before, and b) just attempting to eat a balanced diet of real food that has withstood the test of time.

Basically, I decided to start trying out new recipes and such, so the last time I went shopping I got some avocados at the store (so THAT'S what the title is about!). I don't remember eating avocados much as a child, so I decided I'd be bold and try to make something with them. I created some guacamole, and was instantly hooked (I also learned that unripe avocados are not to be trifled with, but that's another story). In fact, I could definitely see this becoming a new favorite food in the very near future. See, Mom, I may still be a picky eater, but I do try new things from time to time. And sometimes I even like them.

Anyway, it occurs to me that I just wrote a two-page essay to describe a new food foray, but I was planning to write something about In Defense of Food anyway, so I killed two birds with one stone there. If you have any other favorite recipes involving avocados, feel free to leave me a comment! (For some reason, I've spent this entire post wanting to write "avocados" as "avodacos".)


  1. You can actually make chocolate pudding-type things with avocadoes. (Why is it not avocadoes? I'm actually doing plurals in my grammar homework this very minute, but I have a headache.)

    I also like them plain on sandwiches. Delicious! There are four ripening in my kitchen right now... :P

    That being said, my food choices tend towards less of what's healthy than what I actually want to eat at any particular moment. Sometimes they collide. I had interesting experiences cutting milk out of my diet, though.

    I noticed that we ate a lot of food in Japan, though - a lot of it fried or full of oil. But it was mostly vegetables.

  2. THAT'S RIGHT! There's a recipe for chocolate avocado pie in the school newspaper. I'm not sure if that ruins the effect of eating avocados in the first place, but hey!

  3. I agree with most of these sentiments. I will say just a few things that should be pointed out. Firstly, one of the reasons why America has such a weight problem is that we heavily-subsidize the corn industry, so simple corn sugars and corn derivatives are in almost everything. This is why processed food costs less than fresh produce. Ever think of why that is? We are already paying for a lot of the price through our tax dollars. No surprised that nearly all processed foods are mostly made of corn. The fact of the matter is that corn was never meant to be eaten in the massive quantities it is eaten in today. For one, corn was originally about the size of a chili pepper and used as a kind of spice in South America. It was only through an aggressive campaign of artificial selection that it got to the size we see today. For two, our bodies in general were never made to consume as much sugar as we do today. For millions of years, simple sugars were a relative rarity in our diet, and most of our energy came from lipids and complex carbohydrates.

    There are of course secondary factors such as our mostly sedentary lifestyle (grad school hasn't helped me with this one...), as well as our increasingly long work weeks to compensate for our decreasing salaries and all the stress that goes along with it.

    Sorry, this is starting to sound like a rant. It's just that, when we spend almost half a trillion dollars a year fighting terrorism, which accounts for only ~50 deaths per year (averaged over many decades), while we spend barely 3 billion dollars a year dealing with heart disease, which kills over 400,000 people per year (every year!), it really ticks me off.


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