Everything You Need to Know About Healthy Eating in 115 Minutes

by | Jan 12, 2016

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Those who know me know that I’m a basketball girl, not a football girl. Maybe that’s why at a Super Bowl XLI party in 2007 I found myself enthralled by a New York Times Magazine article instead of watching the game.

As my friends ate chili and drank beers I devoured Michael Pollan’s landmark essay “Unhappy Meals.” I don’t remember who won the game, but after that day I never looked at food or nutrition the same.

That afternoon was the first time I’d encountered the term nutritionism, an ideology based on the concept that we can understand the healthfulness of a food if we understand what nutrients it contains. In nutritionism calcium = healthy bones. Omega-3 = healthy brains. Saturated fat = unhealthy hearts. The delivery mechanism of the nutrients is irrelevant, all that matters is the molecules.

As a scientist and life-long dieter, I had swallowed the nutritionism ideology hook, line and sinker. But as I sat on my friend’s sofa reading Pollan’s words, my understanding of nutrition––and in many ways my whole universe––underwent a monumental and irrevocable shift.

Over a span of 30 minutes all the inconsistencies, contradictions, and frustrations that I had encountered with food and my body suddenly made sense. I realized that what I’d considered to be “healthy food” was the farthest thing from it, and that true healthy food was as foreign to me as if it were from another planet.

I had always blamed myself for not cracking the code and getting it right. If I was eating low-fat or low-carb or high-protein and I still wasn’t losing weight then clearly I wasn’t doing enough, because the science couldn’t be wrong.

But Pollan explained that the science wasn’t to blame, only how it was used to inform our eating behaviors. It was the nutritionism ideology that had been leading me astray, and because of it I had inadvertently spent 15 years using the exact wrong approach.

Nutritionism, I learned, was the missing link between my knowledge and my experience in the real world.

So how should I be eating?

Pollan made it so simple it made my head spin: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Nothing about carbs or fat or protein. Nothing about calories. No invisible food components that are good or evil. Instead he wanted me to shop at the farmers market and cook my own food, skills I had only recently started developing. I should eat with the seasons. I should eat foods I enjoy.

Really? It was hard to believe, but it still rang true. Those seven words required some explaining, but at the end of the day it was really that simple. 

I would have considered it heresy if his argument didn’t match so well with my experiences dieting from Slimfast to South Beach. It seemed that no matter what nutrient I decided to cut out I lost weight, but only temporarily. My entire life had been a constant battle between my desire to eat the “right” things and my desire to eat what my body wanted.

In an impossible situation there are no winners. So I decided to change my approach to weight loss and embrace Real Food.

I didn’t know it yet, but this was the day I became a foodist.

Two years later on March 25, 2009 I launched Summer Tomato. A few weeks after that Penguin published an expanded version of Pollan’s article as a book called In Defense of Food, which I still consider the best explanation of healthy eating available in print.

Now nearly seven years later Pollan and PBS have released a documentary based on In Defense of Food, which is every bit as inspiring as that original article that changed my life.

In it Pollan explains nutritionism and how it has led us away from naturally nutritious diets to staggering levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. More important, he explains how to use Real Food to achieve better health through his simple axiom: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Healthy eating can seem bafflingly complex from the outside, but Pollan is able to distill the facts in a way that brings them all together into his elegant thesis.

He explains how advances in nutrition science led to the nutritionism ideology, which fueled misguided government policies, and gave the food industry control over our dinner plates.

He touches on the sciences of metabolism, digestion, heart disease, and behavioral psychology without getting too technical or wonky.

He even address socioeconomic issues and other aspects of culture that impact our daily eating habits and make it difficult (but possible) to change our national trajectory.

If you’ve already read the book, there is still tremendous value in watching the documentary as there are several scientific updates and extended explanations worth learning. It’s also really entertaining, with the parables and personal stories alone making it worth your time.

In Defense of Food is the most comprehensive explanation of the relationship between food and health you can find in under two hours, an incredible resource that you can literally watch online for free right now.

Even better, watch it with someone who still lives under the trance of nutritionism and is frustrated with the results.

What are your thoughts on nutritionism?

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18 Responses to “Everything You Need to Know About Healthy Eating in 115 Minutes”

  1. Leticia says:

    I need to leave a comment just to say that for Brazil, due to right restrictions, the documentary is not available.

    Ironic, don’t you think?

    I am familiar with Polan and his views, but it was kind of funny reading your text and coming to a black screen of “you are not good enough for our content”. 🙂

    Netflix is starting to buy some content from PBS – I was just watching “The mind of a chef” available over here, so maybe soon it will be there.

  2. Mark says:

    Weird, I was just thinking I wanted to find some more documentaries of this type (I think you would call them exposés? I’m not sure). Watching this as I type this!

  3. Sarah Anne says:

    I’ve ordered a copy of the book off the back of this post. The last six months have been a bit of an awakening for me, and this is perfect reading material! I’m over in the UK so I don’t think I’ll get to see the documentary any time soon, but I’m going to keep an eye on Netflix. Thanks for writing about this!

  4. clotilde says:

    Oh no! “We’re sorry, but this video is not available in your region due to right restrictions.” Looks like Parisians aren’t allowed in either. ^^

    Congrats on making that Greatist 100 list, Darya, it’s huge!

    • Fi says:

      Clotilde, you can get a chrome/mozilla extension that makes it look like you’re in the US. I use Hola, it’s safe and you can turn it off and on easily. I usually have it off, unless something like this happens and then I can easily watch it 🙂

  5. Barb says:

    Can’t see it yet in Canada either. Hopefully soon!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Canadians aren’t allowed to watch either. I guess just the U.S. Fortunately I fought the PBS showining & I really liked it. I am a fan of Michael Pollan & have read all his books except “Cooked” & “In Defense of Food”. Don’t know why I didn’t read that one. Love his philosophy of Eat Food, not too much & mostly plants. Perfect in it’s simplicity.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Sory for the typos. I watched the PBS showing is what it should have read. I am sure most figured that out.

  8. Michele says:

    Agreed! And in fact, I had recommended this documentary to a health coaching client and her adult daughter, so it was funny to see you suggesting just that. This is an engaging documentary that hits the nutrition mark.

    For those not in the US, try downloading Hola so that you can see this video. It worked for me in Canada.

    • Michele says:

      Another term besides “nutritionism” that Michael Pollan uses that I really like is “edible foodlike substances.” 🙂

  9. There is a popular saying that “you are what you eat”. Personally I take into great consideration about what enters into my stomach.

  10. Dade Dyana says:

    Darya – I can’t wait to watch this! Such simple, but resounding advice. I truly believe that being healthy can be incredibly simple. Does Pollan just have the one book or any other articles/books that you would recommend?

  11. ben says:

    At the 17min29sec mark, Susan Allport (“Queen of Fats”) says that the the food industry prefers to use omega-6s (soybean, corn oil) because of the longer shelf life compared to omega-3s.

    But aren’t omega-6s (polyunsaturated?) more unstable than omega-3s (monounsaturated?)?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. I don’t know if or why one is more stable than the other, but omega-6 fatty acids certainly seem cheaper to produce.

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