April 2008: Michael Pollan, Systems Theory, and Food


 

“Systems Theory”1 Goes Mainstream:   Eat Food; Not Too Much; Mostly Plants

  • What is “Food”?
  • Not Too Much?
  • Mostly Plants?

 

Released at the start of this year, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food immediately climbed to the top of the New York Times’ Book Best Seller List.  Amazing, really…a book about foods as “systems” reaching such heights.  What can explain such success?  Michael Pollan is funny and certainly his humor is a draw.  But, I suspect his success goes beyond this.

 

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”   Don’t you love it!   Sometimes simple words work best to convey the most profound and most complex of ideas.  Timing is everything, they say, and today these words seem to touch a common chord.

 

Some 30 years ago, Annemarie Colbin started describing foods as systems and our body as a system uniquely designed with just the right software to eat foods in their whole, not- fractured, form.((See Book of Whole Meals, 1979; and Food and Healing, 1986, by Annemarie Colbin, founder of the 30-year-old Natural Gourmet Institute.))

 

Annemarie Colbin’s Book of Whole Meals and Food and Healing long ago carried this holistic message.  It was a message ripe before its time.  After all, back then the food and advertising industries were just clicking into high gear to spread before us a rich panoply of freshly-invented products, drawing us in with convenience, novelty, price, and long shelf-lives.  With each year, cheap, fractured convenience foods allowed us to spend less and less of our income at the supermarket and less and less of our time in the kitchen.2

 

In recent decades, we have grown to expect “new” products to be interesting, fun, and innovative.  Today, food advertising budgets of $32 billion annually help support the introduction of some 17,0003  new fractured, processed, fortified “foods.”  In reality, these are just “retreads” made to look new.  They are largely blends reconfigured from our three main agricultural surplus crops…wheat, corn, and soy.  Hidden in a variety of forms in these packaged, convenience foods, corn, wheat, and soy contribute 1580 calories per person to our daily food supply.4  There is little room for much else.

 

But the pendulum can swing only so far before it reverses direction.  How exciting this year to see Michael Pollan bring the concept of foods as systems to mainstream thinking.  Perhaps we are using a new lens to cut through the hype surrounding fast foods and convenience products to recognize that something is missing at the supermarket in terms of quality and lifestyle.  As we see our nation, and increasingly the world, suffering more and more from allergies, obesity, diabetes, and a variety of other chronic diseases, we consumers seem more and more ready and open to start to look for causes.  They are not hard to find.

 

To name just two:  Wheat, corn, and soy, of course, are major allergens.  Corn and soy are also two of the key crops that are genetically manipulated:  60% of all corn and 85% of all soybeans grown today in the United States are genetically engineered.5

 

In Defense of Food is a fun read.  And, Food and Healing continues to offer timeless truths, incredible depth, and great health-giving wisdom for any era.  As a student of Annemarie Colbin, I would like to add a bit of commentary to Michael Pollan’s wit:

 

“Eat Food:” Which implies:

  • Whole… “as a food appears in nature with all its edible parts.”6  And, in its whole form as a system, with all its life energy and with its millions of phytochemicals…vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, antioxidants, polyphenols… synergistically packaged for our assimilation, as nature provides.
  • Real…not artificial…not synthetic, hydrogenated, or genetically engineered.  Synthetic products like artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, oils, and drugs have no life force.  They are from the underground world of coal tars and decayed matter.  They are manipulated by science and reconfigured, but do not support the inherent life force energy of the body.

 

They also fool the body.  An artificial sweetener, for example, meeting sweet taste buds in mouth will signal the body to release insulin, but when insulin meets zero calories, blood sugar plummets.  Feeling confused and betrayed, the body sends us in search of a cookie or other sweet treats to restore blood sugar levels.   So artificial sweeteners actually make us hungrier and can contribute to weight gain.7  It is easy to see why their popularity and obesity rise in tandem.

 

Michael Pollan’s plea “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does,” is meant to dissuade us from purchasing gas station snack foods.  It also fits quite aptly this broader interpretation of avoiding petroleum-based, synthetic products.

 

  • Grass-fed, pastured animal meat, butter, and eggs…When you think about it, meat from grass-fed animals really represents “pre-digested” grass, with many of the omega-3 fats and other rich nutrients incorporated in the flesh in a form that is easy for us to assimilate. Animals can more easily and efficiently transform the beta-carotene in grass, for example.  Cattle can do this without needing, as we do, bile salts, vitamin E and fats in just the right portions. Grass-fed animal products are a wonderful source of vitamin A, vitamin E, and omega 3 fats, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) for cancer prevention, and lipoic acid for metabolism and insulin regulation.8

 

Eggs laid by grass-fed pastured hens provide 10 times more omega-3 fats than eggs in commercial hen houses.  The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the yolks of grass-fed hens is at the recommended 1:1 ratio, compared to an unbalanced, pro-inflammatory ratio of 19:1 for commercial eggs.9

 

Pasture grazing is in keeping with tradition and the nutrient requirements of healthy farm animals.  But, by feeding an unnatural grain-based diet to animals, commercial farmers actually alter the fatty acid structure of meat.  We might even think of this as a temporary form of “genetic engineering”…temporary because it only lasts one generation if cattle are then returned to a natural diet.

 

(Interestingly, this same principle of genetic renewal applies to people, as well:  Efforts to expand on Weston Price’s original research in the 1930’s regarding the diets and health of traditional cultures indicates that a return to traditional foods can quickly restore in the next generation “robust good health, the absence of disease, and the production of perfect babies [with broad facial construction and beautifully formed teeth] generation after generation”.10

 

Grain, which raises acidity in the digestive system and encourages disease, requires that antibiotics be given to sustain cattle through this accelerated, denatured fattening process.  Antibiotics not only hold disease at bay, but also are used to encourage weight gain.  It is easy to see why the use of antibiotics is so popular, with their use expanding between 10 and 20-fold since 1950.11)   Antibiotics consumed through meat, poultry, dairy, butter, and eggs are a contributing factor to our population growing more and more antibiotic-resistant.

 

Animal products from commercial farming also raise other health risks.  To promote growth, commercial cattle are treated with steroids, a factor that can disturb our own hormone balance and is suspected in the soaring rates of breast, testicular, and prostate cancers.  Might we wonder also about the stress hormones we ingest when we eat meat from animals that spend their life crammed into feeding pens and cages during the fattening process and are shipped to slaughter in the same inhumane conditions?

 

In contrast, organic animals are fed only certified organic feed, must have access to outdoor pasture with sunlight and the opportunity to exercise and to walk around, and must be cared for in ways that reduce stress.  They cannot be fed by-products of other animals, be chronically confined, or treated with antibiotics or hormones of any kind.12

 

“Not Too Much” For a good barometer of what is “too much,” we can:

 

  • Chew… every bite 25-30 times, at every meal.  Chewing helps us register the full experience of eating, through tasting and crunching, so that we are satisfied on many levels, and sooner.  This is easier said than done.  To attempt change requires intention, attention, practice…and more intention, attention, and practice.

 

I have tried it sporadically and quickly slipped back to my old ways of maybe 5-7 chews, a swallow, and then on to the next bite.  To succeed in acquiring the habit, I am told it takes a whole week of concerted chewing just to get used to the way that thoroughly-chewed food feels in the mouth.  But, I bet it’s worth it.  For, when we truly experience and appreciate food, we eat less and allow ourselves more time to register satiety.

 

Chewing is especially important for the digestion of carbohydrates.  It is easy to forget that the body is set up for a huge piece of normal carbohydrate digestion to take place in the mouth.   When we chew, carbohydrates are supposed to be totally broken down and pulverized and mixed with salivary amylase to begin the digestion process.  This is the only chance for salivary amylase to do its intended work.  This important stage of digestion cannot be recaptured later:  It is gone once you swallow.

 

Carbohydrate digestion is then put “on hold.” until later.  (Pepsin and hydrochloric acid in the stomach digest proteins, but not carbohydrates.) Finally, when starches reach the upper part of the small intestine, the whole burden of completing digestion falls to pancreatic amylase, a digestive enzyme not really designed to perform the entire task.  When we forget to chew and leave too much to this latter phase of carbohydrate digestion, we often feel bloated and uncomfortable.  Chewing improves not only digestion, but also the absorption of nutrients.  In addition, it helps stimulate the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.

 

  • Buy organic13 crops for the satisfaction provided by the complex matrix of nutrients.  Each plant food has its own unique mix of phytochemistry, so eating across a broad spectrum of foods provides a myriad of tonic qualities and protections.

 

Organic crops provide far more nutrients than foods raised on industrial farms where crops are tweaked to grow with the magic three growth fertilizers, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK).  Depleted soil spells fewer nutrients in harvested foods, and so does the refining process.(( See November 2007 Newsletter for a full discussion.))  Processed foods from commercial farming means, therefore, that we loose nutrients twice, in both, cultivation14 and refining.

 

Denatured, depleted foods raised on industrial farms, can make us feel depleted and unsatisfied.   It is easy to crave more volume in search of missing nutrients.  Little wonder how this can lead to being overweight and undernourished.

 

Organic foods cost more, but they are more nutrient-dense and satisfying.   They allow us to eat less, move to and then sustain an ideal weight, while also supporting our health.

 

  • Express gratitude for our food and life blessings.  Slowing down, giving thanks, eating with others, and staying connected are satisfying.  Gratitude can change for the better the neurotransmitter communication and chemistry in our digestive system.

 

“Mostly Plants”…For the complexity found nowhere else in nature.

 

  • Plants…From the beginning of time, all higher forms of life have depended on plants.  Only plants, as complex systems with the unique, magical power to unite the yang, heat energy of the sun and the yin, kinetic energy of earth, can convert these two forces into phytonutrients, calories, and life-force energy for animals and man.

 

Plants are also powerful adaptogens.  They accommodate quickly to changing environmental conditions.  In so doing, they have always been our reliable mainstay, helping us to adapt to new environments and climatic conditions.  Plants in any given environment support life in that setting.  Nature provides for life, and this is a good reason to eat local and to eat seasonal. As Marion Nestle says, “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient [reductionist] nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.15

 

Reductionist science, examining specific plant compounds, will never be able to fully capture the true essence of plant  chemistry and synergy:

 

“…even the simplest food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another.  So if you’re a nutrition scientist you do the only thing you can do…Break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring subtle interactions and contexts and the fact that the whole may well be more than, or maybe just different from, the sum of its parts.16

 

Joan Gussow agrees.  She argues against scientific conclusions about such things as vitamin C or beta-carotene:  “…how do you know it’s not one of the other things in the carrots or the broccoli?”  There are hundreds of carotenes…maybe we are looking at the wrong thing.  ((Pollan, 16))  Also, scientists like to think they understand a carrot by analyzing it in terms of carotenoids and polyphenols, “but who knows what is really going on deep in the soul of a carrot.  ((Pollan, 66))

 

Of course, the great thing for us is that we do not have to understand a carrot, tomato, and broccoli to reap their total benefits.

 

Organic…Plants that are grown organically provide a rich array of phytochemicals, substances that they produce to ward off pests and predators.  Plants also produce antioxidants to protect themselves against reactive oxygen byproducts from photosynthesis.  ((Pollan, 64)) These act to provide us with powerful antioxidant protection against free radicals.  Eating a variety of plant foods, each with its own personal set, provides us with a broad array of antioxidants to deal with a myriad of environmental toxins.  Commercially-grown plants that are sprayed with pesticides do not manufacture this same bounty of protective phytochemicals.

 

At the same time, pesticides sprayed on commercially-grown produce can, with prolonged or excessive exposure, create for us a variety of health issues,17 from headache and fatigue to even convulsions, coma, and death.  Ingesting pesticide-laden produce over time can promote cancer and disrupt proper hormone function, affecting fertility.

 

Meat from plants…One way to acquire nutrients from plants is to eat meat from grass-fed animals.  Grass-fed meat is a rich source of nutrients (see above) and a concentrated form of sustained energy.  If something like 20 pounds of grain are required to create one pound of meat, then when we eat a pound of meat, we ingest the energy equivalent of 20 pounds of grain.  To be able to move energy “far and wide” to touch many people, we may need the energy that meat can provide. ((Annemarie Colbin, Free Spirit, July-September, 1990.))

 

So, eating grass-fed animals can boost our vitality and efficiency:  Omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients from grass, as discussed above, are easy to assimilate and the calories in the meat can help sustain us over long periods:((Vegetarians may need to eat every hour and a half to two hours to avoid hunger.))  Meat provides the endurance for prolonged mental concentration and “cushioning” for the central nervous system to endure the stress of modern life, including urban noise and over-stimulation from the bombardment of technology.

 

By eating meat, poultry, butter, and eggs from grass-fed animals, we also avoid the risks of heavy toxin residues that normally accumulate over time in the fatty tissue of large animals.  So, when buying products from bigger animals high up the food chain, it is wise to spend the extra money and choose organic.  The same reasoning applies to fish:  Eating sardines and anchovies is a far better idea than tuna and swordfish, where mercury and other toxins have much longer to accumulate in animal flesh.

 

 

Proteins from plants….But, how can this work? Where’s the protein?  Where’s the beef?  Some people are able to thrive on a vegetarian diet that incorporates beans, grains, nuts and seeds.  Often these are people from cultures who are used to low-protein diets, have type-A blood, or a lifestyle that can accommodate this style of eating.  Traditional cultures naturally gravitated toward diets of complementary proteins:  cornbread and black-eyed peas in America; aduki and soy beans with brown rice and millet in China and Japan; kidney beans and split peas and lentils with wheat, barley, and rye in Europe; and garbanzos and fava beans with millet and couscous in Africa and the Middle East.18

 

Vegetarian eating is also easier when we are young and can coast for a few early years on “strong kidney essence,” than in later years as we move toward middle-age and beyond.  But no matter the age, life style, blood type or ethnic origin, vegetarian eating requires for anyone in our modern world of abundant animal protein, both knowledge and a good deal of paying attention when it comes to meal planning.19  This is true because people who have been raised on complete animal proteins are not as efficient at extracting protein from plants as people in traditional-type cultures conditioned to low-protein diets.20  So, for the seasoned meat eater, balancing amino acids from plant-based diet takes some getting used to.

 

Complete proteins are made up of 20 main amino acids, eight of which are called “essential” because the body is not capable of making them.  The body is able to make proteins only when it has access to all necessary amino acids that it has obtained from recent meals.  (Because the body is able to store amino acids for a short period, it is not essential to combine vegetable proteins correctly at every meal.)

 

A plant-based diet can quickly become deficient in certain types of proteins needed for cell maintenance and repair if care is not taken to combine grains, beans, nuts, and seeds to adequately provide these needs.  To attain an amino acid complex closely resembling meat, grains and beans are best eaten in a 2:1 ratio.  Protein deficiency is a problem in some cultures, for example, that rely heavily on one mainstay such as corn or rice, without adequate complements from beans and seeds.  If amino acids are deficient and prevent protein production, the body may be forced to catabolize existing muscle in order to meet protein needs.21

 

Beans have a different amino acid structure that complements that of grains:  Beans are high in some amino acids, while grains are high in others, so in an ideal setting they are able to work in tandem to build complete proteins.  But balance may be needed:  The theory of limiting amino acids (LLA) suggests that the level of protein derived from plant foods is limited to the contribution of the lowest essential amino acid in the mix.  For example, “if methionine-cystine in a certain food measures up to only 30% of the standard amino-acid profile, then just 30% of the profile amounts of the other amino acids in that food are considered usable by the body.22

 

 

Interestingly, the theory of LLA and complementary proteins is supported by the eating habits of traditional cultures.  Eating a proper ratio of beans and grains and adding in some nuts and seeds, we can obtain a full spectrum of amino acids.  In contrast, a mismatch of amino acids can force the body to waste abundantly-supplied amino acids that are not matched by a complement.  It can also set up cravings for sweets and fats like nut butters when a person does not have an adequate supply of complete proteins.23

 

A mismatch implies something else as well:  Veering from the 2:1 ratio of grains to beans over a prolonged time period can tax the body because excess amino acids beyond LLA levels that are not “matched” by a complement need to be sloughed off and discharged.24  This can lead to mucus conditions, stagnation, and chronic disease.  In a somewhat parallel way the over-consumption of meat can become a “toxic mucoid substance” leading to “obesity, heart disease, bone loss, and many degenerative diseases.”25

 

* * *

Weston Price, a Canadian dentist who traveled in the 1930s to examine the links between traditional cultures and their diet and health, realized early the link between the quality of the soil, the quality of foods, and the health of local peoples.  He saw that eating connected us to the nutrients of the soil and the energy of the sun.  As he stated at an evening event in 1928, “The dinner we have eaten tonight was part of the sun but a few months ago”26   Price came to realize that the problem of diet and health as represented by industrial and commercial farming was one of “ecological dysfunction”…of breaking the connections between local soils, local foods, and local people, thereby upsetting the traditional links and cyclical movement of nutrients through the food chain.27

 

But, the pendulum can swing just so far before it reverses direction.  The recent groundswell of support for the Weston Price Foundation, for the local and organic farming movements, and for Michael Pollen’s best selling book match the hopeful signs of blossoming trees and fresh shoots breaking through the April ground.  As the Sun fulfills its annual promise, rising in the sky to higher and higher arcs as it spreads a larger and larger footprint of warm energy across Earth to awaken the ground, may we join in this spirit of hope, renewal, and connection, for all the health-giving qualities it can provide.

 

Eat food; Not too much; Mostly Plants…

Cook, Garden; Dine; Chew; Enjoy…

Happy Spring!

 

                                                                                    Copyright 2008, Pathways4Health.org







  1. This is the holistic lens:  the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; the whole, as a system, works in mysterious and powerful ways, never to be fully understood by science through the “reductionist” lens of the microscope.  How can you appreciate the flavor, aroma, and life-force energy and essence of a plump, juicy vine-ripen tomato by the listing of its vitamins, minerals, and calories?  And, a tomato is not like a television…we cannot strip it down to all its minute parts and then reassemble it in all its complexity.  Nature hides this magic and gives us no instruction book. []
  2. As a nation, we spend less than 10% of income on food, down from 17.5% in 1960 (Pollan, p. 188 ); less than one-half hour preparing food; and justly slightly more than an hour a day consuming it. (Pollan, p.145) []
  3. Michael Pollan, pps. 4 and 147. []
  4. Pollan, p. 117. []
  5. Nina Planck, Real Food, p. 227. []
  6. Annemarie Colbin, Food and Healing, p. xvi. []
  7. Annemarie Colbin, 2007-08 Food Therapy Class. []
  8. Nina Planck, p. 104. []
  9. Derived from Artemis Simopoulos, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Health and Disease and in Growth and  Development,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 54: p. 445. []
  10. Weston Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 1939 and Ronald F. Schmid, Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine:  “Price’s evidence indicates the occurrence of such genetic conditions [as Down’s syndrome, etc.,] is profoundly influenced by the parents’ nutrition and could be almost entirely prevented if their nutrition prior to pregnancy, and the woman’s during pregnancy, was optimal.”  P. 126. []
  11. G. G. Khachatourians, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 159, #9 (1998 []
  12. Marion Nestel, What to Eat, p. 172. []
  13. Organic means an entity is grown without pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, irradiation, and genetic engineering.  It does not have to mean grass-fed; and grass-fed usually, but does not necessarily, mean organic.  Natural means nothing else was added to the meat in processing…it says nothing about what the animal eat or how it was raise []
  14. Preliminary studies suggest organic foods have as such as 90% more minerals.  Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods, p. 19. []
  15. Pollan, 62 []
  16. Pollan, 62 []
  17. Peaches, apples, strawberries, and celery have some of the heaviest pesticide concentrations.  See August 2007 Newsletter for more detail and discussion. []
  18. Colbin, Food and Healing, p. 169. []
  19. “Most people who try to be vegetarian on commercial and processed food don’t get enough protein.”…Annemarie Colbin, Free Spirit. []
  20. Colbin, Food and Healing, p. 170. []
  21. Elson Haas, Staying Health With Nutrition, p. 55. []
  22. Pitchford, p. 131. []
  23. Pitchford, p. 131. []
  24. Annemarie Colbin, Principles of Balance Class. []
  25. Pitchford, p. 132. []
  26. Pollan, 99 []
  27. Pollan, 100 []