I am a huge fan of Michael Pollan, journalist, activist, and author of numerous books, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Eleven years ago, he won me over when I read his piece in the New York Times Magazine, called Unhappy Meals. Pollan's essay had a profound impact on me and was one of my inspirations for becoming a nutrition coach. He writes about food in a way that makes sense and simplifies the seemingly overwhelming and over complicated topic of what we should eat. In a nutshell, Pollan advises us to eat food, not nutrients. I live by this principle and teach my clients to do the same.
By "eat food" Pollan means fresh whole foods, not the "food-like substances" that crowd the shelves of our grocery store. Food science has reduced whole foods down to individual nutrients and micronutrients, which has led to an entire industry of processed food products that claim to be healthy by constantly engineering their product to fit the current "health" trends. When we shift our focus from food to nutrients, the distinction between whole foods and processed "food-like substances" becomes blurry. We can find ourselves being persuaded that breakfast cereal with extra omega-3 is good for us. However, depending on what's trending, that same cereal could suddenly be high fiber, low fat, low sugar, or high protein. While any of these values are worth considering, we are losing sight of what really matters. We are getting pulled down a rabbit hole of health claims, whilst the kale and sweet potatoes sit there with so much more to offer, but no advertising campaign or fancy box to draw you in. The true beneficiaries of this reductionist approach are the corporations behind packaged and processed food, not you.
We must be humble enough to admit that we have not yet discovered every single plant nutrient nor their symbiotic relationships and recognize that nothing in a box or bottle will be quite as good or complete as whole plant foods. Some would argue that the nutrients, once isolated in supplements, are completely useless and can even be harmful. As Pollan explains:
Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops...The good news is that, to the carrot eater, it doesn’t matter. That’s the great thing about eating food as compared with nutrients: you don’t need to fathom a carrot’s complexity to reap its benefits.
Rather than getting caught up in the anxiety of ever-changing fads, we can find peace of mind and consistency of perspective by simply focusing on eating real food. More specifically, eat a wide variety of vegetables – and lots of them!
To reinforce this point from another perspective, I turn to Dr. Josh Axe, author of the book Eat Dirt. Dr. Axe brings the popular topic of our microbiome into the conversation. He writes, "The microbiome comprises all of the microorganisms that reside in or on the human body... most of which live in the intestine." When we eat foods grown in soil, such as a beautiful bunch of beets from the farmer's market, we gain a whole plethora of soil-based organisms (SBOs) which improve the bacterial diversity in our gut. Organisms found on plant foods contain beneficial bacteria known to boost our immune function and overall health. Sure, you can buy SBO probiotics, but again, one must seriously question what we're missing by going to a bottle rather than the source. Axe continues, "Just as plants grow best in healthy soil teeming with highly active microorganisms, you, too need these organisms to live a healthy life." On the note of healthy soil, go for organic whenever possible. When we eat packaged foods, we are completely missing the boat on SBOs. Yet another reason to eat food, not nutrients.
All of this comes down to some very simple and actionable advice: make at least half of your lunch and dinner vegetables. Focus on eating food rather than nutrients to avoid the confusion and pitfalls of fads and nutritional reductionism. Find a sense of calm and confidence in this simplicity. Eating food, not nutrients, is the single most important thing you can do to improve your nutrition and move closer to your goals.
Julia is a Personal Nutrition and Wellness Coach. Learn more about coaching, meal plans, and read her blog at nutritionwithjulia.com.