This October, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that eating processed meat such as sausages and ham causes cancer, while unprocessed red meat may also be carcinogenic. Its report said 50g of processed meat a day – less than two slices of bacon – increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.
Canadians took to social media to react to the WHO news. Vegetarians congratulated themselves and meat lovers cried out in defense of their favourite food. “Processed meat may cause cancer? So does the air I breathe,” proclaimed one meat lover on Facebook. ”But how am I supposed to give up bacon?” exclaimed another. On the veggie lover side of the equation, “And I’m crazy for being a vegetarian? Pfft! You guys keep on eating meat and we will see what your bodies are like in 20 years.”
While the WHO’s announcement may have triggered temporary social media hysteria, it’s also possible that it will inspire real change for some of us, especially if we’ve been considering or already starting a shift to more plant-based eating.
To learn more, we turned to the book In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. Not a diet book in the traditional sense, In Defense of Food argues that although we’re CONSUMING things, we’re not really EATING. I can imagine Pollan would celebrate the WHO announcement, as it very much reinforces his simple philosophy of “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
For the brain tumour community, Pollan’s book offers a unique perspective on the health issues caused by the Western diet. He offers fascinating analysis of the food ‘industry’ as well as practical advice on how we can start making more thoughtful food choices. Our personal health, he argues, requires us to “develop a different way of thinking about food that might point a path out of our predicament.”
We highly recommend a thorough reading of this book, but here are a few highlights:
We’re not eating FOOD and we’re rarely eating MEALS. We’re snacking on processed non-foods more and more, eating in our cars, distractedly eating while on screens, and sharing fewer meals with others. We scarf down bagels, muffins, pastries and soft drinks at our business meetings and sit sedentary at our desks, stuffing ourselves with refined carbs, hydrogenated oils, corn sweeteners and salt.
Eating has become industrialized. Pollan critiques nutritionism, the ideology that foods are essentially a sum of their nutrient parts. Food manufacturers focus on ‘nutrients’ instead of foods, synthetically creating and altering ingredients, for example, to reduce saturated fat or add fibre. Food substitutes like margarine – the ultimate nutritionist product – “can be endlessly reengineered to overcome even the most embarrassing about-face in nutritional thinking – including the real wincer that its main ingredient might cause heart attacks and cancer.” As a rule of thumb, we should focus less on the nutrients of a food product and more on the degree to which it’s processed. (Note to vegetarians: This includes you. Avoiding meat isn’t enough. You also need to watch your intake of processed foods.)
Meat isn’t evil. But we should still eat mostly plants. Pollan recommends that we say goodbye to the meat main, and make meat the occasional side dish instead. This book recommends we eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Pollan adds that “meat is nutritious food…and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it”, however “several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet – red meat especially – the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.”
We eat too much. Pollan observes that scientific evidence creates a compelling case for eating a lot less than we do now. “Overeating promotes cell division, and promotes it most dramatically in cancer cells; cutting back on calories slows cell division. It also stifles the production of free radicals, curbs inflammation and reduces the risk of most of the Western diseases.” Pollan recommends the Japanese principle of hara hachi bu: Eat until you are 80 per cent full. He also advises that we avoid eating alone – especially at a desk or in our cars – and eat slowly.
In Defense of Food doesn’t propose radical changes, but the small changes it does propose could mean a radical change in our health.
With thanks to Paula, our Senior Intern, for this Resource Review.