The Way We Eat Now

The Way We Eat Now, a 2019 book by British writer Bee Wilson discusses paradoxes of food in the modern world: the success of farmers in growing enough food to feed the world, the inequalities of access to food, and the prevalence of unhealthy eating. Ms. Wilson does not identify herself as a chef, biologist, ecomomist or food scientist. She approaches food as a consumer, cook, parent and journalist.

The book suggests that individuals might spend more time cooking and eat more vegetables, apparently endorsing Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” and much of what Michael Pollan wrote in his books In Defence of Food (2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). The book and makes a stronger argument about the problems of modern food.

The prevalance of unhealthy food was discussed in this excerpt or digest from the book:

What we eat now is a greater cause of disease and death in the world than either tobacco or alcohol. In 2015 around 7 million people died from tobacco smoke, and 2.75 million from causes related to alcohol, but 12m deaths could be attributed to “dietary risks” such as diets low in vegetables, nuts and seafood or diets high in processed meats and sugary drinks. This is paradoxical and sad, because good food – good in every sense, from flavour to nutrition – used to be the test by which we judged the quality of life. A good life without good food should be a logical impossibility.

….

Almost every country in the world has experienced radical changes to its patterns of eating over the past five, 10 and 50 years. For a long time, nutritionists have held up the “Mediterranean diet” as a healthy model for people in all countries to follow. But recent reports from the World Health Organisation suggest that even in Spain, Italy and Crete, most children no longer eat anything like a “Mediterranean diet” rich in olive oil and fish and tomatoes. These Mediterranean children, who are, as of 2017, among the most overweight in Europe, now drink sugary colas and eat packaged snack foods and have lost the taste for fish and olive oil. In every continent, there has been a common set of changes from savoury foods to sweet ones, from meals to snacks, dinners cooked at home to meals eaten out, or takeaways.

….

For most people across the world, life is getting better but diets are getting worse. This is the bittersweet dilemma of eating in our times. Unhealthy food, eaten in a hurry, seems to be the price we pay for living in liberated modern societies.

Bee Wilson, March 16, 2019, Good Enough to Eat, the Guardian

The author appears to agree that Green Revolution succeeded in breeding growing plants that put calories in mouths, but observes that agriculture failed to add to the quality of diet of most humans. She appears to agree with the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security that food security means that “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”, and that the Green Revolution did not provide humans with food security. She does not attempt to explain how the Green Revolution changed the way that food is purchased by food processing companies and sold in markets of the world or discuss the issue in terms of agricultural economics.

The Way We Eat Now refers to the NOVA food classification system suggested by Carlos Monteiro, with his team at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health at the University of São Paulo, Brazil in the 2009 paper “Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing” in the journal Public Health Nutrition. The NOVA system classifies many foods as ultra-processed.

In a 2015 article, Ms. Wilson discussed her thoughts on the way food is discussed:

It’s easy to be negative about this: much easier to criticise the overweight two thirds of the country than observe the smaller proportion who are in, well, proportion. “What they should be telling us,” she insists, “is that one third of the population, assuming they are not anorexic, bulimic or compulsive exercisers, have positive eating habits which means that eating well is a pleasurable thing.” We’ve become moralistic about food and size, waging war with words. “It’s not ‘naughty’ or ‘virtuous’. It’s food,” Bee fumes. “Painting chocolate as naughty and salad as virtuous just enforces the dualism in which salad is unpleasant and sweet things, frankly, sound like way more fun.”

Changing the lingo is just one part of the battle; changing attitudes is the objective. A good starting point, Bee suggests, is to remind ourselves that as omnivores, eating has long been a complex thing. “We don’t have an instinct that tells us what to eat,” she says. “We have to educate ourselves. It’s not a moral thing. It’s a skill we learn.” When people say it’s easy to lose weight—move more and eat less—it is not just insensitive, but patronising. “It’s not about intelligence. It’s about education.”

In Scandinavia they’ve tried diet interventions at various ages: using cooking workshops and meal planning, they’ve introduced both young and old to new tastes. Projects carried out in Finland proved that children’s tastebuds can be broadened considerably, and in Sweden even 70-year-olds were taught to like vegetables eventually. “It’s not hopeless at any age.” On the other hand, she reminds me “there are plenty of highly intelligent people who haven’t worked out how to stop when they’re full.”

Clare Finney, June 29, 2015, “It’s not ‘naughty’. It’s not ‘virtuous’. It’s food.” in the Market Life section of online magazine of the Southwark Borough Market, archived at the Wayback Machine

Ms. Wilson critiicizes sweetened soft drinks – ultra-processed compounds of water, dissolved sweetener, and flavourings. The majority are sweetened with sugar. The brain registers that the liquid quenches thirst, but does not register that the person has consumed enough sugars to provide energy for hours of activity. In the absence of activity, the body converts the glucose to fat. She also says:

The occasional bowl of instant ramen noodles or frosted cereal is no cause for panic. But when ultra-processed foods start to form the bulk of what whole populations eat on any given day, we are in new and disturbing territory for human nutrition. More than half of the calorie intake in the US – 57.9% – now consists of ultra-processed food, and the UK is not far behind, with a diet that is around 50.4% ultra-processed. The fastest growing ingredient in global diets is not sugar, as I’d always presumed, but refined vegetable oils such as soybean oil, which are a common ingredient in many fast and processed foods, and which have added more calories to what we eat over the past 50 years than any other food group, by a wide margin.

Bee Wilson, March 16, 2019, Good Enough to Eat, the Guardian

Ms. Wilson criticizes fad diets including food promoted by the inventors and supporters of “clean eating”, meal replacement fluids and powders (e.g. Soylent, Huel,). She thinks many energy bars and gels are largely candy snacks (ultra-processed), dressed up as special foods with benefits for some people (e.g. athletes competing in endurance sports). Her view of protein bars is similiar. She discusses the growth of prepared food – whether prepared in haute cuisine restraurants or fast food shops. The food is appealing and plentiful but not nutritious.

She also refers to psychological issues influencing how humans make decisions about buying and consuming food.

Cooking has been socially deprecated. Cooking skills and home economics are not part of the education of children. Nutritious foods are hard to identify, inconvenient, or not available in grocery stores. At the same time ultra processed food is cheap, convenient, strongly flavoured and available anywhere in the world. The book supports the campaigns to regulate the marketing and sale of soft drinks (e.g. the campaigns discussed in the writing of Marion Nestle). In part, this reinforces comments of Michael Moss, the author of Salt Sugar, Fat (2013) about modern food, poor public health policy and advice on diet, the biases and failures of so-called food science in America, calories and obesity.

Another of Ms. Wilson’s criticisms of the food supply and processing industries is that they buy and sell ony a few varietals of several fruits and vegetables, usually based on durability, size and availability in bulk rather than nutrition or taste. The Cavendish banana is ubiquitous, often used to sweeten ultra-processed grain “breakfast”cereals. It is not a nutritious fruit. Some vegetables – e.g. most winter squashes (or all squashes) – are water in a plant fibre shell, and are not palatable. She discusses the efforts of Dan Barber to breed a better tasting squash, which have been covered in articles including Tom Philpott’s Squash Is a Mediocre Vegetable. It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way in Mother Jones in 2018.

In part, Ms. Wilson describes the the world food markets as a giant mess that cannot be solved without political action affecting farmers, processers and consumers:

A smart and effective food policy would seek to create an environment in which a love of healthy food was easier to adopt, and it would also reduce the barriers to people actually buying and eating that food. None of this looks easy at present, but nor is such change impossible. If the transformations we are living through now teach us anything, it is that humans are capable of altering almost everything about our eating in a single generation.

Bee Wilson, March 16, 2019, Good Enough to Eat, the Guardian

The goal of creating an environment of a love of healthy food is vague, and involves changing the role and power of food companies in the markets of the world and altering the present climate of respecting the perceived preference of consumers for fast food which can be harvested, processed and brought to market with the least expense to producers and processers.

Much of this book discusses ideas first discussed in Ms. Wilson’s column in the Daily Telegraph, interviews with other writers, and articles in publications such as the Guardian. Her material at the Guardian is indexed under her profile.

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