Saturday, July 19, 2008

What To Eat, by Marion Nestle

This is far and away the best book I’ve read on the subject of food and nutrition since I took to following the subject. You would think that there could be nothing more uncontroversial than food, but you would be wrong. Everyone’s got an opinion on what’s good for you and what’s not.

Popular thinking seems to be that obesity is not caused by eating too much but by rather eating the wrong kinds of foods. Fads come and go, and the science on food and nutrition is frequently all over the shop. The result is that the populations of the world’s most sophisticated Western societies are the most clueless when it comes to the basics.

For example, I am currently hooked on a show that screens on ABC2 called Eataholics. Each week it follows someone who has a particular eating disorder. Last night it was this girl hooked on junk food. The nutritionist on the show took her to a farm where you could pick your own berries, the idea being to get this person more in touch with where food comes from. I thought it was probably a bit of a stupid idea, but it was something that I would personally enjoy doing.

Anyhoo, this over-eater was absolutely revolted by the idea, saying that it was filthy to pick and eat fruit off the vine. She said that in a supermarket at least you knew everything was cleaned and then vacuum-sealed. Yet this woman would eat a whole bucket of KFC. Chicken production is even filthier. It’s the second time in so many episodes where I’ve seen someone horrified at the idea of eating fresh vegetables on ‘hygiene’ grounds.

Okay, sorry for that digression. I found it interesting anyway. Back to the book. I absolutely loved What To Eat and would heartily recommend it to anyone who’s interested in food.
Marion Nestle is an esteemed nutrionist who has also worked extensively within the US food bureaucracy. What I found refreshing about her writing is that she’s completely devoid of cant and is open about admitting that the science on many food topics is contradictory and undecided.

She admits to loving white bread, Oreo cookies, potato crisps and other ‘goodies’. What a relief. Other food writers can be so fussy and prissy about food. In fact, there’s not much that Marion Nestle says you shouldn’t eat. They key is really to eat little of sugars and fats, moderately of animal foods, and make sure most of your diet consists of fruit, vegetable and grains. Oh, and get lots of exercise.

It’s the nutrients from fruit and vegetables, combined with their zero levels of cholesterol, that are good for you and help fight heart disease and cancer.

In other words, eating whole, unprocessed foods are far superior to processed and adulterated foods. If you like eating potatoes for example, it’s better to eat them with the skin because that’s where most of the nutrients are.

But if you don’t, you won’t die or anything. It’s just better for you to eat foods whole.

The author clears up lots of urban myths about health too, and answers lots of those niggling questions.

She’s all about transparency and honest information. It was good to learn that you don’t lose many nutrients by freezing food (Nestle admits to loving frozen vegetables, as long as there are no additives). Another interesting thing: you don’t need to drink lots of water. Your body will tell you when you’re thirsty. Funny how that makes so much sense.

She could even make subjects that I’m not interested at all compelling reading. The section on fish I found fascinating, and I hate fish. Yuk!

If you were confused about food I’d heartily recommend this book. It provides lots of information, but doesn’t try to persuade you on trying one particular diet over another.

For this vegetarian, I found the book extremely helpful and not condescending. Nestle says flat out that you don’t need to eat meat at all to be healthy. The only vitamin that is not in meat is B12. But you can get this from milk in abundance. Or you can find it in some yeast spreads, like Marmite.

If Nestle has a barrow to push, it’s for consumer rights and information. She’s continually telling people to write to their representative in Congress if they’re unhappy about some food law.

Her snappy sense of humour reminded me of a combination of Thelma Ritter and Rhea Perlman.

Marion Nestle has this neat website at

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