"I have no idea what other people do in their spare time on business trips, but I visit supermarkets," says Marion Nestle in her book What to Eat. Marion and I would get along very well. I like to visit health food stores on vacation. (The first time I suggested to Jim that we do this on our very first vacation together, he thought I was crazy.) It's like seeing old friends (Hi Annie! Hi Nell Newman!) and new ones local to that area. Part of Marion's job is to explore how supermarkets operate, and she states early on in her book that supermarkets do not usually have your best interests in mind. "The foods that sell best and bring in the most profits are not necessarily the ones that are best for your health, and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choices."
What to Eat has been touted in the food community as The Book To Read, and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly. Nestle's tone is straightforward and she's not out to judge you, the reader; she's there to inform you about things she understands you probably don't know [and she explains the (often political) reasons why you don't]. Here are some basic rules from the book.
- "The basic principles of good diets are so simple that I can summarize them in just ten words: eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables. For additional clarification, a five-word modifier helps: go easy on junk foods."
- Avoid food marketing claims. This one's tough because they are everywhere. And they're not only touting certain brands but also certain foods, or certain food properties. Current hot marketing topics include the probiotics added to yogurt, special tea drinks, even cereal; and soy and/or green tea added to every product on the sun. [Oh, and yogurt? Real (nonsugared) yogurt is a good choice, but the majority of yogurt available in stores is not a health food. It is a dessert.]
- Don't eat only certain fruits or vegetables at the expense of others because of their touted health claims:
My office file of studies extolling the special nutrient content or health benefits of one or another fruit or vegetable includes work on apples, avocados, broccoli, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, garlic, grapefruit, grapes, onions, pomegranates, raisins, spinach, strawberries, and tomatoes, among others. I conclude from this that all fruits and vegetables have something good about them, even though some have more of one good thing and others have more of another. That is why we nutritionists are always telling you to eat a variety of foods. It's the mix that is most beneficial and most protective.
- Do not worry about getting enough protein. Americans get plenty of protein: "unless your diet is unusually restrictive, you will get enough protein as long as you get enough calories."
- While Nestle doesn't suggest everyone should become vegetarians, she does suggest that most people should lower the amount of meat they eat, and points out that "[t]he meat industry's big public relations problem is that vegetarians are demonstrably healthier than meat eaters. If you do not eat beef, pork, lamb, or even chicken, your risk of heart disease and certain cancers is likely to be lower than that of the average meat-eating America. And as long as you eat any other animal product at all---dairy, fish, or eggs---you can avoid eating meat without affecting the nutritional quality of your diet."
- If you're going to eat fish, you should be informed on the kind of toxins in that fish and how often it is safe to eat it. Don't necessarily trust the seafood industry for this information. (Nestle points out a huge difference between the safety of albacore tuna and tongol tuna that no one in the tuna industry is going to talk about.) The best place to find out this information (besides this book) is Seafood Watch, a guide created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that is frequently updated.
- "'Fruit concentrate,' according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, is a euphemism for sugars." So a label that says "Made with real fruit" or "100% fruit juice" does not necessarily mean that it is healthy. Read the actual ingredients and then decide.
What to Eat is a book to purchase, read, and then keep around for reference. I finished reading this book earlier this week, and it already influenced the choices I made shopping at the grocery store today and it will continue to do so in the long run.