In the past year or so, the local college has started a Wellness Series of lectures designed to discuss various health topics designed to appeal to all members of the community. Unable to attend any of last year's, I thought I might try to catch at least one this time around, so recently I dragged a friend with me to hear dietitian David Grotto discuss the themes of his new book "101 Foods That Could Save Your Life."
The impetus for his book, Grotto said, was the proliferation of confusing dietary advice as well as the growing frustration among patients about being told what not to eat. Instead, he thought, why not look at all the foods that people can and should eat, and give them reasons to enjoy doing so? Even then, he indicated there would be room for little indulgences, but as he stated a couple of times during the talk, "All foods fit in a healthy diet, but some fit a lot better than others."
Who can argue with that kind of reasoning, right? Still, by the end of the lecture, I was muttering disagreements and complaints to my long-suffering companion. And though I hadn't intended to read the book, I decided to borrow a copy through the library and see if I still had bones to pick with this fellow. Boy, did I...
Grotto identifies three key elements of making any eating program work: taste, "do-ability," and nutrition. Most diets tended to leave out one of these factors, he says, which then makes people more likely to stray from the diet at some point. If meals aren't tasty, easy to prepare, cost-effective, and nutritious, eaters will find it much easier to make other choices that may not be as healthy.
To define nutrition, he relies on the Overall Nutrition Quality Index (ONQI) as to which foods had the highest nutrient value per calorie, and combines it with information on phytochemicals that can help health conditions. Thus his list includes large numbers of fruits and vegetables; a handful of whole grains and spices; assorted nuts; eggs; whey; and both salmon and sardines.
To me, all of that covers standard nutritional common sense: eat a variety of whole foods, go easy on calories and fat, and you should end up with a well-balanced diet. But I found it surprising that Grotto doesn't give more emphasis — either in his lecture or his book — as to what makes a whole food whole. I was particularly astonished to hear him offering a criticism of the ONQI by stating that he didn't see why oranges would rank 100 (top score) and orange juice only received a score of 39. Um, do you think maybe processing the fruit — which removes most of the fiber and some of the nutrients — has something to do with it?
Although he does mention the importance of eating whole grains, and the book's entries on wheat, rye, and spelt encourage the cooking of the whole grain, he makes no such distinction between whole and processed grains in his lecture. While praising the "high satiety rate" of oats (one of the many reasons oatmeal makes a good breakfast that will stick with you), he says that three cups of oat squares (a highly processed cereal) provides the same amount of fiber as one cup of cooked oats. That may be true, but along with that fiber you get plenty of added sugar, preservatives, and artificial colors, and you pay much more for the processing and packaging. (I buy my rolled oats in bulk, and they average 18 cents per serving, compared to 59 cents per serving of the cereal found at my local grocery.) This kind of false equivalency provides the exact reason why I get so annoyed with the marketing for processed foods that tout their "whole grain" content.
Some of the information Grotto offers also strikes me as incomplete. At the lecture, he declared no significant nutritional difference between farmed and wild salmon, and he added that any concerns about chemical contaminants could be allayed simply by removing the skin. Since farmed salmon eat an entirely different diet than wild salmon (see nutritionist Marion Nestle's book "What to Eat" or her brief post on the matter), I find the former point hard to swallow, and the latter just sounds silly. Meanwhile, both omit the reality of ecological disruption being caused by large-scale salmon farming, a business that has increased enormously in recent years, resulting in CAFO-like conditions in growing pens and spawning increased disease that ends up in the wild salmon community, causing devastation. (Marc's excellent review of "Bottomfeeder" provides more information.) In stressing cost-effectiveness, Grotto pointed out that if you're concerned about costs, the cheaper farmed salmon is an acceptable substitute, but as we've written here ad nauseam, it's simply delaying the true cost, much like eating cheap feedlot beef and pork can end up causing costly health problems in the long run.
Grotto touches on seasonality in selecting foods, but states that he sees "no significant difference" in the nutritional content of fresh, frozen, and canned foods. Freezing generally ranks highest among food preservation techniques for retaining nutritional value, but the canning process, in which the food is usually cooked to some degree before preservation, does result in a greater loss of nutrients. And despite his emphasis on economical choices, he neglects to point out the difference in cost between fresh and processed produce, especially when fresh produce can be bought relatively inexpensively in season from local sources.
As frustrated as I was after the lecture, the book left me even more so. To be fair, it has some strong points. For each food listed, Grotto offers a bit of historical and nutritional context, followed by its health-giving properties (with citations to scientific studies), useful tips for storing and using the foods, and a sample recipe. Some of the information is fascinating, and the tips can be very useful if you haven't had much experience with the food, especially in its whole forms. (Here's where you can find the best emphasis on how to cook whole grains, for example.)
Overall, though, I'm not a fan. Though I think it's natural for everyone to want to know how to improve his or her health — myself included — the information in the book often comes across as one quick fix after another: "Eat this to lower cholesterol!" or "Eat this to reduce inflammation!" Given that some of the studies cited used extracts from the foods, not the whole foods (such as artichoke leaf extract or soy isoflavones), I would question the accuracy of the results since I don't think any of us eat isolated components of our food. (Did he not read Michael Pollan’s criticisms of "nutritionism" in "In Defense of Food"?)
Another aspect of the book that really gets under my skin as a cook is the large number of recipes that aren't well-written. Even several recipes from professional chefs fail to list the ingredients in the order in which they are used, leaving the reader or the home cook baffled as to how everything really should go together. Since many of the recipes are relatively simple (or should be, were they written in a straightforward manner) and are designed to introduce the potentially new home cook to a particular food, this oversight is, in my opinion, particularly unforgivable. A few questionable recipes even include brand-name products in the ingredient lists, such as the Banana Mocha Swirls recipe (from Folgers). Seriously? You couldn't find another recipe that included coffee? Anywhere? And don't get me started on the Green Eggs and Ham recipe, a chaotic mixture of mostly perfectly good foods that ends up being "healthy" because it contains "ten grams of fat and seven grams of saturated fat" per serving without "sacrificing TASTE!"
(Another tip, Mr. Grotto — lose the excessive exclamation points, would you? It doesn't make me any more excited about your book or the food.)
The underlying message here — do whatever it takes, whether it's choosing industrial over organic or local produce, and pinching pennies as much as possible — contradicts his broader goal of encouraging people to eat more whole foods in order to live healthy lives. I know times are tough, but maybe if we'd all find a way to spend a little more money on quality foods, we'd have to spend less on health care in the long run. Wasn't that supposed to be the point of the book?
Grotto has a good basic premise to his book and his lecture tour, but the message is muddled. Distill it to "eat a wide and colorful variety of whole foods every day," and I'll support it. But instead of saying it's okay to take the cheap alternative, explain how the cost of our food has a direct impact on the cost of our health and show ways to get the most for that money (like buying local, seasonal produce at the farmers market). Instead of harping on the individual health bonuses of each food, explain how basic nutrients affect the body and how a variety of foods working together offers the best nutritional benefit. Instead of raving about the tastes of unimpressive recipes, why not encourage people to grow their own food and to savor the taste of the freshest flavors imaginable?
In short, why not put real food back in the hands of real people, and encourage everyone to see and taste and know whole foods as a truly vital part of our whole life? You know, just for the health of it.