The First Obstacle to Sensible Eating: Information Overload

Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Jan. 3 2011 6:42 AM

The First Obstacle to Sensible Eating: Information Overload

It was Atkins that pushed me over the edge. There I stood in Midtown Manhattan in 2004, on my lunch break, not two weeks into the wildly popular low-carb diet, already craving chocolate. OK , I thought , I can't have chocolate it's full of sugar, carbs so what can I have ? What I really wanted was a nice, fresh, carb-laden banana. But that was verboten. So instead I bought myself a chocolate peanut-butter Atkins bar . The ingredients list included about 50 items, most of which were unfamiliar and unpronounceable, and it seemed odd that I was allowed to eat this processed, chemical-laden foodlike substance but not allowed to eat a simple banana.

Ellen Tarlin Ellen Tarlin

Ellen Tarlin is a former Slate copy chief and writer of the "Clean Plate" blog. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBrooklyn Bridge, Bark, and  the RISK storytelling podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

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I thought about the diets I'd been on. Why were they all so different? Was there any meal in the world that would adhere to the rules of all diets? I tried to come up with the healthiest meal I could think of: perhaps grilled salmon with brown rice and dark leafy greens like kale or chard. No, salmon would not be acceptable to vegans and some vegetarians; rice wouldn't work on Atkins. That left greens. Was there at least one food that would fit into all diets? It had to be greens: The one food I never crave and have to force-feed myself.

Six years later, I'm still wondering: What should I eat? You'd think it would be an easy question to answer, but figuring out what to eat is endlessly complicated and confusing. We are inundated with an orgy of food, diet, nutrition, and health information that is overwhelming, inconsistent, inaccurate, ever-changing, contradictory, incomplete, and complex. One year we are told to drink a minimum of eight glasses of water . Then, after drowning ourselves in the stuff, we are told, no, sorry, not true anymore. Sugar is bad ! Fats make you fat! No, actually carbs do! No, only bad carbs ! Fats are good for you again! Woody Allen made fun of this phenomenon almost 40 years ago in his 1973 movie, Sleeper , in which his cryogenically preserved character is awoken 200 years in the future. Here, two doctors discuss him:

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Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [ chuckling ] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or ... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy ... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.

Since we won't be able to make an appointment with these obviously brilliant doctors for another 160 years, to whom can we turn now? Doctors still don't receive adequate nutritional training in medical school; The Food and Drug Administration is chronically overburdened , understaffed , and underfunded ; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conflicting purposes: to promote both agriculture and health, the needs of the industry and the needs of the individual. The term nutritionist has little to no meaning. Registered dieticians are schooled, tested, and certified by the American Dietetic Association, whose corporate sponsors are some of the largest food companies and food boards, which exist solely to promote and support specific foods or groups of foods.

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This might explain why, in recent years, we have turned increasingly to food pundits: people like chef/restaurateur Alice Waters and nutrition professor Marion Nestle and, most of all, journalist Michael Pollan . I adore them all. They are "experts," they smartly synthesize the vast disarray of information in a concerned and readable way, and they don't have ulterior motives as do the food industry or the diet and weight-loss industry (aside from perhaps "buy my books").

Still, their reports from the nutritional frontiers may disappoint those looking for nutritional certainty. In his book In Defense of Food , Pollan argues that scientific methods are incompatible with the study of nutrition:

Scientists study variables they can isolate; if they can't isolate a variable, they won't be able to tell whether its presence or absence is meaningful. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in an intricate and dynamic relation to one another ...

Nestle, in her book What To Eat , writes that it's impossible to know what one particular food does to us since there is no way to eliminate all of the other possible causes of a particular effect. Who has the time and energy to deal with all this stuff? Especially if they've been living on white flour and sugar, as I have. It makes me want to forgo the spinach and pick up breakfast at Starbucks on the way into work.

When we think and talk about eating, we use the word want a lot. We ask, What do you want to eat ? I ask my husband what he want s for dinner. I even ask myself, silently, in my head, What do I feel like eating? What do I want ? Often I can figure out what I want to eat, but I don't have a very good idea of what my body needs.

So that is this week's goal: to eat only what my body needs, to focus on getting the nutrients in . But now that I've debunked all formerly credible sources of information, how can I know what my body needs? Among all the sources I consulted, there seemed to be some common denominators: A healthy diet likely consists, has consisted, and will always consist of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats, lean sources of protein, and lean dairy products (unless you want to avoid animal products). This information is surprisingly unsurprising and has been fairly consistent for the last 50 years, if not longer.

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Experiment No. 1: Eating a Pyramid

This week is going to be the most dietlike of my experiments, but if you'd like to play along at home, the rules are simple: Eat a food pyramid; eat only what your body needs. The idea is: If I actually eat what my body needs, I should feel pretty good, right?

Fortunately, we are no longer limited to just the USDA food pyramid . The Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health criticizes the USDA pyramid and offers its own Healthy Eating Pyramid . And that's not all. The Mayo Clinic and Oldways.com offer Asian, Latin-American, Mediterranean, and vegetarian pyramids. So pick your pyramid, and start eating it. (Note: I went to my doctor this morning to discuss this plan and get blood tests so I can see if anything changes in the next few weeks. And you should consult with yours before embarking on any eating plan.) (Also of note: The USDA updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, meaning there is one due any moment. It's almost as exciting as waiting for a new baby!)

One thing you'll notice if you try to follow any of these pyramids is how difficult they are to use. Most no longer offer guidelines about quantity, and you can't get all the information you need without clicking on numerous links and taking notes (my gosh, can't they just give you a list of what you should eat and how much?). I'm going to use My Pyramid by the USDA, not because I think it's the best plan but because it's actually possible to get numbers from it. If you go to the My Pyramid Plan site, you can input your age, height, and level of physical activity and get actual measurements for daily intake.

So here are mine: 6 ounces of whole grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 1.5 cups of fruit, 3 cups of milk (or equivalent of other dairy products), 5 ounces of meat or beans. This does not seem like enough food. I'm not big on weighing and measuring foods unless I'm making a recipe, but I'll try it for at least one day.

My predictions for this week: What generally happens when a person starts a new eating plan and announces it to the world is that the world does all it can to interfere. I have no doubt it will be free doughnut week at Dunkin' Donuts, free coffee week at Starbucks, seven people will bring chocolate cakes into work, and I will randomly win a giant lasagna with rare, exotic sausages in it.

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I think I'll love the first day, I'll start the week strong and probably feel pretty good physically, but by Thursday, when the tiredness and stress set in, I'll be ready for some Drake's Cakes. But come see for yourself what happens. I'll be blogging my experiences and challenges right here. Come give me your tips and encouragement or taunt me with Tim-Tams , as you please. And let me know: Have you ever tried to follow the food pyramid? Did it work for you? Please share below.