My previous understanding of the holistic consequences of the Western diet was drastically challenged by Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Specifically, Pollan argues that analyzing the Western diet in terms of the chemical compounds of separate nutrients does not fully represent the habits and norms of the food culture itself. Often, the harmful effects of the tendencies of Western eating is arbitrarily assigned to specific components of the diet, rather than seen as consequences of the diet in its entirety. Although the reductionist tendencies of nutritionism may help us to further recognize the singular effects of certain food on the body, reducing food solely to the structure of its smallest parts may cause larger issues in understanding the overall results of the diet.
In working to understand these concepts, I thoughtfully examined a few of my own recent eating habits. While yes, I may have just eaten a pint of chocolate ice cream for dinner, this single interaction with food does not accurately reflect what I would typically eat for dinner on a weeknight. Analyzing each separate experience that I have with food as unrelated to the next fails to provide an accurate understanding of the level of health that I associate with my personal food choices. The foods that I consumed today do not represent my typical diet on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis, and therefore do not provide insight into the level of health of my eating habits. As for Pollan, I agree with his argument; in order to understand a society’s true level of health, the eating habits of an entire population must be examined as a crucial part of a single dietary pattern, instead of as individual experiences with foods.
This is how we characterize the Western diet.