THE WAY WE EAT NOW
How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World
By Bee Wilson
How bad are our diets, and how crazy is our relationship to food? The English writer and historian Bee Wilson sets out to discover how we have become at once enthralled and enslaved by a world of much too much food everywhere around us, and how uncertain we are of what, when and how much we should eat. Her ambition is as broad as the globe: She wants to examine dietary patterns in different cultures to see who has any kind of sane relationship to food. (Chad, Mali, Cameroon and Guyana, one study says.)
By understanding how and when we came to this addled place — where wasting time is a greater sin than wasting food — we can find ways, Wilson thinks, to slow ourselves down to some kind of sense. It won’t be by turning back the clock to an idealized past that was in fact ruled by drudgery and monotony. Instead, by working in groups as small as one cook in a studio kitchenette and as large as all generations and economic groups in a big city, we can create an environment that honors stopping for meals and deafens the cacophony of messages to snack, snack, snack. And we must. “We are the first generation to be hunted by what we eat,” is one of the numerous dire pronouncements that open “The Way We Eat Now.”
Depressed yet? The world tour Wilson undertakes can be full of the joy of learning about new foods and how to savor and cook them. She does get around to describing some of that, but making us want to come along on that trip is a trick that Wilson, who too often sounds like a born scold, has trouble pulling off. She is shocked, shocked at the terrible state we have come to. “Very little about how we eat now would have been considered normal a generation ago,” she writes in the introduction, “but I take consolation in thinking that much of it surely won’t seem normal in the future either.”
Wilson’s first chapters lay out a set of premises familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in dietary behavior: We eat more food than we ever did; it’s bad; industry incursion has erased regional diversity; market-determined overeating will drive us to early graves after long torment from diet-induced illnesses; our colossal health-care bills will impoverish us and succeeding generations as well.
This all seems true. A Lancet survey of international mortality published in April ascribed fully 20 percent of deaths around the world to bad diets. As if killing ourselves with what we eat isn’t enough, we’re killing the planet along with us. Another report, from the EAT-Lancet Commission, released with fanfare in January, was produced by an international team of scientists intent on determining how we can eat to reduce the damage that agriculture, and especially beef cattle, do to the environment as well as to improve our own health.
Wilson’s doleful and constant tolling of the same chimes may not entice readers to stick around long enough to encounter her descriptions of the admirable people and communities who are taking ingenious steps to address the “social determinants of health” — the phrase that matters in today’s health-policy landscape, referring to clean and safe housing, well-lit streets with usable sidewalks, access to affordable fresh food and the overarching economic and racial inequality that leads to their absence. But readers should persist. Wilson is a reformer at heart, and she earnestly wants to lead us to the constructive optimism she offers at the end of her book.
“The Way We Eat Now” is both useful and informative, thoroughly and enterprisingly reported. When she isn’t hectoring, Wilson presents a remarkable array of data, often in unusual and striking charts, and delivers numerous surprises. Consider one example: The availability of sugar, that dietary nemesis, has risen 20 percent in the past 50 years — but the amount of cheap vegetable cooking oils on the world market has doubled or tripled, depending on the base plant, the result of agricultural policies pursued by countries like Brazil, which has become the world’s second-largest producer of soybeans after the United States. Cheap fat is hiding in your food far more unobtrusively than sugar.
How can we cure ourselves and heal the planet? Wilson tries drinking a Soylent-like powdered meal-replacement at lunch for a week; it effectively tamps down her hunger, but the lack of variety is dispiriting. She memorably calls such products “pet food for humans.” Her own adventures with food (she was an overweight, ashamed child, caught up in the butter and fat phobias that now seem disastrous precursors to unleashed carbohydrate consumption) and with feeding her three children, who appear fleetingly, make real the dietary quandaries she usually presents via statistics. Unlike, say, Michael Moss in “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” Wilson finds few characters to pull us through the narrative. One exception is her account of her family’s surprisingly enthusiastic flirtation with meal kits, which make Wilson’s teenage daughter “feel like a TV chef.” But this experiment soon gets Wilson where she needs to be: concluding that the packages of ingredients that arrived “like a thoughtful gift” on their Cambridge doorstep are a luxury, unaffordable to most of the world.
Wilson’s concluding chapters are concerned with repairing our broken connection to food. Public policies are the best and fastest routes, she believes, echoing the advanced thinkers in the nutrition community who agree that in an environment of relentless advertisements urging us to eat more, calling diets strictly a matter of personal responsibility is misguided to the point of cruelty. Like many of us who care about food policy and public health, Wilson is slack-jawed at the boldness of Chile’s mandatory food labeling, which dares imply right on the label that some foods are bad for you.
She doesn’t draw attention to what I find the most significant aspect of Chile’s startlingly strong rules against marketing to children and its requirements to reduce sugar and salt: the four-year pause between passage of its new food laws and when those laws went into effect, which gave the food industry clear advance warning of their nutritional targets. Food companies had time to change their products, and change they did. Wilson notes that 65 percent of Coca-Cola’s sales in Chile are now of low- and reduced-sugar drinks.
Industry likes a level playing field, and clear, comprehensive government policies are the way to get it — not the patchwork efforts of cities and municipalities in the United States struggling to enact soda taxes, which lower consumption of sugary drinks and are thus the greatest current threat to the beverage industry. Set against the relentless free-spending of the soda industry to fight those taxes, the Chilean example demonstrates just how nimble industry can be when market circumstances change, and when they are changed equitably.
Wilson shows that countries like Chile and cities like Amsterdam, which builds exercise into its urban design and takes a citywide multigenerational approach to eating better and eating together, are pointing the way toward the kind of change we need. She also shows that such policies aren’t necessarily new: 18th-century France, in a kind of broken-windows approach to enforcing good food, had a policy of policing bread, since bad bread was a sign of social breakdown. (It’s a policy that France could usefully revive.)
As for individual change, Wilson tacks on an epilogue of suggestions that feels like an imperative from her publisher’s marketing department: Buy colorful old plates because they’ll be smaller and you’ll eat less; “don’t drink anything ‘like water’ unless it is water”; “devote less attention to snacks and more to meals”; “learn to cook the foods that you want yourself to eat.” Broad social change is what we, as individuals and as a society, need to work toward. This comprehensive book shows us where to start.
Bee Wilson’s ‘First Bite: How We Learn to Eat’
The Science of Sizzle
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