Solutions to the Omnivore’s Dilemma

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Presented by: Christopher Gardner, PhD
Associate Professor, Stanford Prevention Research Center

Lecture Overview:

  • Modern food processing and a global food economy have given consumers an unprecedented and sometimes overwhelming number of food choices
  • Nutrition studies on the long-term benefits and risks of new foods and food patterns can’t keep up and tend to focus on specific nutrients, additives, or compounds, not the whole diet.
  • Food choices are no longer just about health: They encompass politics, ethics, economics, social responsibility and many other large-scale factors.
  • Vegetarian and organic foods are not always the healthiest or most sustainable choices.
  • Know where your food comes from and how it was produced.
  • Become a “locavore,” eating primarily locally grown and produced food.

Michael Pollan’s 2006 book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” tracked where our food comes from and the damage modern processes present to both our health and our environment. Throughout the book, the author documented how industrialized foods are less nutritious, more harmful to the human body and more wasteful of the earth’s resources, than organic foods. The further refined, processed, enhanced and enriched a food is, the farther it is from what humans are designed to eat.

But what should we eat? A snack bar labeled with various health claims? Something organic? Should we all be vegetarians? Consume only what we can grow ourselves?

Many of us face the daily dilemma of being overwhelmed by choices of what to eat. The vast selections in the modern American supermarket and the torrent of often contradictory health claims and health warnings can leave consumers confused and bewildered.

“Trans fats, omega-3, omega-6, low-carb vs. low-fat—it’s confusing and there is often disagreement even among the health professionals trying to advise the public,” said Christopher Gardner, PhD, an associate professor of medicine in the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who discussed current nutrition research and food quandaries to a packed room at the seventh annual Arthur Furst Lecture on Nutrition and Disease Prevention, sponsored by the Stanford Health Library. “One thing is for certain, though: Food is a hot topic now.”

Gardner studies the relationships between diet and health, disease and metabolism by conducting research studies with human subjects. The ability to develop guidelines for public health strategies varies dramatically from one type of study to another, he said. One tactic for health research is to single out specific nutrients or chemical compounds in various food molecules. For example, studies have shown a definite relationship between iron and anemia, iodine and goiter, and vitamin C and scurvy, but these are not common ailments.

“We’ve gotten good at figuring out acute deficiency, but it is chronic disease that’s the real problem,” he said, referring to America’s current epidemic in heart disease, obesity, stroke and diabetes. “These are the problems that don’t come on quickly or resolve quickly. We need to look at the whole diet, but don’t hold your breath for an easy answer.”

Gardner discussed his work in comparing raw garlic and commercial supplements, which resulted in no improvements in blood cholesterol levels. His conclusion, based on this and other research, is that the best way to health is to eat a plant-based diet: Eat more vegetables.

But that suggestion, he said, brings along another set of dilemmas. Vegetarianism is not scientifically proven to be healthier, he said, illustrating an unhealthy “monochromatic” vegetarian diet filled with processed and junk food. Organic food is often rife with sugar and empty calories, which he demonstrated with examples of organic junk food, including Coke and McDonald’s. He also showed traditional Masai, native Alaskan, Australian aborigine and Mexican Indian diets that did not follow popular perceptions of healthy eating but whose practitioners were in good shape until introduced to modern Western cuisine.

But Gardner, who has been a vegetarian for the past 25 years, sees a paradigm shift taking place. Books like Pollan’s are getting people thinking of food in terms of politics, social responsibility, economics, ethics and labor. Farmers’ markets are doubling in number, and community food activists are making accessibility to healthy, local choices a priority.

“Food is no longer just about health,” he said. “The many different perspectives about our food is changing social norms. Interestingly, whether you take an economic, ethical, political, or global climate approach to food choices, they all point to the advantages of eating more vegetables.”

Many people are promoting sustainability—food production methods that are healthy and socially responsible, do not harm the environment, are humane to animals and support local farming communities. The solution to the omnivore’s dilemma, Gardner suggested, is to become a “locavore,” which means trying to eat locally grown and produced food, whenever possible. He holds to an 80 percent healthy, locally acquired diet, with 20 percent “to have a little fun.”

Local food tastes better, he argued, supports the local economy, uses fewer resources (primarily fossil fuels) for packaging and transportation, and generally tastes better. And while not everything can be produced locally, such as chocolate or coffee, Gardner suggested that consumers be aware of the context of what they are buying: Local, grass-fed beef is a more sustainable choice than pesticide-loaded broccoli shipped in from Chile.

“You can’t make the perfect economic, ethical, political, global, healthy choice with every bite of every meal of every day. But being aware of the many different reasons for choosing a more plant-based diet may be more motivating for making good choices than thinking about personal health alone,” he said. “It’s about choosing a more sustainable diet for the planet, which, quite happily, ends up being a healthier diet for individuals.”

About the Speaker
Christopher Gardner, PhD, is an associate professor of medicine in the Stanford Prevention Research Center. His work focuses on the role of nutrition and preventive medicine, with a particular emphasis on plant-based diets and phytochemicals; cardiovascular disease and cancer prevention; weight loss diets; clinical trials and epidemiology. The Stanford Prevention Research Center is an interdisciplinary research program seeking to improve individual and population health by developing and disseminating effective health promotion and chronic disease prevention. The center coordinates studies that evaluate interventions in nutrition, smoking cessation, obesity, physical activity and other health issues.

For More Information:

Stanford Health Library can do the searching for you. Send us your medical questions.

Stanford Prevention Research Center

Stanford Nutrition Studies Program

Division of Nutrition Research Coordination (NIH)

Omnivore’s Dilemma

Slow Food USA