- - Tuesday, August 20, 2019


There’s a lot to chew on in food writer Bee Wilson’s latest book, and her writing style — informed, thoughtful, amusing and never preachy —  makes it all digestible. “The Way We Eat Now” deals with a great paradox of our age: Fewer people than ever are in danger of starving, and an ever-growing number of people can afford to eat well, but lots of them are cooking fewer good home meals and spending a lot of discretionary income on unwholesome slop, whether at food trucks, fast food chains, or pretentious upscale restaurants.

Meanwhile, hardly a day passes without the unveiling of yet another miracle diet by the latest trendy food guru. Gluten is out and chicken is in today. Tomorrow, beef may be back and pasta may once again be nutritionally correct. And all of it will be served up via hype-hungry mass media, reported by people who know little about nutrition, much less the pleasures of the table.

Bee Wilson sifts through fad, fiction and fanciful half-truths in her search for common sense solutions to real food problems. It isn’t always easy. Consider the case of  nutritional epidemiologist Fumiaki Imamura, who, for 15 years, has been studying “outlines of diet across whole populations to arrive at a more accurate account of how food and health are related.” Ms. Wilson explains that Mr. Imamura’s research “shows that most countries in the world are currently eating more healthy food than we ever did but also more unhealthy food. Many of us have a split personality when it comes to food, but then that is hardly surprising given how schizophrenic our food supply has become. We have access to more fresh fruit nowadays than we ever did but also more sugar-sweetened cereals and french fries.”

One result is a statistical fluke reflected in evaluations of global data by scientists like Mr. Imamura. The (statistically) “highest-quality overall diets in the world are mostly to be found not in rich countries but in the continent of Africa, mostly in the less developed sub-Saharan regions,” where “nourishing grains such as sorghum, maize, millet, and teff are made into healthy main dishes.” Thus the 10 countries with supposed “healthiest diet patterns” are: Chad, Mali, Cameroon, Guyana, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, Laos, Nigeria, Guatemala and French Guiana. By contrast, countries with “the least healthy diet patterns” include some the world’s most affluent.

Sub-Saharan Africa also “does very well on the consumption of beans, pulses, and vegetables” with the average Zimbabwean eating 17.3 ounces of vegetables a day, compared with just 2.3 ounces for the average Swiss. But, as Bee Wilson points out, “Zimbabweans may eat more vegetables than the Swiss, but there is more to health than vegetables, given that life expectancy in Zimbabwe in 2015 was just fifty-nine years of age compared with eighty-three for the average Swiss person.”

A happy medium of sorts seems to have been reached in prosperous  South Korea where vegetable consumption has remained high — including very healthy fermented vegetable products like kimchi — in spite of consumer affluence and access to the dubious delights of “modern” convenience foods.

Meanwhile, back in the West, trendy faddists have actually been driving people away from many healthy traditional dishes. It’s almost as if a conspiracy existed to make comfort food uncomfortable. A glaring example is gluten hysteria.

“On the basis of such pseudoscience,” Ms. Wilson writes, “millions of us have started to look with terror on a range of basic and nourishing foods, including pasta and noodles … gluten has come to be viewed as a pollutant … Only around 1 percent of the population actually suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the gut lining is damaged by gluten … A further small segment of the population may be suffering from a much milder — and still controversial — condition known as nonceliac gluten sensitivity, whose symptoms include brain fog, stomach pain, and bloating. But these two conditions cannot begin to explain why one hundred million Americans, or a third of the population, say (according to industry data) that they are now actively avoiding gluten.”

It is sad, she concludes, that so many people “should have forced themselves to abandon once-beloved foods and buy expensive gluten-free replacements for no good reason, in the name of wellness.”

Bee Wilson is not on a gluten-free diet, but she shows no signs of succumbing to “brain fog.” She believes that what we eat should not only be healthy but also a source of spiritual nourishment. She knows the difference between mere food and a good meal, and she is a gallant foe of those who, in the name of “health,” would render our daily bread joyless and soul-less.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Bee Wilson

Basic Books, $30, 356 pages

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