In defense of food

Environmental journalist Michael Pollan was in town this week promoting his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 11.00.53 AMI’m in awe of people who think big without doing it in the lazy way of relying on generalizations. Pollan clearly knows the science, the advertising, and the culture of food, and he’s a lively speaker as well. The sold-out auditorium was well entertained.

Americans are suffering, says Pollan, from “nutritionism.”

Nutritionism is the idea that the most important thing about a food is the nutrients–as if food is merely a delivery system for nutrients.

One problem with nutritionism is that it makes us forget other perfectly good reasons for eating–like enjoying community around a table or preserving cultural identity (as in keeping kosher) or just enjoying food for pleasure. But god forbid that we eat for pleasure; no, we have to scrutinize our food for calories, nutrients, good fats, bad fats, and so forth.

We’re a nation derived from Puritans, and basically, doing anything animals do–for Puritans–is really difficult.

All this scrutinizing has only gotten us fatter and less healthy.

Since 1980, the dawn of the low-fat diet, every American on average has gained 11 pounds. Why? Because in banning fats, we gave a free pass to snack foods. We’ve binged on carbohydrates and sugar. If you take the fat out of food, you take out the taste, so how do you replace the taste? With sugar.

Another problem with nutritionism is that it’s based on reductive science. To get controlled research results nutritional science isolates nutrients, ripping them from their context. The problem is that nutrients work differently in isolation than they do when cooperating with one another in the context of a complete food. Beta carotene by itself works differently than it does in carrots.

The science of nutrition is only in the beginning stages, like surgery was in 1650. If you were living in 1650 and you needed surgery, I’d say, Don’t get up on the table yet!

The last fifteen minutes of his talk were devoted to some simple rules for eating better, all derived from culture–which is, he said, “a fancy word for your mom.” The first rule is simple:

1. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

If it’s yogurt, she would recognize it. If it’s packaged in a bar and sold as a snack food, it’s probably not nearly as good for you.

2. Don’t buy foods with more than 5 ingredients.

Highly processed foods tend to have more ingredients.

3. Don’t shop in the middle of the supermarket.

Buy food at a farmer’s market if possible, but if you do go to a supermarket, stay around the periphery of the store, where the produce, meats, and dairy are displayed.

The stuff in the middle of the store is immortal.  I kept a Twinkie in my office, just to see what would happen, and two years later it was just as soft and squishy as on day 1! It wouldn’t rot. What causes rot? Bacteria and fungi. They’re not interested in foods with little nutrition in them. They know something we don’t! So don’t buy any food that doesn’t rot. Foods that will rot are foods that are more nutritious.

The fourth rule was equally easy to remember:

4. Don’t buy any food you’ve ever seen advertised on TV!

Pollan sums up his food rules this way:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Questions from the audience turned to agriculture, which Pollan has written a lot about, most recently in “Farmer in Chief,” his New York Times Magazine letter from October to the president elect. Many of our problems with food nutrition are linked to the fact that the American food system relies heavily on fossil fuels.

We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

Farming that relies on fossil fuels is farming heavily invested in monoculture–huge tracts of land given over to growing one crop.

There is evidence that food grown in organic soil has more nutrients. No one knows for sure why this is, but one theory is that plants grown without pesticides have to fend for themselves. It’s possible that they develop their nutrients as a result of fending off predators.

For more information:
Michael Pollan, “Farmer in Chief.” New York Times Magazine, October 12, 2008.
Michael Pollan on Bill Moyers Journal, November 28, 2008.


5 Responses to In defense of food

  1. Beth Hayden says:May 24, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Hi Priscilla –

    Thank you for this great post – I’m definitely going to pick up this book. I’ve been trying to add gluten-free lately, and all the GF books also recommend avoiding the center aisles of the grocery store. I also like the rule about avoiding foods you see advertised on TV. Wish I could get my six-year-old to buy into that, however!


  2. Diggitt says:May 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    I laughed at memories of warring with my daughter about food — goodness knows, I warred with my mother, and she warred with hers. Grandmother was a farm girl and a modern woman, and she studied nutrition. When fresh frozen vegetables became available, something green was a part of every meal. As a result, neither Grandma’s house, nor my mother’s, nor mine, ever had white bread or junk food.

    We also did not have gustatorial pleasure. Although we knew about real food (no caps) we did not know about real eating. When the joy of cooking (both capped and uncapped) entered my life, it changed my life and my parents, joyously of course.

    My daughter was a toughie. We didn’t watch television but nonetheless the advertising world got its hooks into her. She’d say to me, “You know, I can eat anything I want to at my friends’ houses.” I’d say, “I know. I can’t stop you, but I’m not going to spend my money on that crap and I won’t have it our house.”

    Well, guess what — she’s 24 and has lived in a vegetarian coop for four years. Every 20th night, she has prepared a vegetarian meal for 20+ people … and she has learned to appreciate and love good food. The latter didn’t have to follow from the ethical views, but it has. She’s not a vegetarian — when she goes out with her dad she’ll still wolf down good roast duck — but she’s developed a thoughtful approach to her own eating and thinks ethically about the food supply.

    She leaves shortly for Peace Corps service, not a food crusader but a crusader for mindful choices in a life thoughtfully lived. I think that’s a lesson people are getting from Michael Pollan.

  3. Jody Berman says:May 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Excellent summation of Pollan’s talk, Priscilla. Thanks for sharing the highlights.

  4. Kathy Kaiser says:June 2, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Thanks, Priscilla for your report on Pollan. He makes so many good points. I love what he says about the long life of the Twinkie, and I agree that we’ve forgotten about the simple joys of enjoying good food, replaced by calorie counting and reading food labels.

  5. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:June 3, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Beth, good luck with your six-year-old! As Diggitt observes, the food wars are intergenerational. I too remember sparring–no, that’s too nice a word for those arguments–with my mother about food. Jody and Kathy, nice to see you drop in again. Good food enjoyed well can certainly bring people together.