Eat his words

The cover story in today’s New York Times magazine is a landmark piece by Michael Pollan called Unhappy Meals. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever written, possibly because it speaks so eloquently to my own prejudices.

Here’s the short version: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

But the meat of the article, so to speak, is an attack on what Pollan calls “nutritionism”: the ideology that holds that the best way to a healthy diet is to ignore *foods* and concentrate on ingesting the proper amounts and ratios of nutrients lurking within them. This has led to many absurdities, like this one:

> Of course it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.

As I read, a parallel occurred to me. Every day online, on TV, and at the newsstand, you can read investing tips. Ten hot stocks! Where to put your money now! And so on. A popular term for this type of story is “investment porn,” although I recently read a book that pointed out that this term is unfair, because actual porn delivers results.

The problem with investment porn is not that it’s all wrong. It’s that some of it is right and some of it is wrong, and you have no way of telling the difference. Furthermore, even if you were blessed with the ability to know the good advice from bad, the transaction costs associated with moving your money around all the time to the latest hot stock would eat all your profit anyway. The only way to invest that actually works is to buy the entire stock and bond markets (in the form of index funds) and sit on them for a long time. How boring is that, though?

So it goes with nutrition porn, a category that encompasses everything from a Kellogg’s commercial to the latest press release from Center for Science in the Public Interest. The cost of paying attention to this junk, of running from oat bran to cinnamon to omega-3s, is wrong turns (“Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks,” writes Pollan) but also the worst transaction cost of all: stress. “Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you,” adds Pollan.

I would go further, then, than Pollan’s opening exhortation. Eat whatever gives you the most pleasure, ignoring nutritional advice as best you can. If it helps you relax, take a daily multivitamin–it won’t hurt, though it probably won’t help, either. (I take one, one of my little superstitions; the joke I’ve heard is that it gives you very expensive urine.) You won’t live forever on this diet, I’m afraid–but you just might outlive some of the nutritional E-trade addicts clutching their fish oil pills. Or whatever it is this week.

14 thoughts on “Eat his words

  1. Liza

    I thought it was good, although I feel that after reading two Pollan NYT magazine articles I don’t need to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I have been meaning to do.

    I had actually just been wondering what the hell was wrong with nutritional science when no studies could seemingly agree on what was good for you. He implies that basically anything nutritionists claim to be good for you will be found to correlate with longevity, because well-off health-obsessed people will start consuming it (flax oil, omega-3s, bran), and — surprise — well-off people tend to live longer. Presumably the original claim is based on some anthropological study, like blubber-pounding Inuit have low incidence of heart disease, but it always seems to be that they also spend a lot of time running around killing things with blubber. But hey, if someone figures out that I can drink lots of red wine and also sit around reading blogs until I’m 110, I’ll believe in nutritionism too.

  2. mamster Post author

    Just to be safe, I’m packing blubbernutter sandwiches in Iris’s lunch.

    edit: And when you’re 110, they won’t have blogs, they’ll have space-blogs.

  3. Neil

    Great essay – thanks very much for the link. Especially for linking to the printer friendly version.

    But… “silence of the yams”? really?

    I’ve also been interested in reading his book, but now wonder if I haven’t just read a condensed version of it with the basic message. I’m assuming you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Is there much more to it than this?

  4. mamster Post author

    I read The Ominvore’s Dilemma, and I didn’t think it was that great. This read like an expanded version of one of the best parts of the book.

    Incidentally, Laurie thought this column was pretty bogus, so I’m hoping I can tempt her to tell us why.

  5. janelle

    Nicely said.

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother years ago, when I was learning about nutrition. She rolled her eyes and said: “First the egg was good for you, then bad for you, then good for protein, bad for arteries, the yolks were good, stay away from the yolks, eat only the whites, the yolks are the best part, eat eggs every day, eat them only twice a week, etc.”

    She made a nice point.

    I am a big fan of the closer it is to the ground, the better. Moderation and enjoyment of food…. and lots of red wine… and blog reading.

    Oh, thanks for the article on The Idaho Club and Donaghe. We go through Sandpoint 1-2 times a year and will have to land at one of his tables!

  6. Neil

    One thing I found a bit contradictory was how one of his main points is that reducing the health value of food down to individual “nutrients” (including omega-3) is bad for us, But then he goes on and on about how important omega-3 and omega-6 are and the need to change our diet to get them back in balance. Doesn’t this seem like he’s doing exactly what he condemns?

    Come on Laurie, give us your take!

  7. Jessica

    Those who are still pissed about moving sidewalks not showing up outside airports can come to the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

    There’s a nifty moving sidewalk underground between the two halves of the gallery. You walk by the bookstore, then the cafeteria, but the dull tunnel part has a moving sidewalk, which brings you right to the bookstore on the other side.

  8. Jason Truesdell

    I’m torn on “nutritionism” because I realize that people aren’t necessarily eating well, but with the number of calories in the average American diet, it’s not nutrition that’s our biggest problem. It’s hard to get too little if we’re eating too much, even for people who mostly eat processed foods.

    The only messages that ever escape the black hole of nutritional research is along the lines of “eat more oat bran because it’s healthy.” The research is never that unambigious, and “eat less of everything” is a more important message in the context of current American lifestyles. That message, hostile as it is to most agricultural and food business interests, always fails to build any momentum.

    Nutritionism is a new kind of moralism, as dogmatic as puritanism or fundamentalism, and perhaps built on the same kinds of leaps of faith. The loudest voices on the front of nutritionism aren’t scientists, but gyms and alternative health practitioners and supplement-pushers and food manufacturers. Even people who fancy themselves independent of food manufacturers fail to realize the foundations of their nutritional understanding are built on research funded for by food and supplement companies.

    The sort of “food as medicine” quirk of American consumption preferences bothers me, and I’m increasingly exhausted by it.

    I have done product demonstrations of a candy (a fancy handmade prettily packaged candy virtually unknown in the U.S., but at its essence, a candy) in supermarkets and people regularly asked me what the health benefits of the product were. Why would you make your decision on which candy to eat based on perceived health benefits?

    I’m equally hesitant to jump on the “green tea is healthy” train to promote tea products that I sell, because I am more concerned with whether the green tea tastes good and I’m not really going to be able to make any more sense of the published research than any other lay person.

    On eGullet, I remember someone was concerned about the risk of cancer from certain vegetables like fiddlehead fronds and the like, and the gist was “why would you take the risk.” Well, smoked foods, seared meats, and any number of regularly consumed foods carry similar risks; you’re not eating a death sentence unless you’re being force fed like a lab rat.

    If we stop treating food like medicine and spend more time just enjoying a variety of things in moderation, I’m sure we’d be better off for it.

    And as much as I like high fiber foods, I’m thankful that oat bran is no longer so damned trendy.

  9. josh g.

    I liked the article. I need more reasons to think less scientifically about how I eat, and instead just enjoy good food (leaving me more mental energy to angst over getting more exercise).

    One thing I wondered about, though, is how seriously to take his suggestion to eat according to some traditional food culture. Didn’t he give an example of how one of those food cultures (Chinese and Japanese) were susceptible to an illness due to favoring white rice over the whole sort? This makes me think that while it’s not bad advice, it should be taken with a grain of salt ahem. Even traditional food cultures have some mistakes we can learn from rather than repeat.

    (Except now I feel like I’ve insulted sushi chefs everywhere. Please forgive me! Do not withhold the delicious sushi!)

  10. mamster Post author

    Yeah, traditional food cultures just don’t translate. Although I think I could handle a traditional Thai diet forever.

  11. Laurie

    My main problem was with his nine rules at the end. Clearly, he should have stopped with “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His rules include “Get out of the supermarket whenever possible” and “Cook. And if you can, plant a garden.” If you’re really serious about getting Americans to eat more plants, you need to reach them at the supermarket. You need to make the plants easy and convenient to eat (frozen Brussels sprouts, for example). Many people don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking (because they don’t have time, or don’t enjoy cooking, and there’s nothing wrong about that–that would be ME, if Matthew weren’t here to cook dinner), and they shouldn’t have to.

Comments are closed.