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Last night my close friend John and I attended a great talk by the food writer Michael Pollan. There are so many things Pollan said that I wish I had written down and could share here, but have already forgotten!
Fortunately the event was taped and will appear on public television later this year. (I’ll post the info if/when I find out).
He started off by pulling out a variety of packaged products from some shopping bags and noting the health and marketing claims on each of them, often ridiculing the outright silliness of claiming that things like chocolate Cheerios, fiber-enriched sugar-free sweetener, and fat-free Oreos could be “good for you”.
The thrust of his talk was that our culture strongly holds some core beliefs that are messed up. Namely that (1) all foods are the sum of their nutrients, (2) we need science to teach us what those nutrients are, (3) some foods are “good” and others “bad”, and (4) when we eat, the goal should be to do it the “right” way.
He characterizes this approach to food and eating as “Nutritionism” — the belief that food is all about its constituent parts, some of which we MUST eat and some of which we must NOT.
Long story short, this actually leads American consumers to become heavier and less healthy, with the average American man packing 17 more pounds than 25 years ago and the average American woman carrying 19 pounds more(!).
The really good news, in my opinion, is something that Pollan waited until the end of his talk to discuss —essentially that you do not have to be any kind of expert at all to eat correctly. In fact, his now well-known mantra is ‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”.
First, by “food” he means mostly the kinds of natural non-processed items we call Power Foods in WeightWatchers: fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources. (In WW we also include fat-free dairy and whole wheat, but I doubt Pollan would go that far). The easy way to remember is that these foods are found along the perimeter of most supermarkets. Another clue is that they should be perishable. If you find yourself picking up boxes, bags, or cans, you’ve probably strayed outside of the “food” area!
Second, when he says “mostly plants” he means that meat should be considered a garnish, and that the closer a food is to its natural state, the more likely it is to be satisfying.
Finally, Pollan points out that Americans eat too much. He urged the audience to think about ways to eat until feeling satisfied rather than full. Although he mentioned that other cultures (Japan, France, etc.) maintain norms that people should stop eating before they’ve had too much, he missed something that I think is key — that is, if you follow his first two rules, you will actually feel satisfied much sooner. From (sad) personal experience I can tell you that it is possible to eat an entire box of Oreos without stopping. But it’s not possible to do that with a bag of apples. Or a head of cabbage. Or a clutch of bananas.
One last thing to mention is that Nutritionism completely fails to take into account that human beings eat for pleasure, for social reasons, for comfort, and for the joy of it. If we can just stop pretending that food is supposed to “about” something, we can create a healthier relationship with eating, and de-nature the stress over trying to figure out what’s the “right” or “wrong” way to go.
In the end, the message is clear — the grocery and agricultural interests in our country are dominating the debate, and creating an incredibly unhealthy climate. We can take back control of our eating and our health if we follow some simple rules, and give ourselves the opportunity to break those rules when necessary.
Pollan concluded by quoting Oscar Wilde, “In all things moderation. Including moderation.”