Michael Pollan's advice on healthful eating is refreshingly straightforward: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
Pollan, who has written tomes on food including the best-seller The Omnivore's Dilemma, said he deliberately kept his latest book, In Defense of Food, An Eater's Manifesto, short and simple.
"The deeper I delved into the whole field of nutrition science and the
whole issue of what you should eat, the simpler it got," Pollan said in
a phone interview from Berkeley, Calif.
"I was able to cut through the underbrush and discover that those
seven words say it all. That was a little alarming to my publisher
because she was expecting 50- or 60,000 words.
"But it really did come down to eating real food," he said, the kind of
unadulterated whole foods, not snacks, that our great grandparents ate.
He also found "that there is no good reason to worry excessively about
specific nutrients, that you could safely tune out 99 percent of the
nutritional advice that was out there, whether it was corporate,
governmental or medical. There has been so much noise, so much static
about nutrition," he said. "When you look at the science behind some of
these nutrient claims, it did not hold up."
That is a part of the speech Pollan is planning to deliver Saturday evening at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Witty and erudite, Pollan is to able to discuss the big issues of food and the environment in an approachable, lively style.
Take Meatless Mondays, for instance. It has been known in academic
circles for some time that a meat-based diet requires twice as much
energy to produce as a vegetarian diet, said Robert Lawrence, director
of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg
School of Public Health. The Hopkins center promoted the idea of going
meatless one day a week to reduce the burden that food-production
practices place on the environment.
But the concept took off after Pollan endorsed it during an appearance on Oprah.
"We were particularly pleased when Michael Pollan recommended to Oprah Winfrey's viewers that to help the environment, they should refrain from eating meat once a week," Lawrence said in an e-mail.
While Pollan's family has adopted the Meatless Monday regime, he
acknowledged it has not come without cost. "I have a son who is 16
years old and who craves meat. For him, it is not a meal if an animal
has not died to produce it. We struggle to have that meatless day with
On days other than Monday, Pollan eats meat, but only from animals that
have been raised in pastures, not in feed lots. "Once you have seen
those places," he said, referring to the industrial cattle operations
he visited while researching a magazine story on how a calf comes to
market, "you lose your appetite."
Pollan said he wrote this eater's manifesto because even though people
were concerned about the origins of food - a topic he covered in The Omnivore's Dilemma
- they were more interested in personal health, in what to eat. He
answers this question by setting out a number of cleverly phrased rules.
He said, for instance, that one way to distinguish real food that
you should be eating from edible substances that you should avoid is
that real stuff has no more than five ingredients. The food industry
has also taken notice of these rules, he said, and figured out ways to
capitalize on them. There is now a brand of ice cream, hardly health
food, that touts itself as a five-ingredient mix.
"So I have to come up with some new rules to counter these industry
ploys," Pollan said. He promised to disclose a few of his new rules at
the Baltimore gathering.
Pollan said part of the reason we are confused about what to eat is
that we recently got a lot of bad advice from so-called experts. For
instance, the public-health campaign that urged eaters to abandon
butter, which has saturated fat, and replace it with margarine, which
is loaded with trans-fats, was based on bad science, he said.
"We traded in a fat that had been part of the human diet for eons for
one that looked novel, but turned out to be much more dangerous.
Getting people off lard and chicken fat and butter and putting them on
hydrogenated oils has been a public-health disaster, and we are owed an
apology," he said.
Pollan, who teaches journalism to graduate students at the University
of California, Berkeley, was also critical of the way the media has
covered food and nutrition.
"The authors of the new nutritional studies get hyped. The editors of
the newspapers want front-page stories, and the net effect, since
journalism thrives on change, is that journalists tend to exaggerate
every change in the science. Science is an iterative process.
Scientists make mistakes they refine, but as you watch the twists and
turns in a newspaper, you would think every news study is blowing up
the one before."
He added that "journalism thrives on novelty, not on tradition. And the
fact is that most of the wisdom about food is old, traditional and not
Pollan, 54, grew up in Woodbury, N.Y., He got his undergraduate degree
in English from Bennington College and his master's in American
literature from Columbia University. He was an editor of Harper's magazine.
For a time, he and his wife, Judith Belier, a painter, lived in a rural
section of Connecticut. There, he planted a garden and did battle with
a hungry woodchuck, trying to fire-bomb the critter before eventually
building a fence to keep the animal at bay.
His career as a writer is, he said, a confluence of his passion for gardening and his study of American nature writing.
"One of the lessons you learn when you start gardening is that you have
a legitimate quarrel with other species, weeds and pests. How you
navigate that quarrel is going to define you as a gardener," he said.
"From the Puritans to Thoreau to John Muir, I love that whole question of our relationship to the natural world."
As fond as he was of the American literary tradition of nature writing,
Pollan said its approach of "worshiping nature as a spectator" was a
fine way to preserve wilderness but is not an approach that is useful
today. "We talk about nature too much in terms of virgin land or raped
land. We need to think about married land, about how we get what we
need and the land is actually improved. I have seen that in farms and
in my own garden."
Growing your own vegetables, as Pollan does in his Berkeley front
yard, gives you an opportunity to negotiate a relationship with nature,
"When you are cooking with food from the garden," Pollan writes in In Defense of Food,
the food is "alive." "You are not in danger," he wrote, "of mistaking
it for a commodity, or fuel, or a collection of nutrients."
Pollan, the proud gardener, puts it another way: A Sun Gold cherry
tomato pulled from his front yard is, he said, "a tomato so sweet even
a kid will eat it."
Here is a sampling of Michael Pollan's rules of how to eat well:
- Avoid food products that contain ingredients that are unfamiliar,
unpronounceable, more than five in number or include high-fructose corn
- Avoid products that make health claims.
- Shop in the peripheries of the supermarket, where the fresh food is; avoid the middle, where processed food resides.
- Eat meals, not snacks.
- Eat plants, especially leaves.
- Don't get your fuel from the same place as your car gets its gas.
- Eat slowly, at a table, and try not to eat alone.