Michael Pollan on why too much nutrition talk is making us sick

michael-pollan-highres-1I love Michael Pollan’s no nonsense, commonsense advice. If you haven’t read his books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you must get onto to them. Now. Because being the mindful foodie that you are, I’m sure you would love what he has to say — which he does in such an engaging way. Whether you’re reading his words or hearing him speak.

Speaking of which, I was very fortunate to attend his talk in Melbourne last Sunday. (Thank you to the Wheeler Centre for making this possible).

He started his talk with some ‘groceries’ he had bought from one of our big two supermarket chains. I must say he has a penchant pulling apart commercial cereals as well as yoghurt. Let’s just say that Michael identified many major Aussie food products as  ‘edible food-like substances’ — he refuses to call them food. Which, I agree, they are not.

By the way, did you know that commercial, low-fat flavoured yogurt has the same, if not more, sugar per unit than coca cola?

But, thanks to TV ads, people think this type of yoghurt is a health food, right? That couldn’t be further from the truth.

That and much more straightforward advice was delivered throughout Michael’s talk. Here’s a snapshot —

  • In the supermarket (and on TV), food is loud — it’s ‘screaming’ health claims at us. The real food is silent — there are no health claims on an apple, are there?
  • You don’t need to know what an oxidant is to eat healthily —just eat your colours in fruits and vegetables, not cereal (e.g. fruit loops!).
  • Don’t eat food that won’t rot. Food is a living thing, and will eventually die.

(Get his food rules book for more insights — there are over 60 rules!)

It’s such a shame that we need to these kind of rules to know how to eat. It just shows that we’ve lost our basic knowledge and intuition when it comes to food, and the hold the food industry has on the community. It’s no wonder we are confused!

All this confusion is making us sick. Why?

Michael puts it down to too much nutrition talk. He says (these are not quotes but a sum-up of his points, with my thoughts in brackets) —

In the Western world we are obsessed with nutrients and ‘nutritional science’.

Where else in life do you need so much science to get through the day? When you focus on nutrients you rely on experts to tell you how to eat. And is becomes all about steering away from bad nutrients and eating only good nutrients. (When we go mad for a good ingredient, all we want to do is pull it out of the food and eat it in copious amounts — that, in itself, is not healthy in my opinion).

But food is much bigger than health — we also eat for taste, sense of community, conviviality and identity.

Besides, nutritionalism is an unhealthy way to talk about food. Talking about nutrients is just a great way to sell food — because that way food manufactures can ignore the bad stuff and highlight or tweak other ingredients to sell processed foods.

We are ignoring the elephant in the room when we only talk nutrients — this way of eating is killing us.

For example by demonising fat in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we ended up with margarine and a whole lot of low fat processed goods on the supermarket shelves (which are still there, by the way). It gave a ‘free pass’ to eat and drink as much as you want because it was low fat.

But instead we became fat.

It’s really hard to study food – it’s extremely complex. It’s not like studying pharmaceuticals. “There’s no placebo for broccoli.” Many food studies rely on surveying people (epidemiological surveillance type studies). There are no tight controls and it’s easy for people to forget what they eat or even lie on the survey. So the data has problems.

Nutritional ‘science’ is a young science “it’s where surgery was in the 1650s”.

So what facts do we know about food?

  1. Every time we remove a nutrient — so that we can just consume the nutrient — it doesn’t work like it should, as it does in the whole food.
  2. Populations that eat a Western diet (that is, processed foods) have a high prevalence of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. (These are diseases of the West.)
  3. Populations that eat traditional diets, rarely get chronic diseases.
  4. People who get off the Western diet revert the markers of chronic diseases — which means they get better or totally heal themselves.

In the next 10 years, 1 in 3 kids will develop type 2 diabetes — unless we change the way we eat.

The best way to take control of our food — away from corporations — is to cook at home.

So Michael’s main message is this:

Get off the Western diet.

The Western diet is about profit.  Not health. It’s not food.

In other words, eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (sound familiar?)