Why Michael Pollan is Wrong

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Pollan blog

If you could encapsulate what you believe about food in three statements of three words or less, what would it be?

I’m prompted to ask this question for two reasons:  1) It’s fun and 2) Michael Pollan is wrong!

That’s right, I said it.  Michael Pollan got me thinking about this because everyone seems to love and quote his mini-tidbits of nutritional wisdom.   They’re becoming so commonly quoted that most people are unaware they stem from his writings.  Here’s a few you’ve probably heard:

“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

“Avoid food products that make health claims.”

“Shop the perimeters of the supermarket and stay out of the middle aisles.”

I love them and quote them myself all the time!  And here’s probably the most popular one of all:

“Eat Food.  Not a lot. Mostly plants.”

Sounds good, right?

Truth be told…I hate it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Michael Pollan as much as the next real food enthusiast.  His book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, is the Silent Spring of this generation.  It raised the red flag on industrialized agriculture and it made us look harder than ever at where our food is coming from.  In so doing he has given a voice to small farms, to sustainably grown food and to everything that is good and noble and important about our food system.

His follow up to that book, In Defense of Food, condensed the message in Omnivore’s Dilemma into a more direct look at the controversial events and studies that led to our modern-day ideas about nutrition, which he wryly calls “nutritionism.”  

Pollan cleverly describes the inherently flawed nature of all nutritional studies, especially those that have led to the lipid hypothesis, the theory that fat causes disease.   He attacks the forty-year government-pharmaceutical-medical-promoted war on fat, which he correctly points out has done nothing to improve our collective health.  Pollan blows apart the lipid hypothesis with sheer venom and wit:

“What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism, the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism–its supreme test and, as is now coming clear, its most abject failure.

At this point you’re probably saying to yourself, ‘Hold on just a minute.  Are you really saying the whole low-fat deal was bogus?  But my supermarket is still packed with low-fat this and no-cholesterol that!  My doctor is still on me about my cholesterol and telling me to switch to low-fat everything.’ I was flabbergasted at the news too, because no one in charge–not in the government, not in the public health community–has dared to come out and announce: ‘Um, you know everything we’ve been telling you for the last thirty years about the links between dietary fat and heart disease?  And fat and cancer?  And fat and fat? Well, this just in: It now appears that none of it was true.  We sincerely regret the error.’

No, the admissions of error have been muffled, and the recent mea culpas impossible to find.  But read around the recent scientific literature and you will find a great many scientists beating a quiet retreat from the main tenets of the lipid hypothesis.

The Elephant in the Room

Pollan contrasts the low fat mantra with nutritionism’s greatest enemy:  the almighty Common Sense.  In a chapter from In Defense of Food titled “The Elephant in the Room,” Pollan discusses the life and research of Dr. Weston Price.  Price traveled the world in the 1930s studying the diets of cultures untouched by civilization.  He found a wide variety of diets but nowhere did he find cultures eating low-fat or low cholesterol.  He found that most cultures relied heavily on animal foods be they milk, meat, or eggs and found that these foods were considered sacred for good health, child development, and fertility.  And nowhere did Dr. Price find type II diabetes, heart disease, or any of the other major epidemics that plague us today.

Of course Dr. Price didn’t find processed foods either, and processed foods are certainly the biggest culprit in our national health crises.   And that is exactly Pollan’s point, which he conveys beautifully.  It is not high-fat foods, which cultures have subsisted on for thousands of years, that are causing our health problems.  It’s processed, industrialized food, plain and simple.  As Dr. Price showed, wherever the foods of civilization go, so go their diseases–heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, digestive disorders, etc.  None of the foods in our supermarket, especially those in the middle aisles, resemble anything that traditional people ate.  Nor anything our great grandmothers ate.  And as our health epidemics escalate, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the elephant in the room.

So then what’s my problem with Michael Pollan?

After tearing down the lipid hypothesis, after tearing down the nutritional fads of the past forty years, after celebrating the wonderful diversity in traditional diets, he reaffirms the one-size-fits-all USDA low-fat-low calorie food pyramid by saying, “Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.”  This is not what Dr. Price found!  And it’s not what other researchers, missionaries, explorers, colonialists and scientists found when the Western world started coming in contact with so called non-civilized cultures.

So I think I can say it better.  Ready?  Here goes:

Eat Real Food.  Eat a lot.  Mostly local.

Let me explain.

Eat Real Food

First off, I realize what Pollan meant by “Eat Food” was exactly to eat real food.  This is really the essence of what he writes about.  But I think “eat real food” says it a little better and a little clearer.   But that’s where the similarities end.  The last two, “Not a lot” and “Mostly plants,”  I take issue with and believe I can make a much clearer distinction about what we should eat and why.

Eat a lot

So let’s look at his second statement. “Not a lot.”  Of course we should not overeat.  And of course Americans overeat.  I get it.  Everyone gets that.  But again this statement is reaffirming this idea that’s been conditioned into us which is that for good long term health we should not eat a lot of calories.  We have weight-loss programs, books, and marketing schemes making millions off this idea.

I say this all the time, and I can’t emphasize it enough:  It’s not how much you eat, it’s WHAT you eat that really matters.

In his groundbreaking book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, researcher Gary Taubes shows how subjects on long-term low-calorie diets do lose weight but how a heavy price is paid.  Subjects consistently report constant hunger, cravings, cold body temperatures, reduced energy, decreased blood pressure, anemia, inability to concentrate, and a decrease in sexual interest.  Upon completion of the diets, the subjects almost always overindulged and put the weight back on and more.

Taubes goes on to show that a healthy metabolism and a healthy weight are most influenced not by caloric intake or even exercise but by the quality of the food being consumed.  Thus those on nourishing, real foods, even without regular exercise, can maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. Conversely, those on nutrient-deficient diets, even with regular exercise, have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight and metabolism even at lower caloric intakes.

The Importance of Animal Foods

And finally, “Mostly plants.”  This is the one that really makes my eyes roll.  If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say that all you have to do is eat more fruits and vegetables, I’d be a very rich man.  Of course plants are an important part of most diets!  Everybody knows that.  They deliver essential nutrients in the form of minerals, vitamins, fiber, antioxidants and so forth.  But, let’s get back to common sense for a minute.

In his decade-long study of traditional peoples, Dr. Price did not find many cultures eating primarily plant-based diets.    Generally speaking if you were to take the USDA food pyramid and reverse it, you would find a much better representation of traditional diets.  Fat and protein formed the foundation.  Carbohydrate foods formed the middle and top.

Again, this is just common sense.  Humans have adapted to a wide range of habitats, many of which do not have fertile farmland.  In fact, there are more regions on planet Earth not suitable for farmland than those that are.  In those regions, humans fish, or they domesticate animals, or hunt, or do a combination of these things depending on the ecosystem.

A Complete Source of Protein and Cholesterol

There are a lot more reasons why animal food-based diets are a better model for health.   Unlike plant foods, animal foods represent a complete source of protein.  They also contain cholesterol, which plays dozens of essential roles in the body including the inflammation process.  If you have surgery or a dental procedure, your cholesterol will temporarily skyrocket.  Once the body heals itself, the high cholesterol comes down.  Likewise, remove inflammatory foods such as sugar, grains, and trans fats, and watch your high cholesterol come down.

Vitamin A and D

Animal foods contain vitamin D.  Plant foods do not.  Animal foods contain retinol, the true version of vitamin A.  Plants do not contain retinol.  They contain beta-carotenes, which are converted to retinol in the digestive process, albeit less efficiently.

Anti-nutrients in plants

Finally, many plants have anti-nutrients in them that are difficult on the human digestive system.  Grains, even whole ones, are not always the nutritious foods that they’re made out to be.  Gluten, the main protein in wheat, barley, and rye, is causing widespread problems in our culture right now.  It’s a very difficult protein for the body to break down.  Grains, as well as beans, nuts and seeds also contain naturally occurring substances called phytates, which block the absorption of a number of vitamins and minerals.  Sprouting, soaking, and fermenting neutralizes phytates at the same time it increases nutrient concentration.  However, few people do this anymore.   And don’t count on Kellogg’s to do it anytime soon.

Mostly Local

So when it comes to saying what we should mostly eat, I think “mostly local” says it so much better.  Saying we should eat “mostly plants” immediately gets bogged down in the controversial science of fats, carbs and protein–the very “nutritionism” ideas that Pollan is trying to escape from in the first place.  And “mostly local” is just common sense.  It’s large-scale agricultural practices and the corporate policies that promote them that are destroying our environment, destroying our health, and are in turn creating food shortages around the planet.   It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that these large-scale practices are NOT sustainable.

The answer lies in small-scale, sustainable food systems.  These can feed the planet, even in cities.  In fact, just today I came across this article about a UN report that refutes the notion that only industrialized agriculture can feed the world:  http://news.change.org/stories/we-dont-need-industrial-agriculture-to-feed-the-world-un-report-says

What Asia taught me about eating local

I have traveled extensively in Asia and my favorite part of Asia is the urban food markets.  These bustling, colorful markets are present every day, on the streets, on the sidewalks, in the alleys, at all times of the day.  The food is always fresh and, of course, always local.  It feeds entire cities.  This model may not be adaptable to the US urban landscape quite yet but even rooftops, balconies, lawns, and small backyards can yield a surprisingly diverse and large amount of food.  Sooner or later (and probably sooner), we’re all going to have to re-learn some of the ways our great grandparents went about raising food.

Finally, local, sustainably grown foods are healthier for you and for your children.  They’re better for the health of the animals.  They’re better for the health of our communities.  They keep farms alive and support local farmers. They promote biodiversity and prevent over development.   And they are less dependent on oil as industrial foods (including organic ones) must travel long distances from farm to fork.  To put it simply, local foods are just better for our planet.  Period.  Ironically, this is the essence of what Michael Pollan has so eloquently taught us.  I just think I outdid him at his own game.

So there you have it.

Eat real food.  Eat a lot.  Mostly local.

Your Turn

Think you can do better?  Try it!  It’s fun.  Leave a comment below with your own version.


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Comments

  1. While I think you make some good points here, I think it’s a little misguided to place so much emphasis on Michael Pollan’s work as a guide to proper diet. I don’t think his books are meant to teach nutrition so much as to spur critical thought about food, it’s origins and place in our culture, etc. However, there are many other writers–actual doctors (Joel Fuhrman, Neal Barnard, Caldwell Esselstyn, to name a few)–whose goal IS to promote optimal health through nutrition, and they also promote the idea that plant-based diets are ideal for optimal health. Even if you eat meat (and I do), it’s hard to argue with their extensive research and demonstrated success in using vegan diets to restore health to the previously very ill in a traditional medical setting. Americans are literally killing themselves with unhealthy eating and overeating, and I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it’s not harmful to “eat a lot” or to overindulge in meat products just because we’ve chosen local/organic ones. Still, I think anyone whose goal is to promote better health through nutrition should be applauded, so I appreciate your efforts and willingness to open the discussion!

    • craigfear says:

      Thanks Rebecca for your comments. I was using Michael Pollan as an example because so many people have read his works and so many do place emphasis on what he says. The other writers are not as familiar to the American public. I also have no doubt that many people can do well on a vegetarian diet. I’ve seen too much evidence against veganism though. I think those that do well on it do so because it’s the toxic standard American diet that has made them sick. A temporary vegan diet may indeed bring about healing if it means getting off sugar, chemicals, fast food, trans fats, etc. However, long term I think it’s dangerous. No traditional cultures ever voluntarily chose veganism. Veganism can lead to some serious nutritional deficiencies. Just my opinion. Thanks for sharing yours.

      • Anabela Bacchione RDH, NTP says:

        Craig,
        I am just responding to your reply to Rebecca by saying that what you just said is SO very important. What did you say, you may ask? That the reason vegan/vegetarian works is because of the TEMPORARY exemption of bad foods, bad fats, bad meats, bad dairy that most people are eating. This is a VERY important fact that needs to be stressed by those who are proponents or argue against vegan diets. We can not argue that fact that TEMPORARY elimination of “bad foods” and cleansing the body with rich foods high in enzymes and fiber would benefit anyone at some point. So, thanks for making that point very clear. I myself have not seen a patient that has been a long time vegan or vegetarian who is truly healthy. At some point, they introduce some form of animal protein, that they are comfortable with, to achieve health.

        • Why do you guys make the assumption that a vegan/vegetarian becomes one prior to eating bad fats, highly processed food, bad meats, etc. first, dont put both vegan and vegetarian as one or the same, and / or. They are different. I know friends who are traditionally vegetarian and in robust health. What do u say abt them? Let us respect each ones way or style of eating. If one thing works for u not necessarily I works fr others.

  2. I wrote about some of this in my most recent blog post, which i’m sorry to say is from last October (I’ve been busy!) – I wrote about how to *want* to eat your vegetables. Since writing that, I have tried the butter-poached carrots – actually with coconut oil, but you can do either one – simmer cut up carrots slowly on low heat with ridiculous amounts of fat. As the water sweats out of the carrots, it will be replaced by fat, and it tastes marvelous. You don’t need herbs or lemon juice or anything on it – it’s fine as it, maybe some salt and you’re in heaven. So easy, and the kids love it.

    If I could condense my blog into 3 phrases it would be:
    End farm subsidies. Eat your veggies with fat, and Time is more important than Money.

    • craigfear says:

      Love that post Rosemary! I’ll post in on my page soon. You can add me to your list if you have one.

    • I do that with my carrots and beets! Soo delicious!

    • I steam my carrots, that lets all the juices come out and they will be kinda dry after a minute or so outside the pot…then I use those carrots and immerse them in a sauce made from butter (we buy Amish roll butter made from grass fed cow milk the old way)…. melt the butter over low heat, insert herbs as you wish, put in the carrots and let them soak at medium heat for a minute or two up the heat, brown the lot and take of the fire… it will melt in your mouth.

  3. Actually, *no* plant food contains vitamin D. Mushrooms contain D2, but mushrooms are fungi, not plants. Now mind you, from a culinary standpoint they are still considered plant foods, but taxonomically they are not. Also, the D they contain is D2, or ergocalciferol, which must be converted to cholecalciferol (D3) to be useful in the human body. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually comes out that our ability to convert D2 varies widely and is dependent on genetics and health status and good Lord knows what else.

    Your best dietary source of vitamin D is cold-water fish, particularly sockeye salmon. Sunlight works OK for some people, but again it depends on factors like skin color, latitude, moisture content of the skin, cholesterol status (the lower your cholesterol is, the less you make–D is made from cholesterol!), etc. So getting some in the diet is a great idea.

    I wouldn’t agree the Soviet Union disproved Marxism. They disproved the idea of a centrally controlled economy, and that’s about it. If you take the “ism” out of it and pare it down to the idea that workers should own their means of production, the end result of that is that people who work for a living control their own destiny, which ought to be the whole point of working in the first place. There is a lot to criticize about Marx, but people controlling their own destinies rather than being owned by someone or something isn’t one of those things. And Marx predicted that when people achieve real communism (small-c communism, not that central economy stuff the Soviets were up to), they won’t need government anymore. Sounds good to me.

    I’m right there with you about Pollan though. Some wit responded to him on the NYT website, “Ate plants. A big heap. Still hungry.”

    • Josefina says:

      I know we’re getting sidetracked here but just had to respond quickly in regards to your comment about Marx. He didn’t work for the common man. The Communist Manifesto is almost identical to the Humanist Manifesto and once you start looking into the real motives behind that idea, you might get another picture. It’s like the UN’s declaration of Human Rights. Sounds good, but in practice, works with the opposite intention.
      I believe in no government too, but that doesn’t guarantee the absence of slavery and governance by the wealthy.
      I think if we take both the ism and Marx out of the picture, we can get closer to a true egalitarian society. Marx worked for globalism, and there’s no way we can have equality on such a large scale. Autonomy requires *very* local and small structures.

      Besides that, I liked your comments about vitamin D. Any resources you care to share?

  4. Glad I am not the only one shaking my head over the “mostly plants” phrase in this well worn pull-quote.

    I am just now listening to Omnivores Dilemma, and think the book is really good. It is just so weird that a guy who has been on Salatin’s farm and read the Weston A. Price research and come away with “mostly plants.” Could it be that Pollan is giving us confusing advice, just like the government “experts”?

    As for me and my house, we will eat the fruit of the earth, whatever it happens to be! That is what an Omnivore does!

    As Charlie Sheen said recently, Winning. Duh!

    • craigfear says:

      Yeah I know. He did a total 180 at the end of the book. Keep up the great work with WAPF, Kimberly. Thanks again for posting my blog on the FB page. :-)

  5. I agree completely – I think that the science is moving – have you also read Richard Wrangham on cooking? http://missinghumanmanual.com/?p=58

    Hard to make the evolutionary case for the huge jump in brains size, loss of gut, loss of jaw if all we ate was raw plants

    If we go down your road – then we can get traction on the epidemic

  6. Bravo Craig! Excellent article!!

  7. Just a thought: maybe the factory farms are losing too much $, which of course affects the governments tax $, so they’re paying scientists & doctors to come out with studies on how we need more meat in out diets but know that local small farms get subsidies they’re hoping to put them out of business by showing that we need large factory farm produced meats so our peoples get enough required by these reccomended diets as well as by making us meat/fat/processed obsessed nation going to those high tax paying doctors we all love! Ok I don’t even want to eat anything I haven’t grown or raised. ::shrug:: is there a place with freedom, no taxes, and can produce good food without all the BS? Who knows?

  8. Really appreciate this article. Jives with my experience and with the Paleo thing, which I think makes a lot of sense. I’ve lost 90 lbs so far, the last 35 by giving up grains. I’ve plateau’d for the last few months and appreciate this article… hopefully it will help me get the weight on the move OUT again.

    thanks!

    Jane

  9. Its like you read my thoughts! You seem to grasp so much about this, such as you wrote the e book in it or something. I feel that you can do with some percent to pressure the message home a little bit, however instead of that, that is great blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  10. Hello There. I discovered your weblog using msn. This is an extremely neatly written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your helpful info. Thank you for the post. I will certainly comeback.

  11. I think Michale Pollan did, however, address environmental health and climate concerns much better with his description, as he was not only focused on personal health but also on the impact our food system as on the eco system. Protein and fat can be found from many sustainable sources not just animal protein. For example, insects, or by combining legumes with a whole grain or vegetable to make a complete protein. I think it’s also important to emphasize in your promotion of animal protein diets that traditional peoples ate all parts of the animals they killed or used for food, which is a much more sustainable practice. They also ate small portions of this animal source within each meal — they were not sitting down and eating a 12 oz prime cut of steak with every meal or over fishing our waters in order to get that cold-water fish fileted whole on their plate. If we promote eating animal protein with every meal in the fashion that we currently do in our society, such as prime cuts only and grossly unsustainable caught fish, then we will be left with no fish in the water and barely any land to inhabit animals we want to eat. And with that we will be left with an eco system in peril. This is certainly something Pollan stresses and does so exceptionally well in his recommendation.

  12. Love it!! Here’s my attempt:

    “Eat what your body asks for. Learn to listen. Enjoy every bite.”

    • Unfortunately the bodies of most people are conditioned to eat processed junk food and they will not ask for what they really need.

  13. I like Pollan pretty much. I enjoyed his interviews in Vanishing of the Bees movie. But I’m 100% with you, that saying about “not too much, mostly plants” is way off.
    Last week, Sean Flanagan said “Eat Food. Not too little. Mostly plants…or animals.” – https://www.facebook.com/SeanFlanaganHealth

    I’m definitely going to start following your blog!

  14. Great post! That quote has always bugged me, too. I’m sharing on Facebook. :)

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