One of the most frequent questions I receive via e-mail goes something like this: “What do you think of [enter name of nutrition guru here]?”
For whatever reason, these types of e-mails have significantly increased over the past few months.
Rather than answer these e-mails individually, I figured it would be more helpful to create a new section on the blog where I give my thoughts on many of these gurus — and grade them.
First up — Michael Pollan.
WHO IS HE?
Despite his status as a nutrition guru, Michael Pollan is a journalist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Although he has penned a handful of books throughout his career, he shot to fame in 2006 thanks to the release of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan provides an eye-opening and in-depth look at issues of sustainability, food system chains, agriculture and agribusiness, and, most famously, how crop subsidies (mainly that of corn) have affected food policy, the nutrition landscape, and health in the United States.
That iconic tome was followed by In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto in 2007, and Food Rules in 2009, both of which mostly expand on issues presented in Omnivore.
WHAT IS HIS MAIN MESSAGE?
Pollan advocates a return to minimally processed food. His signature advice (and quote) is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Pollan is a staunch critic of what he calls “nutritionism”, a term that refers to an obsession with one nutrient, rather than actual food (for example, seeking out a sugary cereal that is fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, as opposed to getting that nutrient from a food that naturally contains it).
His latest book — Food Rules — is a compilation of 64 rules to keep in mind when it comes to nutrition, including:
- “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
- “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.”
- “Do all your eating at a table”
WHAT I LIKE:
Unlike other gurus, Pollan approaches nutrition from a holistic standpoint and considers how political, environmental, and economic factors affect the food chain.
He does not focus on a “magic nutrient” or a handful of “superfoods” that allegedly cure diseases or make one invincible.
Pollan’s core advice makes absolute sense — everyone can benefit from cutting down on highly processed foods and eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Even better, Pollan’s work has brought a formely “niche” issue to the mainstream, and has sparked a significant amount of conversation and debate from classrooms to the White House.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE:
In Pollan’s — or, more likely, his publishers’ — attempt to remain witty and instantly quotable with one-sentence tips, some of his advice is beginning to get watered down and slightly repetitive.
For example, one of Pollan’s “food rules” is to “eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” Granted, he explains it a little differently:
“If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they’re so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you’re willing to prepare them — chances are good it won’t be every day.”
So, in reality, the advice is to “only eat junk food you make yourself.”
Similarly, some of Pollan’s famous “isms” — such as not eating foods your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and only shopping the perimeter of the supermarket — miss the point.
Plenty of healthy and minimally processed foods — like beans, brown rice, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, spices, and whole grain pasta — are found in the internal aisles of the supermarket.
Additionally, the advice of only eating foods our great-grandmothers would recognize doesn’t take into account globalization. My great-grandmother in Portugal never ate healthy, whole foods like tempeh, seitan, nori seaweed, or almond milk because they were not part of her cultural culinary makeup. If she were still alive today, she certainly wouldn’t recognize those foods out of a lineup.
Again, I “get” what Pollan is trying to say — a slice of real cheese is better than Cheetos. However, this perfectly exemplifies how his attempt to come up with cutesy “-isms” can deliver inaccurate messages.
Another gripe I have with Pollan is his strongly anti-vegetarian viewpoint.
He goes as far as describing vegetarianism as an anti-social practice and one that is “in denial of reality” and a “sacrifice of the human identity”. In interviews, he has also hinted that vegan diets are not pleasurable, which is quite a presumptous statement. While vegan diets are not for everyone, vegans get as much pleasure from the food they eat as omnivores do.
Despite some unusually strong views on veganism and vegetarianism, as well as a recent reliance on “soundbite advice”, Pollan delivers a powerful, well thought-out, and thorough message that everyone can apply and benefit from.
PS: For a “Cliffs Notes” version of Pollan’s arguments, I highly recommend you read this piece he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2007, titled “Unhappy Meals”.
GRADE: A- (B+ if I take into account his “vegetarianism goes against human identity” argument which, really, is peripheral to his core philosophy)
Have your say! Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.