Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #17: Michael Pollan: Pied Piper of Pseudo Paleo Prandial Principles

I’ve read Michael Pollan’s last four books and enjoyed them all; he’s a good writer. But he’s a journalist, as he often reminds us in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He’s not a science writer, and that is my quarrel with him. He “gets” a big part of the message I write about in this series (archived at, but he misses a critical part of the science (just how he misses is muddled in mystery), and so he “misses the mark.”

The first book of his that I read, “The Botany of Desire,” I bought in a Garden Center! But his latest three, all best sellers, are for the most part about the food we eat. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is the best read, but “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” is the most relevant to our discussion here. “Food Rules” is a compendium of “Defense” and just icing on the book sales cake. It is, however, a useful iteration of its predecessor for those with only an hour of free time or who want a quick reference for pocket or purse.

The mantra of “In Defense of Food” (recapitulated in outline in “Food Rules),” is “EAT FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH, MOSTLY PLANTS.” I completely buy in to the first two parts, both in overall concept and in virtually all the particulars. I also subscribe to his long prefatory rationale – the first two thirds of “Defense,” actually – almost in their entirety.

However, Pollan goes astray in the third part of his mantra when he buys into the government’s shift away from healthy animal fats (aka saturated or “solid” fats in the latest “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”) and towards a “mostly” plant-based diet. He ignores all the science in this area – even after lambasting all the errors of the last fifty years and apparently espousing the “alternative” hypotheses earlier in “Defense” – in order to align himself with the virtually vegan victuals point of view that our public health officials have taken up and are trumpeting to the masses.

Perhaps his virtual visits to the abattoirs of the industrial beef production industry, and his actual experience slaughtering a few chickens on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley while researching “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” affected him more than he realizes. Or perhaps it was the easy-to-fall-into trap of writing “to the market”, i. e., pandering to a perceived predisposed mindset of the reader. Even though he pulls his punches a bit with “mostly plants,” I think it is a miscalculation, if a calculation at all. Or, we could blame the pandering to the government line on his editor/publisher.

There is no doubt that Pollan has become a Pied Piper, though. He has put himself out in front of the lemming masses. To the extent his Pseudo Paleo dietary advice is followed, he will lead them over the abyss, after he stops at the bank.

Pollan himself, it should be noted, does not claim to be advocating Paleo principles of eating. His precepts initially resemble Paleo ideas, but in the final analysis they are decidedly not paleo (more on what Paleo is in the next installment). He correctly identifies all of the dietary errors for the last 10,000 years, suggesting that he is heading towards an evolutionarily informed way of eating. Then he doesn’t. After setting us up to follow him back to “healthy eating,” he takes us instead in the direction that our government, etc, etc, is currently leading us - the complete opposite of where we should be going. Avoiding animal fats, and cooking with Crisco and Wesson Oil (or any other polyunsaturated vegetable oils that are high in Omega 6 fatty acids), is not what we should be doing (more on this too in coming weeks). Again, we could blame this on his editors too. Maybe these two books, “In Defense of Food” and “Food Rules,” were their idea too, to capitalize on the enormous (and deserved) success of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Philosophically, this lack of thematic consistency, which l attribute to his “journalist” grounding, both in the good and bad ways described, damages the force of his argument. And due to the lack of grounding in science, on his part or his editor’s, these books ultimately fail to give good advice in the “mostly plants” section.

This column was not meant to be a book review, but that is what is has become. In the next installment I will describe what is meant by “Paleo Nutrition” and how its principles can be used in guiding us forward in the present milieu. Why should we be guided by what our primordial ancestors ate and what they didn’t eat? Is there a scientific basis, anthropologically, physiologically and biochemically speaking? And should we use it to prescribe a way of healthy eating today? Let’s explore that next.

© Dan Brown 4/10/11

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