When writing this original post in 2011, I had read Michael Pollan’s last four books and enjoyed them all; he’s a good writer, albeit a journalist, as he often reminds us in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” And so is Gary Taubes (“Good Calories – Bad Calories.”), but Michael Pollan is not a science journalist, and that’s a problem for him…and for me.
“The Botany of Desire” was the first book of his that I read. I bought in a Garden Center! His next three – all of which were “best sellers” – are for the most part about the food we eat. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a very good read; I recommend it. “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” is the most relevant to The Nutrition Debate. “Food Rules” is a compendium of “In Defense” and just icing on the book-sales cake. Think of it as a useful iteration of “In Defense of Food” for those with only a half hour of free time who want a quick reference for pocket or purse.
The mantra of both “In Defense of Food” and “Food Rules” is “EAT FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH, MOSTLY PLANTS.” As the newspaper publisher who started me out writing about nutrition – incidentally also a friend of Michael Pollan’s – wryly noted as a way of introducing me to his readers, “I have an interest in eating.” Clever. It’s fair to say we all EAT FOOD. NOT TOO MUCH is also a good “rule.” Restricted calorie diets have long been associated with longevity.
But then, in my opinion, Michael Pollan goes astray. I don’t know why in the third part of his mantra he buys into government’s advice to eat MOSTLY PLANTS. Or why he shifts away from healthy animal fats (now called saturated or “solid” fats since the 2010 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”) and towards a mostly “plant-based” diet.
Pollan ignores the good science in this area – even after lambasting the errors of the last sixty years and espousing the “alternative” hypotheses early on in “In Defense.” I don’t know why he aligns himself with the virtually-vegan-victuals point of view that our public health officials have consistently taken and are still trumpeting to the masses.
Perhaps his virtual visits to the abattoirs of the industrial beef-production “feed lots,” 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-prey-to trap of writing “to the market”, i. e., pandering to a perceived predisposed mindset of the reader. Trends, fashions, fads. I think it’s a miscalculation, or maybe greed. I can also easily imagine it was simply at the urging on his editor/publisher for commercial purposes.
There is no doubt that by 2011 Michael Pollan had become a Pied Piper, positioning himself out in front of the lemmings. To the extent his dietary advice is followed, he will lead them over the cliff, after a stop at the bank. Sure, I’m jealous, but I’m also confused. To be perfectly clear, Pollan does not advocate Paleo principles of eating.
That’s my problem. Pollan correctly identifies all of the dietary errors of the last 10,000 years, since the inception of the Neolithic era, suggesting to me that he is heading towards an evolutionarily informed way of eating. After setting us up to follow him back to “healthy eating,” he takes us instead in the direction that our government is currently leading us - the complete opposite of a healthy way of eating! Pollan would have us mostly avoid animal fats. He would have us use processed, polyunsaturated seed oils that are high in Omega 6’s, rancid and oxidized.
Philosophically, this lack of thematic consistency, which is more grounded in “journalism” or other principles than in science, damages his argument. These books ultimately fail to give us good advice in the MOSTLY PLANTS part.This column was not meant to be a book review, but that is what is has become. In the next Retrospective I will describe what is meant by “Paleo” nutrition and how its principles can be used in guiding us forward with the omnivore’s dilemma. Should we be guided by what our primordial ancestors ate and what they didn’t eat? Is there any basis, anthropologically or physiologically, for eating as they did? In a “nutshell,” should we use the principles of Paleolithic Nutrition to prescribe a way of healthy eating today? Next.