Luke Melia


January 29, 2007

Michael Pollan on Nutritionism

In this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan lays out a fascinating and moving case for changing our relationship with food. This is a must-read article. He writes in part:

But what about the elephant in the room — the Western diet? It might be useful, in the midst of our deepening confusion about nutrition, to review what we do know about diet and health. What we know is that people who eat the way we do in America today suffer much higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than people eating more traditional diets. (Four of the 10 leading killers in America are linked to diet.) Further, we know that simply by moving to America, people from nations with low rates of these “diseases of affluence” will quickly acquire them. Nutritionism by and large takes the Western diet as a given, seeking to moderate its most deleterious effects by isolating the bad nutrients in it — things like fat, sugar, salt — and encouraging the public and the food industry to limit them. But after several decades of nutrient-based health advice, rates of cancer and heart disease in the U.S. have declined only slightly (mortality from heart disease is down since the ’50s, but this is mainly because of improved treatment), and rates of obesity and diabetes have soared.

No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health.

As a (more or less) vegetarian from birth, I’ve looked at nutrition through the lens of “Is this way of eating I adopted from my parents a good one?” Again and again, scientific discoveries and studies in nutrition tended to support that my diet was, in fact, pretty healthy. Whole grains, organic vegetables, a little fish, not much refined sugar. The Atkins craze was a notable exception — never could place that one successfully in my worldview.

Pollan helped me see nutrition through a new lens. He delves into the politics, the causes the interplay of science and lobbyists and capitalism that shaped the way America has thought about food for the three decades I’ve been alive. It is a great eyeopener and I hope it will be for others as well.

In one part of the article, Pollan talks about the symbiotic, profitable relationship between Fast Food and Big Pharma. One sells cheap food that give people diseases, the other sells them meds to keep them alive anyway. The real financial loser is our nation with $200 billion in health care costs. I would love to see a health care policy from our next president that includes a Pollan-esque dietary reform!

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Read it.

2 Responses to “Michael Pollan on Nutritionism”

  1. Jess chimed in:

    Like brother, like brother. Will told us how wonderful Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was about a dozen times while we were in vegas.

  2. Cousin Pat chimed in:

    Like brother, like brother, like cousins. We’ve been recommending this article too: our generation’s food manifesto. I love the simple call to “Eat Food,” not all the ultra-processed stuff usually on offer. So I was really glad, but not surprised, to see you picked it up on your blog (I’ve been migrating to GoogleReader, so did not see it on the RSS).

    Say hi to the cute girls in your life from me and Meg.

Leave a Reply created 1999. ··· Luke Melia created 1976. ··· Live With Passion!