Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michael Pollan at Tufts

So, the ubiquitous Michael Pollan spoke this evening at the Cohen Auditorium on the main campus of Tufts.  It was thrilling to be there and it continues to be thrilling being part of this growing movement toward healthier food, bodies, and lives.  He talked about how he was flattered and even intimidated (!!) to be at the institution where Friedman is housed, and recognized that the work being done here is shaping the future of food, nutrition and public health.

Mr. Pollan had a lot of moving and inspirational ideas he shared with the audience; he talked about urban gardening in Milwaukee, the need for more integrated research on lifestyle choices and health, about pseudo-food, school nutrition, farm biodiversification and giant agro/food industry's grip on regulation, but what had the most impact on me were his criticisms of us as nutritionists -- the researchers and idea-generators who have taken on the responsibility of helping people figure out what they should eat.

He spent a lot of time discussing the ideology of nutritionism, compared with real nutrition science and loss of traditional cultural food knowledge.   He compared our understanding of nutrition to surgery in the 1600's, and while everyone laughed, I was struck by that truth.  We as nutritionists are so far from knowing or beginning to understand all the functions of nutrients in all their myriad metabolic processes; Western medicine along with agro/food industry seeks to isolate and encapsulate nutrients to "enhance" our health or banish them from our diets, under the guise of countering disease and promoting wellness, and meanwhile endocrinologists can't even tell us how to diagnose something as seemingly straightforward as a zinc deficiency.

Our perspective as nutritionists must turn back toward the health of whole foods, whole meals, and whole food systems.

The criticism of the dietary guidelines was also deserved; the general public should get a clear, understandable message about healthy foods, and the guidelines shouldn't be slick ways of incorporating the interests of corn & soy, sugar, big pork, big dairy and big beef. The guidelines I linked to above are from 2000; a quick reading reveals clear ties to industries like dairy, oilseeds and livestock. The most recent guidelines are contained in an 80-page publication that I doubt even most dietitians have taken the time to read thoroughly. I hope that our esteemed Tufts faculty members who are involved in forming the 2010 dietary guidelines will be able to take an objective standpoint, removing themselves from their industry-backed daily research, their focus on nutrients and nutritionism, and their reductionist approach (there's a chapter entitled "Sodium & Potassium") to generate suggestions that are honestly meant to guide people's everyday choices and improve public health.

I think Mr. Pollan couldn't have gone far enough in his criticism of the incestuous relationship between industry and research.  Research says olive oil is good for you -- industry goes "Hey, let's capitalize -- we can make mayo out of olive oil and call it health food!"  Research says too many carbs make people gain weight  -- industry is THRILLED because now there's a new, perfectly engineered market with a gaping hole for low-carb "food" products.  Labeling processed, industrially-manufactured "foods" with logos and icons indicating health benefits is misleading, confusing and disingenuous.  Who cares if vaguely butter-esque spreads are made with heart-healthy Omega-3's when it costs us the end of small local dairies, the loss of age-old knowledge of making a preserved food product oneself, the dietary lack of a naturally balanced whole food, petro-based fertilizers being dumped on farms growing only soybeans as far as the eye can see, running off and contaminating watersheds and foodsheds and keeping us chained to this dysfunctional industrial food system?  Not to mention, of course, perhaps the greatest loss nutritionism has brought about -- simply enjoying naturally rich, smooth, creamy real butter?

This is, to me, a major part of why Americans have the unhealthy relationship to food that Pollan called "orthorexia" -- the unhealthy obsession with eating healthy.  We've lost our ancient foodways that tell us how to eat balanced, whole foods in ways that will keep us happy, satisfied and healthy, and we're searching blindly for a replacement.  Right now there are two movements filling the space: the one of fast, standardized chains providing food-like edible products, filled with McDonald's, Chili's, Applebee's, Tastee Delite, Krispy Kreme, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut -- the list keeps growing -- and quickly spreading both their pseudo-food items and the diet-linked diseases that come with them, and what we're striving for: the return to farm-fresh local foods, seasonal eating habits, understanding what real food is and how to prepare it, savoring the knowledge and tastes of nature's edible bounty, cultivating healthy food systems that rely on nature (including biology, biochemistry, and all the ag sciences) to guide them, and food markets that act responsibly and don't treat edible/agricultural products the same as television sets (let's not even get into markets and price-driven farm production, that's another dysfunctional ballgame).

Obviously there's a cultural shift happening; we are up against some of the biggest and most powerful forces I can imagine, and I don't want to call it war, but that's kind of what it feels like.  I hope we win.


  1. One of my favorite quotes is "The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves." from Brillat-Savarin. The reason I like it so much is because I think it inclusive not just of food and nutrition, but of cultural nourishment. I think you hit the nail on the head. Many nutritionist are seeing things in this way, and I am glad to be a part of the myriad that does. Thanks for the post. Well written.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Yes, Brillat-Savarin had so much great philosophy about food, health & sociology. I hope that the US can move toward savoring and delighting in real, delicious, recognizable food, thereby nurturing healthy food systems.