Pollan-Nation: One Man's Defense of Food

I admit it: I used to be a consumer of cereal bars. I was busy, harried and needed to get my whole-grain goodness in a box every morning. But that was before I read Michael Pollan's books.   Who is Michael Pollan, and why should I let him tell me what to eat?

"I'm not a scientist, I'm not an expert, I'm not a foodie," Pollan told "Nightline's" John Donvan. "I'm just a guy looking at our food supply, figuring out what I should feed my kid. And I looked at the science in great detail and was very disappointed to find that nutritional science remains pretty sketchy. It's really amazing actually, how little is known about what we need to be healthy."


Pollan may not be a scientist, but he is a best-selling author, journalist, the Knight professor of Journalism at University of California-Berkeley, a contributing writer to the New York Times, lecturer, gardener, husband, father, thinker. His most recent book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," spent six weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List and is being sold and feverishly bought all around the globe. His advice is simple.

Eat food.

Not too much.

Mostly plants.

People are listening to Pollan's message, and he says it all started with a small road trip.

"I was driving down Route 5 in California from San Francisco and hitting a stretch of road where suddenly this smell came up; you know assaulted me, this incredible smell of I don't know what," Pollan recalled. "It didn't smell like cow manure, which is not a bad smell when you experience it in New England. It smelled like the men's room at the old Port Authority on Eighth Avenue. It was really horrific. And it was another five miles before I hit this feed lot, which is right on the road. I mean the cattle come right up to the highway, and it is black with black cows and cow manure as far as you can see."

The experience of seeing cows feeding not on grass in a pasture, but on the side of a highway, was the beginning of Pollan's mission.

Orthorexia and Nutritionism

Pollan's book explains a new eating disorder called "orthorexia."  

"There is a new eating disorder in America that they call orthorexia, which is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating," Pollan said. "I mean, to spend all your time, you know, counting nutrients in your food and obsessing as to whether this is healthiest possible thing you could eat; that could ruin your life."   

Pollan also says that counting those nutrients is a misguided way to manage your diet. Unfortunately, he says, Americans have been doing this since the experts started telling us to do so.  

"Nutritionism is the word I use for the kind of modern American ideology of food," he said. "It's not a science, nutritionism, it's an ideology, okay? It's kind of the unspoken assumptions we bring to food. One is that the nutrient is the important unit and that if you get enough of the good nutrients and avoid the bad nutrients enough, you know, the Omega 3s, you've done well, you'll be healthy, you'll live forever."  

Many people do believe that a diet rich in nutrients such as Omega 3 fatty acids is the key to good health. But Pollan says that if you eat a natural and varied diet, you will get all the nutrients you need. Omega 3 fatty acids don't need to be added to orange juice, or eggs, or chocolate, or bread. Pollan also points to historical examples of foods touted by experts or food marketers that proved to be unhealthy.   

"I grew up eating margarine," he said. "My mother, even though she knew better at some level, put margarine on the table. And she was doing it because there was this public health campaign, you know, [to] avoid saturated fat. And you had the margarine makers going on about the health benefits. The whole time [my mother] would say, 'I know some day they are going to figure out that butter is better for you than margarine.' And we used to laugh. I mean, that was such a ridiculous idea. But, of course, it turned out to be true. We replaced a possibly mildly unhealthy fat, called saturated fat, in butter with what has turned out to be a demonstrably lethal fat, trans fat, in margarine."   

Pollan says that the history of food in the modern world is one margarine after another.  

"In general, I'm inclined to stick with the tried and true when it comes to food," he said. "And let the novelties be tested for a while. I think we need to begin to spend more on food, both in terms of money and in time. I know that's not a popular message. People like their convenience foods. But this experiment of outsourcing our food preparation to corporations has failed us. I mean, it's left us really unhealthy, really unsatisfied. And I think it's undermined the family life and undermined the community."

'Edible Food-Like Substances'

Pollan's message at its core is to stop listening to the food marketers, stop following the latest diet trend, and go back to listening to your mother.

Eat food.

Not too much.

Mostly plants.

But if we aren't eating food, what are we eating?

"There is food and there is what I call edible food-like substances," Pollan said. "These are things we've invented in the last 50 years or so that, you know, smell like food, taste like food, look like food, but they're very different than the kinds of things people ate a hundred years ago."

What's the difference between food and edible food-like substances? Pollan says it can be difficult to tell one from the other sometimes, so he's come up with some rules to follow (CLICK HERE for more on Pollan's tips and advice).

Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.

Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.

Get out of the supermarket whenever possible, and try and buy local.

Pay more, eat less.

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are.

Cook. And, if you can, plant a garden.

Eat like an omnivore.

The High Cost of Cheap Food

Pollan says simple foods like oats become expensive when they're re-packaged to provide novelty and convenience.

"I can buy a pound of rolled oats for 89 cents for organic in my market, and that's a lot of food because they're really light. It's a commodity. You can't distinguish your rolled oats from someone else's," he said. "The price will continually be going down because someone else will figure out a way to make them a little more cheaply."

"So the way to make money is to sell, say, something like Cheerios," he continued. "Take those rolled oats, give them a little shape, give them a brand, suddenly you're charging four bucks for even less than a pound of rolled oats. That's good money. You, you make money in the processing, the value added."

Taking it one step further, the real money is made when the people who make cereal start making cereal bars.

"You make a cereal bar with a little layer of synthetic milk. You've seen these in the store. This is the latest way to sell cereal. That's even better. Then you're, you're charging 10, 15 dollars for, for a little thing of oats. And you, what are you selling? You're selling convenience because you don't even need to pour milk and put 'em in a bowl anymore. You can eat it on the way to the school bus or in the car."

The high cost of cheap food.  But there is hope. People are changing their behaviors because of Pollan, whose book has resonated with top chefs and home cooks; with farmers and ranchers; with urban dwellers and suburbanites. And even with this reporter, who has given up her cereal bars.

Special Thanks To:
The Berkeley Ecology Center
Berkeley Farmers Market
Marin Organic
Star Route Farms, Bolinas, Calif.
Yale University
Yale Sustainable Food Project