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."

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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.   

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