Michael Pollan is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and is the Director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley. He has written extensively about agriculture and the environment, and his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin 2006) won the 2007 James Beard Award for best food writing. His latest book, In Defense of Food (Penguin 2008), expands upon an article Pollan wrote for The New York Times Magazine, in which he argued that the only nutritional advice anyone needs can be summed up in three sentences: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Gourmet Associate Web Editor Christy Harrison spoke to him about the differences between real and fake food, why culinary clichés are good for your health, and how to survive on a diet of mostly whale blubber.
Christy Harrison: When your piece first came out in the Times Magazine urging people to ignore all the nutritional claims and eat only things their great-grandmothers would have recognized as food, some readers accused you of being anti-science. But you do actually reference a lot of scientific studies in this book—particularly agricultural and environmental science, and quite a few nutritional studies as well. What role do you think science should play in our diets?
Michael Pollan: Well, science has a legitimate role to play, there’s no question, and biology is an important way to understand both ends of the food chain—what’s happening in the plant and the animal and the soil, and also what happens when we ingest foods in our bodies. But I think science is playing altogether too large a role right now, because it turns out on close inspection to be a really primitive science. We still don’t know that much about the soil, about digestion, or about the precise chemical compounds people need from food.
The way I see it, the science of nutrition is kind of where surgery was in 1650. It’s promising, it’s on its way to a deep understanding of what’s going on, but it’s not quite time to put yourself in their hands for elective surgery. We might do well to look for other sources of knowledge about food until they’ve got it all figured out. I’m not saying we should reject it, I just think we have to be very humble, and the scientists need to be more humble. Scientists are very bad at telling you what they don’t understand.
CH: So even though nutritional science is still in the dark we need to have it keep going forward?
MP: Take the studies with a grain of salt; don’t act on them. I’m fascinated with them—I read them every day, and over time you kind of build up a picture. But the point is, that we tend to think that this is the last word on anything having to do with biology, and the fact is there are other ways of understanding that aren’t scientific and are nevertheless extremely valuable. If the book has an overarching point, it’s that we should pay more attention to culture and a little less attention to science, when it comes to food.
CH: You reference some interesting studies of world populations in the book, showing that there are many different ways of approaching food—some groups of people that eat no meat, some that eat almost all meat or almost all seafood. The one unifying factor with all those groups is that they have very low rates of “Western diseases” like diabetes and heart disease. It’s interesting—is there some sense in which culture is to be thanked for this?
MP: These traditional diets have worked through a cultural and evolutionary process of trial and error over many generations. People experiment, and over time they figure out what keeps them healthy. And with our ingenuity as a species we learn how to cook things and combine them, and very often we learn NOT to eat them.
And so these traditional cuisines have had a kind of beta testing that the Western diet has not had. The Western diet kind of springs full-blown out of the head of industry and food science. Presumably at various points in time, groups of people ate really badly and didn’t leave very many offspring, and now they’re gone. But the ones that have survived a long time in a given place eating a certain way have a local knowledge that is full of wisdom about health.
It’s striking, as you say, how many different diets there are that have kept people healthy for a very long time. There’s great hope in that—it tells you that there’s not just one way to eat. I mean, people have done very well on a diet of whale blubber and little else. The interesting thing is that there is this one diet that does seem to get everybody into trouble—and it gets some groups into more trouble than others, we’re learning—and that’s the Western diet. That’s been the real surprise in my education on this subject: Look at all the different ways that people have eaten and been healthy, and then there’s this one way that happens to be the way we’re eating, and it doesn’t work.
CH: You say in the book that the “big slab of meat at the center of the plate” is one of the hallmarks of the Western diet, but then there are those [healthy] populations that eat almost nothing but meat. So why do you argue that we should eat mostly plants?
MP: There are people who don’t follow the “eat mostly plants” advice, that’s absolutely true—the Masai in Africa, for example, eat almost all milk, meat, and blood. I’m not sure of the answer, but it may be that our meat is very different than wild meat, and that the Western diet is not just a collection of foods, but it’s also a way of creating those foods. Various industrial values have found their way into the slab of meat itself, because—let’s take a steak as an example—we’re feeding that steer in a very different way than a wild steer or even a Masai herded steer would be fed. They’re getting this diet of corn, antibiotics, and hormones, with the result that there’s much more saturated fat in the industrial animal, and many more hormones—not just because we’re administering hormones, but because we’re breeding the animals to be more productive and selecting for ones that have more hormones, and we’re also milking cattle way into pregnancy. And at the same time the diet of the animals has changed: Where the diet used to be about green plants, it’s now about grain. So yes, you should eat mostly plants, but if you’re going to eat meat, your meat should eat mostly plants. And I think that’s really a big part of where we’ve gone wrong with raising cattle in this country: feeding them grain.