Tag: Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan’s Simple Rules for Eating

What if eating right wasn’t actually all that complicated?

What if you read enough to see patterns develop, to realize that when you stripped away all the confusing bits that maybe the skeleton underneath was actually pretty simple?

This is what happened to author Michael Pollan a few years ago when he started doing research to try and figure out what he should be eating.

Most of the time when I embark on such an investigation, it quickly becomes clear that matters are much more complicated and ambiguous — several shades grayer — than I thought going in. Not this time. The deeper I delved into the confused and confusing thicket of nutritional science, sorting through the long-running fats versus carb wars, the fiber skirmishes and the raging dietary supplement debates, the simpler the picture gradually became. I learned that in fact science knows a lot less about nutrition than you would expect – that in fact nutrition science is, to put it charitably, a very young science. It’s still trying to figure out exactly what happens in your body when you sip a soda, or what is going on deep in the soul of a carrot to make it so good for you, or why in the world you have so many neurons – brain cells! – in your stomach, of all places. It’s a fascinating subject, and someday the field may produce definitive answers to the nutritional questions that concern us, but — as nutritionists themselves will tell you — they’re not there yet. Not even close. Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650 – very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? I think I’ll wait awhile.

The diet industry brings in billions and billions of dollars every year and some of the latest internet celebrities are food and fitness models/gurus. Is it any surprise? Our survival and well-being depends very largely on our health and (arguably) ours looks. The diet industry taps directly into one of our basic survival instincts. Food is cultural.

There is good money to be had if you can find the magical thing that will help people lose weight and feel better. Unfortunately, there is also good money to be had in treating people for illnesses that occur from poor diet and lack of exercise. In short, complexity is good for business. (This is a misaligned incentive problem of the highest order.)

… consider first the complexity that now attends this most basic of creaturely activities. Most of us have come to rely on experts of one kind or another to tell us how to eat — doctors and diet books, media accounts of the latest findings in nutritional science, government advisories and food pyramids, the proliferating health claims on food packages. We may not always heed these experts’ advice, but their voices are in our heads every time we order from a menu or wheel down the aisle in the supermarket. Also in our heads today resides an astonishing amount of biochemistry. How odd is it that everybody now has at least a passing acquaintance with words like “antioxidant,” “saturated fat,” “omega-3 fatty acids,” “carbohydrates,” “polyphenols,” “folic acid,” “gluten,” and “probiotics”? It’s gotten to the point where we don’t see foods anymore but instead look right through them to the nutrients (good and bad) they contain, and of course to the calories — all these invisible qualities in our food that properly understood, supposedly hold the secret to eating well.

But for all the scientific and pseudoscientific food baggage we’ve taken on in recent years we still don’t know what we should be eating. Should we worry more about the fats or the carbohydrates? Then what about the “good” fats? Or the “bad” carbohydrates, like high-fructose corn syrup? How much should we be worrying about gluten? What’s the deal with artificial sweeteners? Is it really true that this breakfast cereal will improve my son’s focus at school or that other cereal will protect me from a heart attack? And when did eating a bowl of breakfast cereal become a therapeutic procedure, anyway?

For Pollan, the picture actually got clearer the further he traveled down the rabbit hole.

While his research uncovered the fact the we don’t know a whole lot about nutrition — there’s a lot of pseudoscience here — one obvious fact seems to recur: populations that eat a Western diet are generally less healthy than those who eat more traditional diets.

What does Pollan mean by “more traditional diet”?

These diets run the gamut from ones very high in fat (the Inuit in Greenland subsist largely on seal blubber) to ones high in carbohydrate (Central American Indians subsist largely on maize and beans) to ones very high in protein (Masai tribesmen in Africa subsist chiefly on cattle blood, meat, and milk), to cite three rather extreme examples. But much the same holds true for more mixed traditional diets. What this suggests is that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets. Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us now are eating.

Research has shown that moving away from the Western diet can reduce your chances of developing the chronic illnesses it causes. Pollan believes this shift is most easily done by coming up with a set of simple rules to govern how we eat and interact with food. (This idea reminded us a lot of Donald Sull’s work in Simple Rules. More specifically his decision rules which help us to set boundaries, prioritize, and know when to stop an action.)

No one is quite sure which parts of the Western diet are the most destructive. There are a lot of confounding variables here — one type of food or macronutrient is tough to isolate. Gary Taubes thinks it’s the easily digestible carbohydrates. Others disagree. And since we’re not quite sure, Pollan thinks we should stick with a set of heuristics to get as close as we can.

Pollan curated these rules into a book called Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Let’s take a closer look at some of our favorites.

Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food

Agriculture has come a long way since your great grandmother was born. Many chemicals have been created to both enhance the flavor of food and to help with its shelf life. While all these additives aren’t necessarily bad for you it’s still smart to avoid them most of the time. So if you think great grandma wouldn’t be able to pronounce or understand most of the words on that box of frozen lasagna you’re holding it’s best to pass it up. Speaking of that frozen entree …

Eat Only Foods That Have Been Cooked by Humans.

Pollan means buying raw ingredients and making the food yourself, rather than buying food pre-cooked and pre-packaged. Corporations use too much junk in cooking your food. This is the biggest predictor of a healthy diet.

Eat All the Junk Food You Want as Long as You Cook It Yourself.

This is an interesting rule because generally we are trying to either remove or go around obstacles and in this instance we are very purposefully adding one. If you have a sweet tooth there is nothing wrong with eating cake on occasion. The key here is to eat those unhealthful foods only occasionally. Taking the time to make the food means that you have to be incredibly motivated to have that cake. (And you’re probably not going to whip up a bag of Oreos or potato chips.)

If You’re Not Hungry Enough to Eat an Apple, Then You’re Probably Not Hungry

This is another obstacle style rule, but it also offers you the opportunity to get better in tune with your hunger. Are you grabbing that candy bar from the vending machine at two o’clock in the afternoon because you are hungry or because you do that same thing at two o’clock every day? There are many reasons why we eat and hunger is only one of them.

Stop Eating Before You’re Full

This probably sounds a bit crazy to the average North American. In our society we eat because we are hungry and we stop because we are full. This is our tradition, but in many other cultures the goal of eating is to simply stop the hunger, which is actually quite different. Try this experiment for yourself. Try to wait until you are hungry for your next meal. You want to be able to feel it. Then as you are eating try to be mindful of the moment you stop feeling hungry. You’ll notice that this moment comes quite a few bites before that full feeling comes.

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Food Rules feels like a succinct tool to help you navigate the confusing nutritional landscape. It’s a quick read that is packed with a lot of information. Imitate Bruce Lee and Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.

Still Interested? The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is one of the best food books we’ve ever read.

Coevolution and Artificial Selection

“The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classic example of coevolution. In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree, the two parties acton each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes. Consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side …”

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In The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World Michael Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species—the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato—and the human desires that link their destinies to our own.

“Its broader subject,” he writes, “is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world.”

It’s a simple question really: Did I choose to plant these tulips or did they make me do it? Pollan concludes that, in fact, both statements are true.

Did the plant make him do it? Only in the sense that the flower “makes” the bee pay it a visit.

Evolution doesn’t depend on will or intention to work; it is almost by definition, and unconscious, unwilled process. All it requires are beings compelled, as all plants and animals are, to make more of themselves by whatever means trial and error present. Sometimes an adaptive trait is so clever it appears purposeful: the ant that “cultivates” its own gardens of edible fungus, for instance, or the pitcher plant that “convinces” a fly it’s a piece of rotting meat. But such traits are clever only in retrospect. Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.

The book is as much about the human desires that connect us to plants as it is about the plants themselves.

“Our grammar,” Pollan writes, “might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject.”

Charles Darwin didn’t start out The Origin of Species with an account of his new theory, rather, he began with a foundation he felt would be easier for people to get their heads around. The first chapter was a special case of natural selection called artificial selection.

Artificial wasn’t used in the sense of fake but as in things that reflect human will. He wrote about a wealth of variation of species from which humans selected the traits that will be passed down to future generations. In this sense, human desire plays the role of nature, determining what constitutes “fitness.” If people could understand that, they would understand nature’s evolution.

Pollan argues that the crisp conceptual lie “that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred.”

Whereas once humankind exerted its will in the relatively small arena of artificial selection (the arena I think of, metaphorically, as a garden) and nature held sway everywhere else, today the force of our presence is felt everywhere. It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off an pure nature begins.

We are shaping things in ways that Darwin could never have imagined.

For a great many species today, “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force.

Artificial selection, it appears, has become at least as powerful as natural selection.

Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or white leopard’s. If those last two species have a future, it will be because of human desire; strangely enough, their survival now depends on what amounts to a form of artificial selection.

The main characters of the book—the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato—are four of the world’s success stories. “The dogs, cats, and horses of the plant world, these domesticated species are familiar to everyone,” Pollan writes.

Apples

In the wild a plant and its pests are continually coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor. But coevolution ceases in an orchard of grafted trees, since they are genetically identical from generation to generation. The problem very simply is that the apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when they’re grown from seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples may have once possessed. Suddenly total victory is in the pests’ sight — unless, that is, people come to the tree’s rescue, wielding the tools of modern chemistry.

Put another way, the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature (where it still has to live, after all) has been dangerously compromised. Reduced to the handful of genetically identical clones that suit our taste and agricultural practice, the apple has lost the crucial variability — the wildness — that sexual reproduction confers.

The Tulip

The tulip’s genetic variability has in fact given nature–or, more precisely, natural selection–a great deal to play with. From among the chance mutations thrown out by a flower, nature preserves the rare ones that confer some advantage–brighter color, more perfect symmetry, whatever. For millions of years such features were selected, in effect, by the tulip’s pollinators–that is, insects–until the Turks came along and began to cast their own votes. (The Turks did not learn to make deliberate crosses till the 1600s; the novel tulips they prized were said simply to have “occurred.”) Darwin called such a process artificial, as opposed to natural, selection, but from the flower’s point of view, this is a distinction without a difference: individual plants in which a trait desired by either bees or Turks occurred wound up with more offspring. Though we self-importantly regard domestication as something people have done to plants, it is at the same time a strategy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires–even our most idiosyncratic notions of beauty–to advance their own interests. Depending on the environment in which a species finds itself, different adaptations will avail. Mutations that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment that’s been shaped by human desire.

In the environment of the Ottoman Empire the best way for a tulip to get ahead was to have absurdly long petals drawn to a point fine as a needle. In drawings, paintings, and ceramics (the only place the Turks’ ideal of tulip beauty survives; the human environment is an unstable one), these elongated blooms look as though they’d been stretched to the limit by a glassblower. The metaphor of choice for this form of tulip petal was the dagger. … Though these … traits are not uncommon in species tulips, attenuated petals are virtually unknown in the wild, which suggests that the Ottoman ideal of tulip beauty—elegant, sharp, and masculine—was freakish and hard-won and conferred no advantage in nature.

All in all The Botany of Desire is one of the best books I’ve read on how our Apollonian desire for control and order increasingly butts up against the natural Dionysian wildness.

America’s Food Crisis: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

As a follow up to the Michael Pollan food as culture post (on his new book Cooked), a reader passed along a link to this video on Pollan’s 2006 classic The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was deservedly called one of the most important food politics books of all time. In the video below, Pollan and other prominent chefs and foodies weigh in on the current state of the American food industry.

The Omnivores’s Dilemma came from Pollan’s realization that Americans didn’t know where their food came from. Pollan wanted to do “a kind of detective story following the food back to the source.” The book explores the state of food in America by examining three different food chains: corn, grass, and the forest.

This book, along with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, changed my relationship with food.

Michael Pollan: Food As Culture

We’re cooking less and buying more prepared meals.

Since the mid-sixties, the amount of time spent preparing meals has fallen by half. While the global trend is the same, Americans lead the way, spending less time cooking than any other country.

One thing we do more of, however, is talk about cooking.

Celebrity chefs are everywhere with books and television shows. The sad reality is that we spend more time watching food shows than we do thinking about and preparing our own meals.

Food is Cultural

Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, explores “how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.”

Pollan argues that taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the food system healthier and more sustainable.

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

What constitutes “cooking” takes place along a spectrum, as indeed it has for at least a century, when packaged foods first entered the kitchen and the definition of “scratch cooking” began to drift. (Thereby allowing me to regard my packaged ravioli with sage-butter sauce as a culinary achievement.) Most of us over the course of a week find ourselves all over that spectrum. What is new, however, is the great number of people now spending most nights at the far end of it, relying for the preponderance of their meals on an industry willing to do everything for them save the heating and the eating.

This is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Cooking changes your relationship to food. Instead of consuming something, now you’re making it. Meals become achievements, expressions, discovery, and relationships.

I discovered there was much to learn from attempting, even if only just once, … more ambitious and time-consuming forms of cookery, knowledge that might not at first seem terribly useful but in fact changes everything about one’s relationship to food and what is possible in the kitchen. … By itself, this added increment of eating and drinking pleasure would have been enough to justify all the so-called work.

Of course, we never have time to cook. We reason that cooking, let alone baking bread or fermenting something, is probably not the best use of our time. We are so easily convinced that we’re better off staying at the office late and picking something up on the way home. This, after all, lets us do what we do best and lets other people do what they do best.

Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization. It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house. I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking. Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another—our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves—anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better. (I recently heard about an agency that will dispatch a sympathetic someone to visit your elderly parents if you can’t spare the time to do it yourself.) It seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.

Dividing labour up in this economic way “obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences.”

When connections are not visible they are easy to forget.

Where were your clothes made? Where did your coffee beans come from? What conditions did the chicken you’re about to eat for supper enjoy? Most of these are hidden from us.

To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.

Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the “home-meal replacement” have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated. To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility, too, to become, at the very least, a little less glib in one’s pronouncements.

Pollan warns that within another generation or so, it’s possible that “cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.”

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In the video below, the NYT brought together Pollan and Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, to talk about home cooking, the food industry, and navigating a typical supermarket.

Michael Pollan and Michael Moss visit a typical supermarket and talk about cooking and the food industry.

Cooked reminds us that food is so much more than what we read on the label.

What Facts Do We Know About Food?

A summary of a recent talk by Michael Pollan about what we know about food.

We are ignoring the elephant in the room when we only talk nutrients — this way of eating is killing us.

For example by demonising fat in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we ended up with margarine and a whole lot of low fat processed goods on the supermarket shelves (which are still there, by the way). It gave a ‘free pass’ to eat and drink as much as you want because it was low fat.

But instead we became fat.

It’s really hard to study food – it’s extremely complex. It’s not like studying pharmaceuticals. “There’s no placebo for broccoli.” Many food studies rely on surveying people (epidemiological surveillance type studies). There are no tight controls and it’s easy for people to forget what they eat or even lie on the survey. So the data has problems.

Nutritional ‘science’ is a young science “it’s where surgery was in the 1650s.”

So what facts do we know about food?

  • Every time we remove a nutrient — so that we can just consume the nutrient — it doesn’t work like it should, as it does in the whole food.
  • Populations that eat a Western diet (that is, processed foods) have a high prevalence of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. (These are diseases of the West.)
  • Populations that eat traditional diets, rarely get chronic diseases.
  • People who get off the Western diet revert the markers of chronic diseases — which means they get better or totally heal themselves.

In the next 10 years, 1 in 3 kids will develop type 2 diabetes — unless we change the way we eat.

The best way to take control of our food — away from corporations — is to cook at home.

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Still curious? If you haven’t read Pollan’s books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you’re missing out on a lot of wisdom.

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