Michael Pollan and Time Travel

April 23, 2011

I have been reading some Michael Pollan lately, and I must say, I’m impressed. First I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then In Defense of Food.

I do, however, take offense on a few points. Pollan’s effort to move the American diet back in time is a huge step in the right direction, but he doesn’t go far enough. He seems to think we should step back 100 years or so and give it another shot. I think we should wind the clocks back even further, more like 10,000 years. Surprisingly, this seemingly major time step only leads to a few differences.

Specifically, my primary complaint is that he supports consumption of wheat in whole-grain products. I’m also not a huge fan of the steps he takes to arrive at the “mostly plants” portion of his mantra. Let’s dive in.

On page 110 of In Defense of Food, Pollan references a study* that proves very definitively that replacing the highly refined “Wonder Breads” of the Standard American Diet (SAD) with slightly less refined whole-grain products makes one healthier. Apparently, this allows him to conclude that consumption of wheat is acceptable. I hate to do so, but I’m afraid I have to raise the “bad science flag” here.

Given that the preponderance of one’s calories will come from wheat, less refined is better – hard to disagree with that. Unfortunately, wheat in the diet is not a given, and Pollan misses the possibility of a no-wheat diet being even more healthful.

It seems that wheat gets a pass from Pollan because it has been consumed by humans since before vegetable oils and white sugar hit the menu hard, resulting in a serious decline in human health. What he misses, is that human health was already hurting from the (only slightly) less recent addition of wheat.

Roughly 10,000 years ago, when Americans settled as farmers and wheat invaded the dinner table in an unprecedented departure from the previous human diet, we got shorter, weaker, and our brains shrunk. It would be hard to argue that any of that is good.

In Defense of Food, Pollan presents his dietary mantra: “Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.” He explains that “food” means real, whole food that is made by the earth, and not by humans in a factory. I don’t understand how bread fits in this definition – one would be hard-pressed to find bread occurring organically in nature. Whole-grain products are superior to those made with white flour, but wheat is a bad idea no matter how you slice it. [Read here how gluten destroys your body.]

Pollan presents an abbreviated version of the lipid-hypothesis story: how animal fat and cholesterol came to be unfairly demonized in American nutritionism. Somehow, he still maintains a (thankfully lessened) lipophobic view of the ancient dietary staple that is other animals.

In what can only be viewed as a regretful acquiescence to the national dogma, Pollan suggests that our diets should be “mostly plants” with no solid scientific reasoning. Saturated fat has never been shown to have a positive correlation with CHD or CVD (example), and dietary cholesterol does not elevate blood cholesterol, which does not cause heart disease.

Plants have their place on our plates (I enjoy veggies myself), but they are by no means required, and certainly don’t offer anything that can’t be found in properly raised animal products. In fact, the opposite is true, you’d be hard-pressed to achieve the nutrient density provided by meat with a plant-dominant diet.

Why does Pollan land on a plant-heavy diet? It seems to me that he is simply aligning with the majority, despite the fact that history and good science dictate otherwise.

The Bottom Line:

Pollan makes huge strides in the right direction, and builds solid arguments for necessary modifications to the SAD. Sure, he doesn’t get it all right, but he has the unenviable task of convincing the ill-informed masses that most of what they know is wrong – while I sit here, in large part preaching to the converted. Pollan is still a huge asset and valuable thinker in the fight against SAD.


*David R. Jacobs and Lyn M. Steffen “Nutrients, Foods, and Dietary Patterns as Exposures in Research: A Framework for Food Synergy,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003; 78 (suppl): 508S-13S.

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