Michael Pollan is the author of seven books: Second Nature, A Place of My Own, The Botany of Desire, which received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best nonfiction work of 2001 and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon, and the national bestellers, Food Rules, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food. He lives in Berkeley, California.
A longtime contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. His writing on food and agriculture has won numerous awards, including the Reuters/World Conservation Union Global Award in Environmental Journalism, the James Beard Award, and the Genesis Award from the American Humane Association.
Q. Why do we need to defend food?
We need to defend food by which I mean real food as opposed to processed food-like products—because it is under attack from nutrition scientists on one side, and the food industry on the other. Both encourage us to think in terms of nutrients, rather than foods, and both benefit from widespread confusion about something that should be quite simple: deciding what to eat.
Nutrition scientists are invested in the nutrient-by-nutrient approach because it’s easier to study simple nutrients rather than complex whole food. The food industry has a problem with traditional foods because it’s much more profitable design novel food products. So the manufacturers add complexity and convenience and do just about everything to our food except ever leave well enough alone. In fact, the scientists and the manufacturers are often allies. Both promote this idea that nutrients matter more than foods. Typically, the nutrition scientists highlight some amazingly important new nutrient, and then the manufacturers rush to reformulate food products to have more of that nutrient, so they can slap a health claim on it.
Q. Your last book The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published in 2006. When did you start writing this new book and what was the impetus behind it?
I started researching In Defense of Food immediately after publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As I traveled across the country talking about that book, I found that readers were, first, astounded to learn what they were eating, and second, eager to know how they might change the way they eat. I was surprised to discover how confused so many of us are about this most elemental of creaturely activities: figuring out a healthy diet. So I began researching the whole question of food and health to see if I could come up with a few simple rules of eating. To my surprise, I discovered that the scientists had less to teach us about eating healthfully than I expected—that the science of nutrition is still a very primitive science—and that there is a much more reliable source of wisdom on the subject. That wisdom is in the form of traditional foods, cuisines, and food cultures, which are the product of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of trial and error figuring out how to keep people healthy using whatever grows in a specific place. Culture has more to teach us about how to eat well than science. That was a big surprise to me.
Q. The Omnivore’s Dilemma clearly struck a nerve with readers. It not only was a national bestseller and named a best book of the year by 5 publications including the New York Times, but it also galvanized a new national conversation on food, as evidenced by regular news articles and food pieces that cite your book. Did the response surprise you?
I was flabbergasted by the response. It told me that the culture was read to have a new conversation about food, and that people were deeply troubled by the American way of eating. You never know when you start a book just where the culture will be when you finish it. But between the obesity epidemic, food safety issues (like e coli and mad cow disease), concern about animal welfare, and a growing recognition that the American way of eating is making us sick, people seem ready to take a good hard look, both at the system as a whole and, even more importantly, at their own approach to food. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was very much about the food system; this book is about the individual eater—and we don’t have to wait for the system to change to change the way we eat. As a matter of fact, by changing the way we eat, we’ll not only be healthier, but our food dollars will bring about change in the larger system. This is one of those cases where the personal is political, and to do the right thing for yourself is to do the right thing for the land, the farmers, the animals. We don’t get too many opportunities like that.
Q. You call this book a manifesto and indeed it is much more opinionated and programmatic than your other books. Was it difficult for you to write this way?
It was actually surprising easy to write this way. Since The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve been engaged in a kind of conversation with my readers, both in person and on-line, and this book flowed naturally out of that give-and-take. It’s a conversational book, both in tone and in conception. Researching The Omnivore’s Dilemma gave me a thoroughgoing education in how the American food system works, so the question naturally arises: what are the practical implications of that knowledge for how one should eat? What I learned fundamentally changed the way I eat; this book is my attempt to share that with readers.
Q. What is “Nutritionism” and why is it good for the food industry but bad for our health?
Nutritionism is the predominant ideology about food in America. It’s not a science but a set of unexamined assumptions about food that shape our thinking about it without our even being aware. The first assumption is that a food is a collection of nutrients, and that it’s the nutrients that matter. Since nutrients are invisible—or visible only to scientists—it follows that we need expert help in order to eat properly. So nutritionism underwrites the power of nutrition scientists and food scientists and government—the implication is, it’s so complicated we can’t eat without their help and advice. Another equally destructive assumption of nutritionism is that the whole point of eating is to advance our physical health. This is a very narrow and novel idea that, ironically, has done nothing to improve our health. To the contrary, our obsession with eating healthily—with nutritionism—has coincided with a decline in dietary health—with the explosion of obesity and diabetes over the past 25 years. Nutritionism is ruining our health, not to mention our meals.
One of my goals in In Defense of Food is to offer the perspective of the visitor from Mars, the outsider who can step back and recognize the absurdities of nutritionist thinking, and remind people it wasn’t always this way, that eating is also about pleasure and community and engaging with nature, and that we can escape from the straitjacket of nutritionism. This is why I believe it’s much to my advantage I have no professional training in nutrition. That training is an indoctrination in nutritionism.
Q. How is the “Western Diet” making us sick?
We don’t know, exactly. What we do know is this: the Western Diet is responsible for the fact that people who eat as we do—lots of refined carbohydrates, lots of processed foods and meat, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—suffer much higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other diet-related diseases than people who eat any number of more traditional diets.
We don’t know the exact mechanism by which our diet is making us sick—whether it’s all the fat in the diet, the meat or the refined carbohydrates, or the sheer abundance of calories. Scientists disagree. But this uncertainty need not hang us up. We don’t need to know why this is happened to know that it is happening and, very simply, that if we’re concerned about our health we should and can stop eating this way. Because we also know that by escaping from the Western Diet we can reverse the health problems associated with it. This is stunningly hopeful news. Let the scientists argue about what in the Western diet is making us sick. Much more important is to simply