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Jan 28, 2007 08:21 AM

A good story in the New York Times - by Michael Pollan

The Age of Nutritionism
--How Scientists have ruined the way we eat

"Unhappy Meals"
-30 years of nutritional science has made Americans sicker, fatter and less well nourished. A plea for a return to plain old food

by Michael Pollan

(author of The Omnivore's Dilemma)


"Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases."

"Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are."

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    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      That's what I thought when I started the article - for me it was preaching to the choir. And I found the tone lecturing. Then he started to draw me in with the historical aspect, which does interest me. But I had to go do something else. So I shouldn't bother?

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Nothing new from a nutritional science perspective. But I found the historical, political, and sociological analysis of the Western Diet to be fascinating. If anyone else has written a similar analysis, I'd like to hear about it.

      2. I am still learning about this stuff, so I keep finding fresh nuggets of information.

        "Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:

        4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.

        This is what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes."

        "Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal."

        1. What's the payoff for giving up the profound hedonistic pleasure of satiety? More years of chronic hunger?

          Being a spoiled Berkeley foodie, I'm at the point of diminishing returns as far as quality of my food.

          18 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I don't necessarily see a correlation in the following:

            ---giving up satiety ---> no deliciousness?
            ---better quality ---> chronic hunger?

            1. re: grocerytrekker

              I have trouble with the assumption that eating better quality will automatically lead to eating less. I can and have certainly pigged out on junk food, but I can also eat great quantities of good quality stuff. The small square of good dark chocolate (in place of a larger quantity of low quality milk chocolate) trick worked for me for about a week. And the dark chocolate tends to come in larger bars...

              1. re: julesrules

                What extra pounds I'm carrying were all produced by top-quality food.

                Pollan may have a newbie's naivete.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I think that Pollan as well as most other food writers fail to highlight the fact that it is not just fast food chains, but slow food and gourmet restaurants that produce low nutrition high calorie meals. In a typical meal you get a very large quantity of noodles or bread, tons of cheese and oil and very little in the way of fresh vegetables. At steak house you tend to get a lot of steak but again very little fruit or vegtables and almost none fresh. Deserts are just as sugary although slow food and gourmet tend to use more cane sugar than high fructose corn syrup prevelant in fast food.

                2. re: julesrules

                  Yes...julesrules, I do wonder about the assumption that eating better quality will AUTOMATICALLY lead to eating less. Is there such an assumption?

                  The writer thinks that perhaps quality may have a bearing on quantity. He could be wrong, but it's an interesting assumption to ponder.

                  Michael Pollan is doing a great job educating the general public, not so much the health-conscious foodies (ah, an objectionable chowhound word, but that's the accepted word in the media). However, he argues with intelligence, and I don't mind reading his stuff. I always pick up a few good morsels of info.

                  1. re: grocerytrekker

                    Jim Leff thinks "foodie" is an epithet but that's highly debatable. Here's the Not About Food topic on that:


                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Thanks, Robert.

                      Right, food snob, trendie.... ech. Much worse.

                      If "foodie" is too cute, "fooder" might sound better?

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Hasn't C|Net revisionism deep-sixed the epithet? (There was another thread somewhere about the Case of the Missing Mission Statement.)

                      2. re: grocerytrekker

                        Yes, I realize I am not the target audience :) And I agree with 90% of what he says - that I've actually managed to read. Because somehow his tone really annoys me. But that is a personal issue with his writing.

                        1. re: grocerytrekker

                          This particularl article may be more oriented towards the "general public" But, have you read Omnivore's Dilemma? It's Pollan's best work. In fact, I think it's one of the best pieces of food writing ever written.

                          1. re: Morton the Mousse

                            Publishing a 10,000-word article in the New York Times Magazine is a good way to ensure that the general public's not exposed to the message.

                            I skimmed some of Omnivore's Dilemma in a bookstore, and forced myself to read the excerpt in Best Food Writing 2006. Pollan (or at least his authorial personal) seems to eat first with his intellect and neuroses, and his appetite and senses get the leftovers.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              His first book was a gardening book. (Excellent) His second was about building a shed in his backyard. (Seemed to be flailing around for a subject.) Then he moved to Berkeley for work. I bet he discovered food here, probably from meeting people like Alice Waters. It's not his first love. In fact, didn't he start out as en editor?

                              1. re: Glencora

                                He started writing about food years before he moved to Berkeley. And before that he was writing about gardening, which he's been into since he was four.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Yes, I love his gardening writing. Second Nature partly inspired my own garden memoir that was published a few years ago. I simply meant to say that I think he's a writer first and a food person second.

                                  1. re: Glencora

                                    Second Nature has the passion the lack (or sublimation) of which makes me avoid his food writing. Compare the first few pages of that book with those of The Omnivore's Dilemma.

                        2. re: julesrules

                          I think Pollan is saying that it is hard to overeat fresh fruits and vegetables because they have fiber and are not as calorically dense as processed foods. So, if your eating unprocessed foods you simply would not be able to eat the same amount of calories as the processed food with the fiber removed. Also, many processed foods have appetite stimulants added -- salt, sugar... to entice you to eat more and that cause your body to crave more.

                        3. re: grocerytrekker

                          It's the other way around. Satiety is the opposite of hunger.

                        4. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Robert, I think you've gone so long without eating junk food that you've forgotten how easy it is to chronically overeat crap. Feasting on a five course Italian meal on Saturday night is one thing. Stuffing your face with chips, cookies, and soda 24/7 is something else entirely. I think Pollan is addressing the latter, not the former, with his plea to eat less.

                        5. I just finished the article. For the most part, I think it's impressive and sensible, but I take issue with the author's first recommendation: "Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food."

                          My great-great-grandparents in Ireland might not have recognized sashimi, tabouleh, or masala dosa as food, yet these are all potentially nutritious dishes. Perhaps Pollan's advice should be reworded as follows: "Don’t eat anything that *someone's* great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food." In other words, avoid most 20th Century innovations in food science, but enjoy the cuisines of cultures around the world. Doing so would help people adhere to Pollan's 7th (Eat more like the *name any ethnicity*) and 9th (Eat more like an omnivore) principles.

                          As for the "80% rule," I do find this sensible. On those rare occasions when I manage to stop eating before being 100% sated, I walk away from the meal happier and more appreciative an hour later. I'm also more inclined to start thinking about my next meal, which is always fun.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: silverbear

                            The way I think of it is, be don't eat anything that you wouldn't have found in a kitchen in the 19th century. As with any meal there are reasonable exceptions, but not many.

                            1. re: silverbear

                              Yay on the 80%--I'm trying to practice it and an always happier when I do so successfully. If only I'd learned that when I was 5!

                            2. I rather enjoyed the article myself and found it v. funny at times. I don't think it is so much that scientists have "ruined" the way we eat by discovering and naming nutrients and vitamins and all that -- this knowledge, however, combined with our species' love of shortcuts and fast fixes has created situations where people would rather buy some fortified breakfast bar than take ten minutes to make oatmeal porridge in the morning.

                              “Of course it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.”

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: WineWidow

                                I'm not sure what you intended by putting quotes around "ruined," but Pollan didn't use that word.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  quoting from the headline or title as printed on the front cover: "The Age of Nutritionism
                                  -- How Scientists have ruined the way we eat"

                                  1. re: WineWidow

                                    Ah. That was almost certainly written by the editors. It's certainly not Pollan's thesis in the article.

                                2. re: WineWidow

                                  I loved when MP said "silence of the yams" who says he has no humor?

                                  1. re: WineWidow

                                    I'll have to really agree with Pollan on the issue with nutrionism and the great harm to our society in which the food scientists and nutritional experts have participated. If you were to look at the FDA nutrition labels it would be clear that a glass of Tang would be more nutritional than a tomato or for that matter an orange -- it has more vitamin C. This is of course clearly plainly wrong and that is part of his point. Through their work scientists and nutritionists have implied if not explicity stated that they understand and can engineer optimal nutrition into the food products that people eat -- making them preferential over basic foods. Better to buy WeightWatchers meals in a box with the nutrition label on the side than have a meal of fresh foods without.

                                    The other side of that equation is of course people's learned preference for those engineered foods.