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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.

                                  2. silverbear, you might have missed his point about great-great grandma's recognition - it was a processed/non-processed distinction. the great-great grandma was a metaphor for ALL the great-great grandmas of the world. arrrrrrg, sorry to be pedantic.

                                    anyways, i think pollen's tone is a bit boring, but i read more then 70% of the article. alot of these responses dealt with the "eat less" bit. and i have to ask everyone - what is the problem? eat less!!!

                                    that's it.

                                    11 Replies
                                    1. re: luke643

                                      You eat less. I'd rather exercise more.

                                      1. re: luke643

                                        I understood the author's point; I just think the wording could have stood some adjustment. My fear is that some readers might take his wording literally, not appreciate the metaphor you mention, and exclude wholesome, natural foods because they were unknown to their own great-great grandparents. Too often, I've heard family tradition used as a justification for not trying new things.

                                        1. re: silverbear

                                          He addresses that by saying eat traditionally, "any tradition will do."

                                          1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                            Eating in the manner of traditional societies has been promoted for many years by the Weston Price Foundation http://www.westonaprice.org/splash_2.htm. The book "Nourishing Traditions" is a fascinating analysis of how fats work in the body and why the diets of traditional societies that are high in animal / coconut fats are so healthy. All this of course is in complete contradiction of americas health industry which promotes eating pills and low fat foods as well as foods that have been stripped of nutrition during processing as they are broken into components to sell in a myriad of ways and then "fortified" with vitamins and resold as health food. Another useful adage from "Taking charge of your child's health" -"don't eat foods that won't rot"

                                            1. re: realslowfood

                                              Whether coconut oil is healthy is an open question. All of the studies I've seen to date were sponsored by coconut oil manufacturers or coconut-oil-exporting countries.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                its very annoying to read statements like this and have the reply deleted! I guess it's not chatty and "fun" enough for this forum. There are many studies not funded by the coconut industry showing the many benefits of coconut oil, simply confirming what generations of indigenous people have known. It will remain "anecdotal" and people will continue to believe the drivel put out by CSPI calling it a saturated fat

                                                1. re: realslowfood

                                                  If you have pointers to any independent studies, please post them here:


                                                  1. re: realslowfood

                                                    OK -- this is a great example! Who cares if someone did a study and says that coconut oil is good or bad? The study data is probabaly not particularly accurate and any conculsions would be of little use. It is a natural food and is part of traditional diets. Buy a fresh coconut and include it in your meal if you like coconut. Don't buy an Almond Joy and say to yourself -- "hmm I'm eating coconut which studies show that...."

                                                    1. re: gulliver001

                                                      Doctors do and if there isn't a study disproving the trend du jour they will continue to give bad advice to people who don't know micheal pollan from the man in the moon, people who still believe everything there doctor tells they is true.

                                          2. re: luke643

                                            Aside from my personal issues with eating less, it's just really not a new idea to me. For example, the diet-industrial complex has been recommending the dark chocolate trick for years. I do eat less crappy chocolate now, but I can & do eat plenty of good chocolate (and good patisserie, and good roast beef, and so on). Yes, I have an overeating issue - I can't really answer your question as to why I don't just 'eat less' - but I have the issue with whatever quality of food.

                                            1. re: julesrules

                                              You might want to check out Paul Stitt's book "Beating the Food Giants" http://whale.to/v/stitt_b.html . While not a perfectly written book, it covers how many processed foods are constructed to increase your appetite.

                                          3. cool. of course , anybody who made it that far into the 12 page (on the internet) article can be thought more of i think.



                                            1. Grocerytrekker-thank you for posting that link. Micheal Pollan is doing more than anyone I know of to educate America on our food system.

                                              The article you linked is a great start. Further, I believe Omnivore's Diilemma should be a must read for everyone, and maybe highschool or college required reading .

                                              MP could, and maybe should, be to food what Al Gore is to Global Warming--and I mean that as a compliment, whatever anyone's feelings about Al gore may be.

                                              Anyone who thinks MP's got a poor attitude or that he doesn't love food misses the point.

                                              Don't we all know folks who: think nothing of "dining" at McDonalds" all the time; who have no idea the plight of animals raised in feed lots and the poor nutritional quality of the foodstuffs thereof; that farm raised salmon is bad? And whatever could have made anyone think salmon should be eating corn?

                                              I don't mean to sound preachy, but I'm all for Micheal Pollan's message. Sure, the folks who are on this thread may know a lot of, most of, or even all of (take your pick) what MP has to say--but that's a miniscule slice of our total polulation. Heck, it's a miniscule slice of Chowhound. Many people come to this board to find out who's got the best hotdog in a 20 mile radius or to trash "celebrities" on the Food Network. There's nothing wrong with that. However, I'm sure even devoted CHers can learn from MP. If nothing else, we can share the link above with folks who never come to this board and never lift up the food industry rock to see what's lurking beneath.

                                              Thanks again, Grocerytrekker.

                                              13 Replies
                                              1. re: SeaSide Tomato

                                                I was talking with one of my favorite chefs about Omnivore's Dilemma last night, he said he started reading it twice and it put him to sleep.

                                                But he already knows all about the industry, buys only pastured pork, gets meat direct from ranchers and vegetables direct from farmers, etc.

                                                I don't think I know anyone who eats at McDonald's.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  That's great-you have fewer folks who need/want education in that regard!

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    McDonald's is, or was, Niman Ranch's biggest customer, via its Chipotle operation, so it's helped to keep some "sustainable" farmers in business.

                                                    1. re: Gary Soup

                                                      Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. is no longer a subsidiary of McDonald's Corp. MCD sold its interest last year to cash in on the IPO.

                                                    2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      c'mon, I bet you do. Back when it was in the profile on the old CH, many more folks said they ate at McDonalds than answered that question 'never', IIRC. And then there are the hounds that eat at McDonalds but won't admit it...

                                                      Disclosure: I eat at McDonalds about once a month (number one breakfast only, as I said in that old profile). I know I shouldn't, but when it is six-thirty in the morning and I am in a hurry to get down to Monterey and get a good parking place at Lobos to jump in the cold water, well, that grease and corn and salt all together in an easy to eat McMuffin that I can order in just a few minutes, well, I just can't resist.

                                                      As for Omnivore's Dilemma, I tried to read it, after hearing raves from several folks, but I have to admit that the writing put me to sleep as well. That said, I am more aware of looking at ingredients in the foods I buy, and do try to buy more directly from farmers, etc., just from skimming it.

                                                      I think there are a lot of folks who could use the education that the book supplies, and it wouldn't be 'old news' to them, but unfortunately, I didn't find it to be complelling writing..

                                                      1. re: susancinsf

                                                        Pollan is an academic, and probably in "Publish or Perish" mode. That's when the Strunk & White on your bookshelf gets replaced by Erasmus' "De Copia."

                                                        1. re: Gary Soup

                                                          Pollan started writing about food years ago, long before he took the UC Berkeley job.


                                                        2. re: susancinsf

                                                          I don't eat at McDonald's because the smell makes me lose my appetite. The last time I ate their food was around 1970. In 1986, I got a glass of wine at the one on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.

                                                          1. re: susancinsf

                                                            hmm....well, rworange might say that my recollection that more CHs said they ate at McDonalds than not is faulty...perhaps I was remembering that way because I am one of the ones who will own up to eating there now and then?

                                                            anyway, I hardly ever browse the chain boards (actually, McDonalds is one of the few chains I eat at), so I missed this thread till now, but I found it fun to read:


                                                              1. re: Gary Soup

                                                                Who, me? I love TV.

                                                                There's nothing snobbish about my not eating at McDonald's. When I first started finding their food disgusting, my idea of cooking was to put leftover spaghetti in a colander, run it under the hot water tap, and top it with Ragu poured straight out of the jar.

                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                              I agree that the first section on the corn conglomerate reads a lot like a history book and took me quite awhile to get through. The second section though with industrial organic vs. local pastured is fascinating though. Ive talked with chefs that have extensive knowledge about food in general but know little to nothing about soil science, the corn conglomerate, and the social justifications. It seems to boil down to taste and price......which is a very American way to look at it. I'm sure not all of that meat is pastured, those vegetables aren't pesticide free, and numerous other products in his kitchen are the products of soy and corn...it's hard to avoid at this point.

                                                          2. Yeah, their food is pretty disgusting and I agree about the smell. The drive-thru is no remedy either as any MC'D can be detected from about 1/4 mile away from the putrid oily smell. Their french fries, when freshly pulled from the fryer and properly salted are not bad though. I have friends that stocked their freezers when they heard McRib was going away. To each his own I guess.

                                                            3 Replies
                                                            1. re: TonyO

                                                              well, we're way off topic here, but I have to tell you, the smell at McD's doesn't bother me (although I admit I eat there pretty rarely, maybe every other month, and almost always for an egg mcmuffin while traveling. I like egg mcmuffin's....)

                                                              But since we're on smells of fast food places, the one that I HATE is that of Port of Subs (or any subway shop). Something about the smell of those stale onions. I hate that smell. There is a Port of Subs a couple of doors down from my office, and I've been known to get a sandwhich there, but ALWAYS to go. And I tell my office staff that they are not allowed to bring Port of Subs into the office if they get onions. yecchHH!!!!!

                                                              1. re: janetofreno

                                                                must be genetic. I feel exactly the same way! (the one closest to my office is a Togo's, but it is the same smell!)

                                                            2. Although I feel that overanalyzing the food we eat for nutritional purposes is not a good behaviour to take in general, I feel that it's misguided to think that the solution to it is to revert to some sort of crazed "ignorance is bliss" sort of mentality. I mean, industrialization is most likely the cause of rapid climate change but is it really sensible to go around and preach everyone to go back to horses and buggies and log cabins and ditch the cars and airplanes, our perfumes and whatnot? Isn't it better to keep on learning more about the foods we eat and how they affect us instead of believing that we can hole ourselves up in ignorance?

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: Blueicus

                                                                Blue that's actually one of the main points in Pollan's book. Not to mention that in the Omnivores Dilemma he attempts to expose as much as information as possible about the food we are eating. He is saying to take the type of knowledge we have about nutritional science right now with a grain of salt and not as absolute. He also provides many good examples of cultural diets where you don't need to worry about what you're eating because it has stood the health test of time. Ignorance is bliss when you're eating real, traditional foods that have proven themselves repeatedly in the cultural sphere of dining.
                                                                "I don't mean to suggest that all would be well if we could just stop worrying about food or the state of our dietary health.....four of the top ten causes of death today are chronic diseases with well-established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer."
                                                                "I'm speaking, of course, of the elephant in the room whenever we discuss diet and health: "the Western diet."
                                                                "The chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food."
                                                                "Wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a predicatable series of Western diseases"

                                                                1. re: Blueicus

                                                                  He's not promoting "ignorance is bliss.' He makes it very clear that he thinks it's important to be mindful about what we eat (for ecological and political reasons as well as health reasons). But he's encouraging people to think in terms of whole foods and overall eating patterns, rather than individual nutrients.

                                                                  It's the difference between "beets are good for you" and "you need to make sure to get x amount of phytochemical A, which is found in beets -- and you can get the same benefit by eating this sugary breakfast cereal that we have supplemented with x amount of phytochemical A."