Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How to Eat

Right before Passover, when many of our diets are about to be severely restricted, may not be the best time to post about this, but I just happened to read an old New York Times Magazine article yesterday by Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. I heard Pollen speak on television a few times, and was somewhat put off by his statement that he wouldn't eat anything that his great-great grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food. This struck me as a blatant example of the "naturalistic fallacy" (equating "natural" with "good" and "unnatural" with "bad"), and as evidence of an absurd nostalgia for the past, when many people -- and often, whole populations -- were frequently severely nutritionally deprived.

Pollen's argument, however, is much more subtle than that. He notes that, for all of nutritional science's advances in recent decades, there is still quite a lot about food and nutrition that scientists don't understand. For this reason, among others, we are probably better off eating "real" foods, in conjunction with which our species has evolved over the course of millenia, than "food products" engineered by scientists. Pollen also makes some other interesting, and potentially very important, observations about the Western diet, such as the restriction of our common food sources to an extremely limited number of species, the trend toward producing foods from grains rather than leaves, and the ubiquitous tendency to simplify foods to their most basic components, casting aside countless nutrients with both known, and, probably, unknown health benefits.

Pollen's basic guidelines for eating are summarized in a few words at the start of his article: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This is a messsage to which I am generally quite receptive (although the "not too much" part is a constant stumbliing block). In recent years, I've come to appreciate how much more delicious and satisfying a balanced meal composed of "real foods" can be than the fortified "diet" garbage that I used to go for. Pollen's plea that we regard eating as a "relationship" rather than as fuel elicited a predictable "WTF" from DH, but it struck a certain chord with me. If only so much of my "relationship" weren't with desserts, I think I'd really be on the right track.

All this said, I still maintain that we shouldn't romaticize the past. It's easy to forget that without modern technology, we in New England would be without fresh produce from November to May. (Today's Boston Globe article on local hydroponic tomatoes is a fitting reminder.) As in so many areas, common sense and moderation are key. That may sound cliche, but it's no less true for that.


Rachel said...

I highly recommend his book "The Botany of Desire," which I just finished reading. It's short and quite excellent.

elf said...

Thanks. I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and it looks very interesting. I guess he wouldn't approve of genetically engineered tomatoes :)

Rymenhild said...

As I understand it, Michael Pollan lives somewhere in my neighborhood. (I don't know where -- but he teaches at Cal and shops at Berkeley Bowl.) Let me say that it's much, much easier to eat locally grown produce when you happen to be within reach of the farmers in northern and central California. I do think one of the flaws in his method is that he doesn't pay enough attention to people who don't live near world-class farm cultures.

(One of my roommates has become more and more obsessed with sustainable food in the last years. I should also note that locally grown, sustainable organic vegetables and fruits are really, really delicious.)

elf said...

Ryme: Having read this interview, I'm not sure I'd say that he has a "method." He seems to realize that people will have to make compromises in real life, and he says that his goal is only to educate people so that they can make wise choices.

I am looking forward to the summer farmer's markets, though.