Table of Contents
MICHAEL POLLAN is the author of five previous books, including
In Defense of Food,
a number one
New York Times
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
, which was named one of the ten best books of the year by both the
New York Times
. Both books won the James Beard Award. A longtime contributor to the
New York Times Magazine
, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
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First published in Penguin Books 2009
Copyright © Michael Pollan, 2009
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For my mother,
who always knew butter was better for you
Eating in our time has gotten complicated—needlessly so, in my opinion. I will get to the “needl essly” part in a moment, but consider first the complexity that now attends this most basic of crea turely activities. Most of us have come to rely on experts of one kind or another to tell us how to eat—doctors and diet books, media accounts of the latest findings in n utritional science, government advisories and food pyramids, the proliferating health claims on food packages. We may not always heed these experts’ advice, but their voices are in our heads every time we order from a menu or wheel down the aisle in the supermarket. Also in our heads today resides an astonishing amount of biochemistry. How odd is it that everybody now has at least a passing acquaintance with words like “antioxidant,” “saturated fat,” “omega-3 fatty acids,” “carbohydrates,” “polyphenols,” “folic acid,” “gluten,” and “probiotics”? It’s gotten to the point where we don’t see
anymore but instead look right through them to the nutrients (good and bad) they contain, and of course to the calories—all these invisible qualities in our food that, properly understood, supposedly hold the secret to eating well.
But for all the scientific and pseudoscientific food baggage we’ve taken on in recent years, we
don’t know what we should be eating. Should we worry more about the fats or the carbohydrates? Then what about the “good” fats? Or the “bad” carbohydrates, like high-fructose corn syrup? How much should we be worrying about gluten? What’s the deal with artificial sweeteners? Is it really true that this breakfast cereal will i mprove my son’s focus at school or that other cereal will protect me from a heart attack? And when did eating a bowl of breakfast cereal become a therapeutic procedure?
A few years ago, feeling as confused as everyone else, I set out to get to the bottom of a simple question: What should I eat? What do we really know about the links between our diet and our health? I’m not a nutrition expert or a scientist, just a curious journalist hoping to answer a straightforward question for myself and my family.
Most of the time when I embark on such an investigation, it quickly becomes clear that matters are much more complicated and ambiguous—several shades grayer—than I thought going in. Not this time. The deeper I delved into the confused and confusing thicket of nutritional science, sorting through the long-running fats versus carbs wars, the fiber skirmishes and the raging dietary supplement debates, the simpler the picture gradually became. I learned that in fact science knows a lot less about nutrition than you would expect—that in fact nutrition science is, to put it charitably, a very
science. It’s still trying to figure out exactly what happens in your body when you sip a soda, or what is going on deep in the soul of a carrot to make it so good for you, or why in the world you have so many neurons—brain cells!—in your stomach, of all places. It’s a fascinating subject, and someday the field may produce definitive answers to the nutritional questions that concern us, but—as nutritionists themselves will tell you—they’re not there yet. Not even close. Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? Ithink I’ll wait awhile.
But if I’ve learned volumes about all we don’t know about nutrition, I’ve also learned a small number of very important things we
know about food and health. This is what I meant when I said the picture got simpler the deeper I went.
There are basically two important things you need to know about the links between diet and health, two facts that are not in dispute. All the contending parties in the nutrition wars agree on them. And, even more important for our purposes, these facts are sturdy enough that we can build a sensible diet upon them. Here they are:
FaCT 1.Populations that eat a so-called Western diet—generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of
thing except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet. Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet. The arguments in nutritional science are not about this well-established link; rather, they are all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the Western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases. Is it the saturated fat or the refined carbohydrates or the lack of fiber or the transfats or omega-6 fatty acids—or what? The point is that, as eaters (if not as scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This diet, for whatever reason, is the problem.