He may be one of the most famous food writers of our time, but that’s not how Michael Pollan planned it.
The man who changed lives and industries with “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” got into food journalism through his passion for the rich tradition of American nature writing.
The timing of his own professional evolution coincided perfectly with a time when Americans were asking why so many more people were getting fatter and sicker.
“Food is the most important relationship we have with nature, and that’s true of all creatures,” says Pollan, who will speak Monday at the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare. “And to really figure out how we could repair our relationship with nature, we had to look at eating and the food industry and natural agriculture.”
The author and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, also credits his editors at The New York Times Magazine, where he has long been a contributing writer. They realized, as he would, “that the public was ready for a new kind of writing about food, a more political and ecological food journalism.”
He may have backed into it, but writing about food, diet and health turned out to be logical and inevitable, Pollan says.
The food landscape has changed dramatically since 2006. “The word ‘locavore’ hadn’t even been coined then,” Pollan says, referring to those who try to eat mostly what is grown or raised in the region where they live. “The amount of attention to local food has burgeoned since then.”
So much so that corporations naturally want a piece of it. Pollan thinks that is in part attributable to first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. “I think these corporations who came to her are afraid of new regulations on processed food, or a farm bill [up for revision this year] less friendly to agribusiness. She brought this into the White House in a way it hasn’t been before.”
Now, Pollan says, “you have an industry feeling very defensive.”
Still, he doesn’t consider the push-back a negative thing. “There’s a debate that is being engaged in about food and farming in America that has really taken off in the last couple of years.”
Pollan, in his “In Defense of Food” book, distilled his common-sense advice to this now famous dictum: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He further condensed that message into his shorter follow-up book, “Food Rules.” (A new edition will be released Tuesday, Nov. 1.)
By that, Pollan means real food, not chemical agglomerations processed into what some of us think of as food. “Not too much” means choosing quality over quantity, eating slowly till you are 80 percent full, then waiting for satiety — not eating to fullness then feeling uncomfortable. It also means eating true meals, not just big snacks, and sitting down at a table for a meal, not mindlessly consuming.
And “mostly plants” means meat is OK, but as a side dish, almost a garnish, rather than a main element. Pollan himself won’t eat meat that comes from factory feedlots (as does most of what’s in grocery chains).
We asked Pollan what he thought about some other food trends:
What do you think of dairy, which is being demonized by some groups and eschewed by vegans, among others? Is it bad for us?
“Yes, it’s true that we are the only species that drinks milk beyond weaning,” he says, citing the argument often used by anti-dairy people. “But we’ve been doing it for about 6,000 to 10,000 years, so consuming what was once an ‘unnatural’ food has been folded into our genes.”
But, he adds, “Milk has definitely been hyped as a wholesome food” by the dairy industry, and it isn’t necessary. “You can get more calcium from eating greens, like spinach. Milk is not the be-all and end-all for healthy children, but I don’t think it’s a bad food.”
However, he adds, the amount of hormones present in much of the milk in this country is a bad thing, and most milk has growth hormone present in it.
As for him? “I eat yogurt and fermented milk products,” and he chooses organic.
What is behind the tremendous growth in gluten-free products?
“There is an increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease,” he notes. But not nearly so much as to justify the number of gluten-free products that are being made, marketed and purchased. “There is a fad going up around this,” Pollan says. “People fixate on removing an evil nutrient [such as wheat] and then end up feeling better. But reducing the amount of carbs you consume will make you feel better.”
Americans eat too many refined carbs, he says, which is why he recommends true whole grains, whether in bread or other foods.
And what about high-fructose corn syrup?
“I’ve done a lot to demonize it,” he says. “And people took away the message that there was something intrinsically wrong with it. A lot of research says this isn’t the case. But there is a problem with how much total sugar we consume.” High-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, so it traditionally was pumped into a lot of foods, including savory items.
“It shows the brilliance of the industry, which is always a couple of steps ahead of me,” Pollan says. “They started giving products made of real sugar health claims and [are] trying to make sugar look good.” And that is a problem.
But that’s how the history of dietary fads in this country unfolds: “We obsess about a small group of evil nutrients, and a small group of blessed nutrients, and every generation has an evolving cast of characters.
“And eventually, the fates of those nutrients will completely reverse.”
Today, among the “blessed” nutrients are the omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for us (that may not change). A decade or more ago, oat bran was our dietetic savior. Early in the 20th century, fringe gurus with names like Kellogg set out with success to convince some Americans that protein was evil, and the packaged-cereal industry was born.
Today, Pollan says, “Carbs are the problem. Refined carbs and carbs are implicated in metabolic syndrome, and proteins are getting a free pass, except from ‘The China Study’ guy.” That would be Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of “The China Study,” which claims a no-meat, vegan diet is by far the healthiest when it comes to preventing cancer and heart disease.
So what are we supposed to think, or do? Well, he says, “The all-or-nothing approach is a dead end.”
Mainly, he says, beware of products with labels that brag about the inclusion or exclusion of “good for you” or “evil” ingredients.
Get back to the main message, also known as the “Eater’s Manifesto”: We should eat real food, perhaps in lesser amounts than we’re used to, and mostly plants.
As Pollan’s early inspiration in nature writing, Henry David Thoreau, once said, “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”
Which, as Pollan’s work conveys, is exactly what we need to do with how we choose to eat.