Michael Pollan’s recent article in the NYT Magazine (Sunday, January 28, 2007) is indeed well-written and researched. He details a rational perspective about our Western diet but offers somewhat idealistic suggestions for adopting healthier eating habits, and there are several points I question:
First, Pollan states one should avoid food products that make health claims, because it’s an indication that it’s not really food. As a Registered Dietitian, I find this erroneous. Consider oatmeal. This IS a food product and DOES offer significant health benefits namely cholesterol reduction – when eaten on a regular basis. This is just one case where health claims are and should be linked with a food. If having a health claim will encourage better food choices, is it really a detriment?
Another Pollan “recommendation” I disagree with is avoiding products that have ingredients which are unpronounceable or unfamiliar.
In the United States, we have stringent labeling laws, and there are plenty of unpronounceable vitamins that food manufacturers list in their scientific nomenclature. Riboflavin, Pyridoxine, Pantothenic acid, and Cyanocobalamin are just a few examples. All of these are part of the B vitamin family, each providing a specific function in the body. To avoid products that provide these vitamins would likely do more harm than good. Reference Beriberi, Pellagra, and Ariboflavinosis.
Pollan also mentions a “Conspiracy of Confusion” in the food industry, though he doesn’t discuss what I’ve termed the “Decay of Will.” The food industry has provided us with unlimited, nutritious meal options, but it really comes down to an individual’s ability to MAKE smart choices, to say ‘no’ when necessary, and to exercise some self-discipline. We are a nation in denial. We can and do have control over what we put in our mouths. No one can dispute that.
And what about moving beyond “nutritionism” and looking at our culture? Our sedentary lifestyle is clearly a factor which has contributed to the obesity epidemic.
It’s also a very romantic notion to advocate eating like other nations. If we adopted an Italian diet without increasing our activity levels, the rates of obesity and chronic disease would continue to rise. Nutrition is not the sole solution to a healthier lifestyle.
Further, Pollan advises not visiting a grocery store. Is this practical for those in, let’s say, North Dakota in the dead of winter? Perhaps, Pollan should re-evaluate the percentage of Americans not having access to the conveniences of New York City.
Last, while I don’t necessarily disagree with his recommendation of eating more plants and less meat, I do think that there is a place for all foods. As a dietitian, I practice what I preach – everything in moderation. I am one of the fortunate who can and does buy food which offer nutritional benefits, and I do enjoy my share of cheeses, seafood, and yes, (gasp) meat. To keep myself in check with my indulgences, I make sure that I exercise daily following the old nutrition adage calories in, calories out.
What I think Pollan is attempting to express is that we need to get back to basics. Part of my job as a nutrition expert is to help consumers achieve optimal health through education and reliable counsel, not the vilification of foods.