Sunday, February 04, 2007

Its Like Handing A Child A Loaded Shotgun

Michael Pollan should watch what he's saying; people could interpret it the wrong way:

You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat.
and
Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
and most especially
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. Any traditional diet will do; if it weren't a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn't still be around.
I really wonder if Mr. Pollan understands what he's saying?

For starters, he claims to be trying to demystify nutrition by approaching it in a more holistic fashion, but his advice to the masses is bewilderingly self-contradictory. My great-great-grandmothers were either German or Scots-Irish, born and raised at a time when neither culture sported a profusion of vegetables. How am I to reconcile this dictum with his directive to "Eat mostly plants, especially leaves"? Plants, especially leaves, were not necessarily regarded as suitable foodstuffs for human beings.

He also recommends that you should

Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet.
Apart from the fact that my great-great-grandmother wouldn't what to make of a bitter melon or a dragon fruit, much less prepare one, it doesn't seem like you can be omnivorous and still eat a "traditional" diet. Mr. Pollan's recommendations lack internal consistency, serving to confuse rather than clarify the issue.

Some of his reasoning is questionable (or just plain wrong) as well. He promulgates the idea that populations have synergistically co-adapted with their traditional foodstuffs at a genetic level, but he appears to credit that adaptation with more importance than is necessarily warranted. And his quote above regarding the diets of traditional societies (they must be healthy, otherwise the society would have died out) shows an ignorance of the mechanisms of natural selection. The fact that these societies are still around only proves that their traditional diet is sufficient to sustain the reproduction of the next generation; it doesn't say anything about health outcomes past child-bearing age. But what's really going to get people pissed at him is yet to come.

Mr. Pollan begins the article with the following recommendations:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
These are fine recommendations, but not enough by themselves to sustain a whole article. Over the course of the article he then goes on to develop a theory of food which elevates the status of traditional cuisines, culminating in the following:
The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism.
Even if the above is true, just think about its implications. All of you foodies who have Mexican one night, Japanese the next, and then round out the week with a little Indian... you're eating yourself to death. You have to pick a traditional cuisine and stick with it; be grateful that Michael, in his generosity, allows you to pick which one.

This is really quite funny. The author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, an admitted foodie, is calling for an end to "foodieism". Make no mistake about it; the contemporary eating patterns of gourmets around the world are anything but traditional. And its not just because they eat out a lot; you need merely to look at the profusion of cookbooks at Williams-Sonoma to know that they're engaging in forbidden, multi-cuisine cooking in their homes as well.

Michael's problem is that he's taken an sensible idea and gone off on a tangent. Telling people to eat whole foods, to eat lots of vegetables, to cook things themselves, and not eat too much; these are all good ideas. But the unsupported apotheosis of traditional cuisines leads to rules about eating which have no bearing on actual health. I don't want to eat like my great-great-grandmothers; they had shorter life expectancies and overcooked their meat.

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