Michael Pollan Video: Food Rules for Healthy People and Planet

by Catherine Haug

Check out this 39 minute video of Michael Pollan speaking about food before the British RSA (Royal Society for encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). If you’ve never heard him before, he’s very entertaining. The last 10 minutes of the video is the question/answer period.

Food Rules for Healthy People and Planet

Read on for my notes on his talk.

Cat’s Notes on his Talk

The four tenets of “nutritionism”:

  • The important thing about food is the nutrients it contains;
  • You need experts to tell you how to eat;
  • There are ‘good’ and ‘evil’ nutrients (example of evil nutrient is ‘fat’). For every evil one, there is a blessed one;
  • The whole point of eating is about health; a spectrum from destroying your health at one end, and redeeming your health at the other end. Pleasure, community, and identity are reasons which are discounted by nutritionism.

But nutritionism is not really helpful. Take for example the demonization of fat. The idea was that eating fat makes you fat. However, most people who went on low-fat diet actually gained weight, primarily because when they reduced fat, they increased consumption of sugars and processed carbohydrates, which are very good at adding belly fat.

What do we really know about the links between diet and health? He contends, ‘Not much.’ He cites as example the creation of baby formulas. Over time, more and more nutrients were discovered and added, but babies did not do as well on formula as on mothers’ milk. Forthermore, the extraction of certain nutrients (from foods for individual consumption) does not necessarily come with all the benefits of that nutrient – the synergistic effect of whole foods.

So, how do we decide what to eat if we set aside nutritionism? What do we know?

  • We now know that people who eat a Western diet get very high rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, where they had been rare before the conversion to the new diet. But just what is the problem with the Western diet?
  • People eating a huge range of traditional diets around the world stay healthy and do not succumb to the problems of the western diet.

To build a healthful diet, you need to go back to traditional dietary wisdom that we have rejected or lost along the way. And you can’t just take the parts of the traditional diet that appeal to you and reject the others in favor of their Western counterparts.

His Rules (Personal Policies)

Focus on foods rather than nutrients (leave the nutrients to the science lab).

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognize as food (look at the ingredients on the label).
  • Shop the periphery of the market (fresh, single ingredient foods) and stay out of the middle (processed, multi-ingredient foods).
  • Avoid foods that never rot (see my What’s in Your Burger post).
  • How we eat is as important as what we eat. Eat at a table, preferably with others. Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored. Stop eating before you’re full (do you know when you’re full?); that is, when you no longer have hunger.
  • Preserve our food cultures, not only the culturing of food (fermentation), but also how the eating of food is part of our culture.

Q & A

Q: Americans’ longevity has increased 17 years over the last 100 years, so is there really a problem? MP: 10 of those 17 years come from decreasing infant mortality. The rest come primarily from improved medicine.

Q: GMOs: How can we feed the world without GMOs? MP: GM is one tool in industrial ag vs organic ag. People take it as an article of faith, but it hasn’t been proven. In fact, GMO soy reduces yields. In 2008, we grew enough food to feed the world and then some, but most of that food was fed to animals and automobiles (ethanol), not humans. In developing world, organic ag produces 180% of industrial ag yields, which is huge.

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