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Michael Pollan--Our National Eating Disorder

From: The New York Times

October 17, 2004

Our National Eating Disorder

Carbophobia, the most recent in the centurylong series of food fads to wash
over the American table, seems to have finally crested, though not before
sweeping away entire bakeries and pasta companies in its path, panicking
potato breeders into redesigning the spud, crumbling whole doughnut empires
and, at least to my way of thinking, ruining an untold number of meals.
America's food industry, more than happy to get behind any new diet as long
as it doesn't actually involve eating less food, is still gung-ho on Low
Carb, it's true, but in the last few weeks, I can report some modest success
securing a crust of bread, and even the occasional noodle, at tables from
which such staples were banned only a few months ago.

Surveying the wreckage of this latest dietary storm makes you wonder if we
won't someday talk about a food fad that demonized bread, of all things, in
the same breath we talk about the all-grape diet that Dr. John Harvey
Kellogg used to administer to patients at his legendarily nutty sanitarium
at Battle Creek, Mich., or the contemporaneous vogue for ''Fletcherizing''
-- chewing each bite of food as many as 100 times -- introduced by Horace
Fletcher (also known as the Great Masticator) at the turn of the last
century. That period marked the first golden age of American food faddism,
though of course its exponents spoke not in terms of fashion but of
''scientific eating,'' much as we do now. Back then, the best nutritional
science maintained that carnivory promoted the growth of toxic bacteria in
the colon; to battle these critters, Kellogg vilified meat and mounted a
two-fronted assault on his patients' alimentary canals, introducing
quantities of Bulgarian yogurt at both ends. It remains to be seen whether
the Atkins-school theory of ketosis, the metabolic process by which the body
resorts to burning its own fat when starved of carbohydrates, will someday
seem as quaintly quackish as Kellogg's theory of colonic autointoxication.

What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these
applecart-toppling nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new
government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this
nation's diet overnight. As it happened, it was an article in this magazine
two years ago that almost singlehandedly ushered in today's carbophobia,
which itself supplanted an era of lipophobia dating back to 1977, when a
controversial set of federal nutritional guidelines (''Dietary Goals for the
United States,'' drafted by a Senate committee led by George McGovern)
persuaded beef-loving Americans to lay off the red meat. But the basic
pattern was fixed decades earlier: new scientific research comes along to
challenge the prevailing nutritional orthodoxy; some nutrient that Americans
have been happily chomping for years is suddenly found to be lethal; another
nutrient is elevated to the status of health food; the industry throws its
marketing weight behind it; and the American way of dietary life undergoes
yet another revolution.

If this volatility strikes you as unexceptionable, you might be interested
to know that there are other cultures that have been eating more or less the
same way for generations, and there are peoples who still rely on archaic
criteria like, oh, taste and tradition to guide them in their eating
decisions. You might also be interested to know that some of the cultures
that set their culinary course by the lights of pleasure and habit rather
than nutritional science are actually healthier than we are -- that is,
suffer a lower incidence of diet-related health troubles. The ''French
paradox'' is the most famous such case, though it's worth keeping in mind
the French don't regard the matter as a paradox at all; we Americans resort
to that word simply because the French experience -- a population of
wine-swilling cheese eaters with lower rates of heart disease and obesity?!
-- confounds our orthodoxy about food. Maybe what we should be talking about
is an American paradox: that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the
idea of eating healthily.

This obsession has been recognized as a distinctly American phenomenon at
least since the early decades of the 20th century. Harvey Levenstein, a
Canadian historian who has written two fascinating social histories of
American foodways, neatly sums up the beliefs that have guided the American
way of eating since the heyday of William Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg:
'' . . . that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one
should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food
cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific
laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition
that will prevent illness and encourage longevity.'' The power of any
orthodoxy resides in its ability not to seem like one, and, at least to a
1904 or 2004 genus American, these beliefs don't seem controversial or
silly. The problem is, whatever their merits, this way of thinking about
food is a recipe for deep confusion and anxiety about one of the central
questions of life: what should we have for dinner?

That question, to one degree or another, assails any creature faced with a
wide choice of things to eat: call it the omnivore's dilemma. The koala bear
certainly doesn't worry about what's for dinner; if it looks and smells like
a eucalyptus leaf, then it is dinner. His culinary preferences are
hard-wired. But for omnivores like us, a vast amount of brain space and time
must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential dishes
nature offers are safe to eat. We rely on our prodigious powers of
recognition and memory to guide us away from poisons (isn't that the
mushroom that made me sick last week?) and toward nutritious plants (the red
berries are the juicier, sweeter ones). Our taste buds help, too,
predisposing us toward sweetness, which signals carbohydrate energy in
nature, and away from bitterness, which is how many of the toxic alkaloids
produced by plants taste. Some anthropologists believe that one reason we
evolved such big and intricate brains was precisely to help us deal with the
omnivore's dilemma. (Scientists theorize that as the koala, which once ate a
variety of foods, evolved to eat a circumscribed diet, its brain actually
shrank; food faddists take note.)

Being a generalist is, of course, a great boon as well as a challenge; it
is what allowed humans to adapt to a great many different environments all
over the planet and to survive in them even after favored foods were driven
to extinction. Omnivory offers the pleasures of variety too. But the surfeit
of choice brings a lot of stress with it and can lead to a kind of
Manichaean view of food, a division of nature into the Good Things to Eat
and the Bad.

While our senses can help us to draw the first, elemental distinctions
between good and bad foods, we humans rely heavily on culture to keep it all
straight. So we codify the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of
taboos, rituals, manners and culinary traditions, covering everything from
the proper size of portions to the order in which foods should be consumed
to the kinds of animals it is O.K. to eat. Anthropologists may argue whether
all these rules make biological sense, but certainly a great many of them
do, and they keep us from having to re-enact the omnivore's dilemma at every

One way to think about America's national eating disorder is as the return,
with an almost atavistic vengeance, of the omnivore's dilemma. The
cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back onto a bewildering
food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those
tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time, many of the tools
with which people historically managed the omnivore's dilemma have lost
their sharpness, or simply failed, in the United States today. As a
relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each
with its own culture of food, we Americans find ourselves without a strong,
stable culinary tradition to guide us.

I recently asked my mother what her mother served for dinner when she was a
child. The menu, full of such Eastern European Jewish delicacies as stuffed
cabbage, cheese blintzes, tripe and spleen, bore absolutely no resemblance
to the dinners my mother cooked for us. When I asked her why, she just
laughed: ''You kids wouldn't have touched that stuff!'' True enough, and so
for us -- this being suburban New York in the mid-60's -- she cooked a
veritable world's fair of dishes: spaghetti and meatballs; beef Wellington;
Chinese pepper steak; boeuf bourguignon. I remember all of these dinners
fondly, and yet I've never cooked a single one of them myself. In America,
each generation has been free to reinvent its cuisine, very often more than
once. (My mother has herself long since moved on to more up-to-date, less
beefy fare, lighter dishes influenced by Japanese, Indian and Californian
styles of cooking.)

Whether this culinary open-endedness is a good thing or not, it does create
a powerful vacuum into which flows the copious gas of expert opinion, food
journalism and advertising. What other nation wages political war over a
government graphic called the food pyramid? Or lionizes diet doctors, a new
one every few months?

Food marketing in particular thrives on dietary instability and so tends to
heighten it. Since it's difficult to sell more food to such a well-fed
population (though not, as we're discovering, impossible), food companies
put their efforts into grabbing market share by introducing new kinds of
processed food, which has the virtue of being both highly profitable and
infinitely adaptable. Food technologists can readily re-engineer processed
foods to be low-fat or low-carb or high in omega-3's, whatever the current
nutritional wisdom requires. So while the potato growers shudder before the
carbophobic tide, the chip makers have been quick to adapt, by dialing down
the spud content in their recipes and cranking up the soy.

Yet the success of food marketers in exploiting shifting nutritional
fashions has a cost. Getting us to change how we eat over and over again
tends to undermine the various social structures that surround (and steady)
our eating habits: things like the family dinner and taboos on snacking
between meals or eating alone. Big Food (with some help from the microwave
oven) has figured out how to break Mom's choke hold on the American menu by
marketing directly to every demographic, children included. The result is a
nation of antinomian eaters, each of us trying to work out our dietary
salvation on our own.

So we've learned to choose our foods by the numbers (calories, carbs, fats,
R.D.A.'s, price, whatever), relying more heavily on our reading and
computational skills than upon our senses. Indeed, we've lost all confidence
in our senses of taste and smell, which can't detect the invisible macro-
and micronutrients science has taught us to worry about, and which food
processors have become adept at deceiving anyway. Most processed foods are
marketed less on the basis of taste than on convenience, image,
predictability, price point and health claims -- all of which are easier to
get right in a processed food product than its flavor. The American
supermarket -- chilled and stocked with hermetically sealed packages
bristling with information -- has effectively shut out the Nose and elevated
the Eye.

No wonder we have become, in the midst of our astounding abundance, the
world's most anxious eaters. A few years ago, Paul Rozin, a University of
Pennsylvania psychologist, and Claude Fischler, a French sociologist, began
collaborating on a series of cross-cultural surveys of food attitudes. They
found that of the four populations surveyed (the U.S., France, Flemish
Belgium and Japan), Americans associated food with health the most and
pleasure the least. Asked what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase
''chocolate cake,'' Americans were more apt to say ''guilt,'' while the
French said ''celebration''; ''heavy cream'' elicited ''unhealthy'' from
Americans, ''whipped'' from the French. The researchers found that Americans
worry more about food and derive less pleasure from eating than people in
any other nation they surveyed.

Compared with the French, we're much more likely to choose foods for
reasons of health, and yet the French, more apt to choose on the basis of
pleasure, are the healthier (and thinner) people. How can this possibly be?
Rozin suggests that our problem begins with thinking of the situation as
paradoxical. The French experience with food is only a paradox if you
assume, as Americans do, that certain kinds of foods are poisons. ''Look at
fat,'' Rozin points out. ''Americans treat the stuff as if it was mercury.''
That doesn't, of course, stop us from guiltily gorging on the stuff. A
food-marketing consultant once told me that it's not at all uncommon for
Americans to pay a visit to the health club after work for the express
purpose of sanctioning the enjoyment of an entire pint of ice cream before

Perhaps because we take a more ''scientific'' (i.e., reductionist) view of
food, Americans automatically assume there must be some chemical component
that explains the difference between the French and American experiences:
it's something in the red wine, perhaps, or the olive oil that's making them
healthier. But how we eat, and even how we feel about eating, may in the end
be just as important as what we eat. The French eat all sorts of
''unhealthy'' foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of
rules: they eat small portions and don't go back for seconds; they don't
snack; they seldom eat alone, and communal meals are long, leisurely
affairs. A well-developed culture of eating, such as you find in France or
Italy, mediates the eater's relationship to food, moderating consumption
even as it prolongs and deepens the pleasure of eating.

''Worrying about food is not good for your health,'' Rozin concludes -- a
deeply un-American view. He and Fischler suggest that our anxious eating
itself may be part of the American problem with food, and that a more
relaxed and social approach toward eating could go a long way toward
breaking our unhealthy habit of bingeing and fad-dieting. ''We could eat
less and actually enjoy it more,'' suggests Rozin. Of course this is easier
said than done. It's so much simpler to alter the menu or nutrient profile
of a meal than to change the social and psychological context in which it is
eaten. (There's also a lot more money to be made fiddling with ingredients
and supersizing portions.) And yet what a wonderful prospect, to discover
that the relationship of pleasure and health in eating is not, as we've been
hearing for a hundred years, necessarily one of strife, but that the two
might again be married at the table.

Will you pass the chocolate cake, please?

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for the magazine, teaches journalism
at U.C. Berkeley.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company