On "The Omnivore's Dilemma"
Food is more than a nutrition label. It shapes our health, relationships, and connection to our home. Many modern authors preach the evils in your pantry. Fewer authors have presented the more nuanced reality of our collective health issues surrounding food. Michael Pollan is one such author. When I was in high school, I read his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It was the first food book I read. I still think about that book and the way it framed my dialogue on health.
The Omnivore's Dilemma helped start the trend of deep food journalism. It sheds light on the ways industrial food production has been detrimental to farmers, the people who buy their food, and the planet. Michael Pollan’s work, however, isn’t shock and awe. He inspires introspection. He doesn’t place blame on consumers for not being able to afford expensive organic food. He focuses as much time on people who are growing food well, as those who are head locked by industrial demands. He calls into question the wide-spread accessibility of cheap, non-organic food. He doesn’t declare meat eating to be wrong or right. Overall, while he is passionate and well-researched, he’s not a pompous expert.
Micheal Pollan’s approach to talking about food left a strong impact on the way I approach the topic with myself and the people in my life. Shame does not help create change. Pollan helped shift the attitude from righteousness to understanding. If you work two jobs and have kids at home, there’s no shame in a TV dinner. They’re cheap, fast, easy, and in many places, the only available option. Instead of shaming an eater of frozen meals, he focuses on larger questions. Why are they so cheap? Why aren’t fresh foods widely available? Why do we not have time to cook?
Another powerful aspect of Michael Pollan’s approach is that he doesn’t tell people what to eat. There is no “Pollan Diet”. If there were, it would simply read: “Eat food, Not too much, Mostly Plants”. What do you notice about that? It’s incredibly open! It leaves more questions than answers. What is food? How much? Which plants? How much is “mostly”?
That is where he does something brilliant. He inspires you to learn about food by asking questions, not by memorizing formulaic answers or reading definitive diet books. And since most of us don’t have a chemistry lab to analyze our food in, we have to seek answers by using our senses. How do certain foods make us feel? How does it feel to eat food from the supermarket or a carrot harvested from the garden? Do you need to know what percentage of your daily values it satisfies? Or can you listen to your body for that information?
There is no scientific perfection in the study of food. That’s coming from someone who truly enjoys learning about nutrition science! I have a cousin who is a professional nutritionist. She adjusts hospital patients’ diets specifically for their needs. I think it is essential work. However, eating a nutritionally ideal diet is like winning a million dollars. It can do a lot for you, but it’s not everything. A stir fry of fresh garden food and a chicken from your coop can make you feel great! So can a bucket of cheese fries with a bunch of friends (just maybe less often). Health can’t be reduced to any one thing. Nutrition, community relationships, and environmental impact are all interconnected.
After I read that first book, I was full of questions. I tried all sorts of experiments, including being vegetarian (which at first meant eating Costco sized bags of corn chips and feeling awful). The long term impact was that my world felt more connected. I became skeptical of solutions, and found that the questions were more interesting. Michael Pollan made my world feel more complex, interesting, and forgiving. He helped me weave a web that tied food to relationships, memories, and the world around me. With that, my life has been forever enriched.
Stay tuned for another post about how to understand food with your senses. And specific frameworks people have used for thousands of years, to give you some structure for doing that.