Author dishes out advice on healthful eating |

Author dishes out advice on healthful eating

Rob Kasper
L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service

Michael Pollan’s advice on healthful eating is refreshingly straightforward: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Pollan, who has written tomes on food including the best-selling “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” said he deliberately kept his latest book, “In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto,” short and simple.

“The deeper I delved into the whole field of nutrition science and the whole issue of what you should eat, the simpler it got,” Pollan said in a phone interview from Berkeley, Calif.

“I was able to cut through the underbrush and discover that those seven words say it all. That was a little alarming to my publisher, because she was expecting 50- or 60,000 words.

“But it really did come down to eating real food,” he said, the kind of unadulterated whole foods, not snacks, that our great grandparents ate. He also found “that there is no good reason to worry excessively about specific nutrients, that you could safely tune out 99 percent of the nutritional advice that was out there, whether it was corporate, governmental or medical. There has been so much noise, so much static about nutrition,” he said. “When you look at the science behind some of these nutrient claims, it did not hold up.”

Witty and erudite, Pollan is to able to discuss the big issues of food and the environment in an approachable, lively style.

Take Meatless Mondays, for instance. It has been known in academic circles for some time that a meat-based diet requires twice as much energy to produce as a vegetarian diet, said Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Hopkins center promoted the idea of going meatless one day a week to reduce the burden that food-production practices place on the environment.

But the concept took off after Pollan endorsed it during an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“We were particularly pleased when Michael Pollan recommended to Oprah Winfrey’s viewers that, to help the environment, they should refrain from eating meat once a week,” Lawrence said in an e-mail.

While Pollan’s family has adopted the Meatless Monday regime, he acknowledged it has not come without cost. “I have a son who is 16 years old and who craves meat. For him, it is not a meal if an animal has not died to produce it. We struggle to have that meatless day with him.”

On days other than Monday, Pollan eats meat, but only from animals that have been raised in pastures, not in feedlots. “Once you have seen those places,” he said, referring to the industrial cattle operations he visited while researching a magazine story on how a calf comes to market, “you lose your appetite.”

Pollan said part of the reason we are confused about what to eat is that we recently received a lot of bad advice from so-called experts. For instance, the public-health campaign that urged eaters to abandon butter, which has saturated fat, and replace it with margarine, which is loaded with trans fats, was based on bad science, he said.

“We traded in a fat that had been part of the human diet for eons for one that looked novel but turned out to be much more dangerous. Getting people off lard and chicken fat and butter and putting them on hydrogenated oils has been a public-health disaster, and we are owed an apology,” he said.

Pollan, who teaches journalism to graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, also was critical of the way the media have covered food and nutrition.

“The authors of the new nutritional studies get hyped. The editors of the newspapers want front-page stories, and the net effect, since journalism thrives on change, is that journalists tend to exaggerate every change in the science. Science is an iterative process. Scientists make mistakes they refine, but as you watch the twists and turns in a newspaper, you would think every news study is blowing up the one before.”

He added that “journalism thrives on novelty, not on tradition. And the fact is that most of the wisdom about food is old, traditional and not surprising.”

His career as a writer is, he said, a confluence of his passion for gardening and his study of American nature writing.

“One of the lessons you learn when you start gardening is that you have a legitimate quarrel with other species, weeds and pests. How you navigate that quarrel is going to define you as a gardener,” he said.

“From the Puritans to Thoreau to John Muir, I love that whole question of our relationship to the natural world.”

Growing your own vegetables, as Pollan does in his Berkeley front yard, gives you an opportunity to negotiate a relationship with nature, he said.

“When you are cooking with food from the garden,” Pollan writes in “In Defense of Food,” the food is “alive.” “You are not in danger,” he wrote, “of mistaking it for a commodity, or fuel, or a collection of nutrients.”

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