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Monday, January 19, 2009

Banner Week for a Real Food Foodie: Pollan and Bittman Come to Portland

So, while I was still recovering from bronchitis and super busy preparing for my first official class, I put everything aside to see two of my favorite food writers last week. Michael Pollan spoke at a sold out Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures Series on Tuesday evening and Matt Bittman spoke to an SRO crowd at Powell's on Thursday. Both writers had lots to say about what's wrong with how most Americans are eating today and suggestions about changes we could make that would benefit our health, our communities, our planet, and palates.

Pollan started off by explaining the concept of nutritionism. He argues that because people in the United States have become so disconnected from the sources of their food, they no longer heed their natural instincts or cultural precepts that previously guided our decisions about what, when, where, why, and how to eat. Instead, we have come to rely on nutritionism, an ideology that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine their value in the diet. Pollan identified the following premises of nutritionism:
  • Food is primarily a conveyance for nutrients.
  • We need experts to help us understand nutrients, for they are impossible for us to see and understand.
  • We eat for health, not for enjoyment, companionship, etc.
  • There are good nutrients and bad nutrients, though the definition of which is what is constantly shifting.
Nutritionism arose in the late 19th Century to solve the problem of heart disease. Scientists and others attempted to desconstruct foods to determine their health-giving nutrients. But, as Pollan notes, the healthful essence of a carrot isn't its beta carotene, as that nutrient alone doesn't have the same benefits of the carrot. Despite a hundred years of nutritionism, we still have heart disease, plus diabetes, obesity, and a host of other diet-related issues. The elephant in the room, Pollan noted, is the Western diet. It's been shown over and over again that when people forgo their traditional diet in favor of the Western diet of processed food, they developed our modern, Western diseases.

So, what's the solution? Can we get off the Western diet without abandoning Western civilization? If we can’t count on scientists to tell us what to eat, who can we count on? Pollan reminds us that there are other systems of knowledge besides science, culture being one. If we apply cultural rules to eating, rather than nutritional ones, perhaps we can find ways to eat that not only improve our health, but bring us pleasure and connection with others. Here are some of the cultural rules for eating that Pollan suggested:
  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • It’s not food if it has ingredients you don’t recognize or have in your own pantry.
  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Foods that spoil are kept in those easy to access areas.
  • Don’t eat food that won’t eventually rot. If microbes won't eat it, neither should you.
  • Use small plates, don’t snack, don’t eat in your car or buy fuel for your body at the same place you buy fuel for your car.
  • Don’t eat alone or in front of the TV. Eat at tables.
  • Food you cook is better than food that’s cooked for you (you don’t add HFCS to food you cook).
  • Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it yourself.
Want to hear Pollan yourself? Here's his TED talk. And here he is on Portland's own Cooking Up a Story, parts one, two, three, and four.

People are calling Mark Bittman's new book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating With More Than 75 Recipes, "applied Pollan." Like Pollan, Bittman has some rules about eating that can help us improve our health, though, being The Minimalist, his rules are even simpler: "Eat less of certain foods, specifically animal products, refined carbs, and junk food; and more of others, specifically plants, in close to their natural state."

In his talk, Bittman related his personal reasons for following such a prescription. A few years ago, with knee-surgery looming, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and 50 pounds overweight, his doctor advised him to "go vegan." While Bittman couldn't bring himself to making such a radical change to his diet, he struck upon a simple rule that helped him lose weight and improve his overall health. He became, "vegan before six," eschewing all animal products before dinner (except, he admitted later, cream in his morning coffee). One tip he shared for sticking to a vegetarian regiment at restaurants is asking if there are any side vegetables leftover from the previous evening's dinner menu.

One statistic that I found most striking is that of the approximately three pounds of food the average American eats per day, a half-pound is meat and another one-and-a-half pounds are other animal products. The other pound? That's plant foods, primarily in the form of potatoes, corn, and wheat. Bittman doesn't argue that we need to become vegetarians, but "less-meatarians" and that our current meat-centric diet is not only bad for our health, but unsustainable, especially as more and more people around the world emulate the American diet.

Cooking Up a Story interviewed Bittman during his visit, so if you missed him at Powell's, you can hear what he has to say here and here.

Having read Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food and spent much of my life studying the intersection of farming, the environment, health and culture, there wasn't much new to me in either Pollan's or Bittman's talks. Nevertheless, I found them both inspiring and enjoyed seeing so many other people who care deeply about food.


  1. Great review (and of course I LOVED seeing Michael Pollan with you and talking about food when we weren't hearing about it!). :)

  2. I'm really glad you were able to come! I love hearing all your kitchen exploits. Did I tell you I made the quinoa salad for my first So Long Supermarket class? People who had tried, and not liked, other quinoa salads LOVED this one. Thank you for telling me about it. I need to make another batch soon.