Just eat what your great-grandma ate

These days, it seems as if almost any statement about the relationship between food and health needs to be taken with a grain of … Mrs. Dash? We have all become victims of what might be called the “Sleeper” syndrome, after the 1973 movie in which Woody Allen wakes up in the future and discovers that everything he thought he knew about food was wrong. In the film, the physicians of the future confer:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: (chuckling) Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or … hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy … precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.

All too credible, to Michael Pollan’s way of thinking. “Today in America,” he writes in “In Defense of Food,” “the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented – and dizzying.” We are the victims of what Pollan sees as the media-industrial-political complex: “journalism by uncritically reporting the latest dietary studies on its front pages; the food industry by marketing dubious foodlike products on the basis of tenuous health claims; and the government by taking it upon itself to issue official dietary advice based on sketchy science in the first place and corrupted by political pressure in the second.”

Most of all, Pollan writes, we are victims of the ideology called “nutritionism,” which is based on several “unexamined assumptions,” among them that “foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” and “that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.” Moreover, nutritionism has foisted on us a view of a kind of eternal food fight going on in our bodies: “protein against carbs; carbs against proteins; (…) fats against carbs” as well as “smaller civil wars (…) within the sprawling empires of the big three: refined carbohydrates versus fiber; animal protein versus plant protein; saturated fats versus polyunsaturated fats; (…) omega-3 fatty acids versus omega-6s.” No wonder the pharmaceutical industry makes so much money from drugs to combat heartburn.

And now we seem to be entering the “Sleeper” future, in which deep fat may make a comeback. “What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism,” Pollan observes, “the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism: its supreme test and, as now is coming clear, its most abject failure.” More and more scientists are questioning whether there really is a connection between dietary fat and heart disease. Not only that, Pollan quotes an article from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition: “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.” In other words, the low-fat, low-cholesterol campaign not only hasn’t helped stem such problems as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, but it may have in fact made them worse.

Readers of his engagingly written earlier books on food, “The Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” know that Pollan is not just another Berkeley food crank. Moreover, his is not the only new book proclaiming the hazards of nutritionism. Pollan himself cites science writer Gary Taubes’ recently published “Good Calories, Bad Calories” as an “important” book “blowing the whistle on the science behind the low-fat campaign.” Taubes’ book is a heavier read than Pollan’s, thickly documented and heavy on the science. Pollan faults it for not being skeptical enough about the current identification of carbohydrates as the enemy that fats were once thought to be: “As its title suggests, ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories,’ valuable as it is, does not escape the confines of nutritionism.”

Pollan urges us to relax and not worry so much about food. At the beginning of the book he provides a mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” After spending much of the book explaining why almost all nutritional advice in the past 30 or 40 years has been misleading, unsubstantiated, bogus and even counterproductive, he unpacks his mantra for us concisely and amusingly. “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he advises. This needs a bit more explanation. After all, many of our great-grandmothers weren’t exposed to the great multicultural bounty we find in stores and restaurants, so a lot of them wouldn’t recognize some perfectly wholesome stuff as edible. Calamari, for example, or tofu. One imagines Great-Grandma’s reaction to such now-commonplace fare as artichokes (“You want me to cook a thistle?”) or yogurt (“That milk is sour!”). To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, it was a brave great-grandmother who ate the first oyster.

But Pollan’s point is this: Great-Grandmother never cooked with guar gum, carrageenan, mono- and diglycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, soy lecithin and any number of other ingredients found in processed food. She would never eat cotton, but cottonseed oil is commonplace in all sorts of the “edible foodlike substances” found in supermarkets today.

Pollan’s advice is sensible and even inspiring. It can, however, be faulted as a little elitist. It’s not that hard if, like Pollan, you live in Berkeley, where Alice Waters is guide and guru, to shop carefully at farmers’ markets and specialty stores, to spend more to get better stuff, to cook your meals, and to eat them slowly and at a table with good company. But God help you if you’re a single parent working long hours and living in a poorer neighborhood where there aren’t even any supermarkets. A bag of Whoppers or a bucket of KFC is probably your inevitable choice.

And, in the end, this thoughtful, entertaining and helpful book does wind up being a little more alarmist than Pollan pretends it is. The very thought that a book needs to be written “In Defense of Food” is unsettling. It might instead have been called “Fear of Feeding.”