Diet Fads and American Eating

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I’m Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, the skinny on Luciano Pavarotti.

But first, Michael Pollan is an author. He’s written about food, gardening, the environment, building his own small house in the woods. That book is called “A Place of My Own.” He’s now turned his attention again to food in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Magazine. Mr. Pollan has an essay titled Our National Eating Disorder. `In this land of astounding abundance,’ he writes, `we have become the world’s most anxious eaters.’

Michael Pollan joins us now from studios at the University of California at Berkeley, where he’s a professor of journalism.

Thank you for being with us.

Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (University of California-Berkeley): My pleasure, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: You begin your article talking about carbophobia, which I’m translating as fear of carbohydrates…

Prof. POLLAN: You got it.

WERTHEIMER: …which you say replaced lipophobia.

Prof. POLLAN: Lipophobia, that was our last food phobia, a fear of fat.


Prof. POLLAN: Lipids, and that started back in the ’70s, when nutritional guidelines came out urging us to eat less red meat and avoid saturated fats.

WERTHEIMER: Now this, of course, is not the first two food fads that the United States has fallen for.

Prof. POLLAN: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We have got a long history of food faddism in America. I think it’s deeply wired into our DNA as eaters in this country. But around the turn of the century, the turn of the last century, you know, there was a famous era of food faddism that “The Road to Wellville,” actually, that movie and book, chronicled quite well, T. Coraghessan Boyle’s book. But back then, America’s elite was going to the sanitarium at Battle Creek, and they were subjecting themselves to all-grape diets, all-milk diets, to four-a-day enemas of yogurt, accompanied by…

WERTHEIMER: That’s enough. Stop, stop, stop. Now you think that as a nation, that there’s something about us that wants to organize our food in some peculiar way, that somehow it’s not so much that we’re susceptible to fads as we are susceptible to science, perhaps?

Prof. POLLAN: All that nuttiness back in Battle Creek went under the rubric of scientific eating. But I think that that’s more the product of a vacuum. I think if you have a strong culinary tradition that’s stable over many generations, you’re much less susceptible to things like a food pyramid coming out of the government, or a food marketing claim from a company. So…

WERTHEIMER: But isn’t it that we have tons of food traditions? I mean, we have so many immigrant groups. We come from everywhere.

Prof. POLLAN: And that becomes, in a way, part of the problem. We don’t have a stable food tradition, since we’ve had so many different groups. I look at my own background, and I asked my mother recently what did she have for dinner when she was a child? And she told me about all these eastern European Jewish delicacies that her mother prepared for her, none of which she prepared for us. We had a whole other, you know, cuisine that she kind of invented, and it was very kind of 1960s World’s Fair, you know. There was boeuf Bourguignonne and Beef Wellington and spaghetti and meatballs.

WERTHEIMER: Which you cook every night, right?

Prof. POLLAN: And I–you know, and I haven’t made a single one of those dishes for my family. We have our own cuisine. So it’s a wonderful thing in some ways, but the downside is that there is this vacuum into which steps crackpots and experts and nutritionists and food marketers who are able to sway us.

WERTHEIMER: We have to be our own food scientists. You talk about supermarkets as adding to the sort of bewildering cornucopia of choices. Now we have some items in the studio after a quick foray into a supermarket. Hostess cupcakes, which are universally loved, and chocolate cake with creamy filling, generally considered to be indulgent, and then something else which is called the SnackWell CarbWell snack bar. Now one has slightly more calories, the other has half the carbohydrates. Are these the kinds of choices you’re talking about?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, I’m confused already, which is sort of the point.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you know, I must say that one of the things that I thought was sort of–struck me about your piece was that, you know, however peculiar we Americans may be in the way we decide what to eat, it seems to me that it’s unreasonable to say that we Americans don’t take pleasure in our food. I mean, we’re one of the fattest nations, we think about it, we read about it, we eat a lot of it.

Prof. POLLAN: You know, there’s a very interesting psychologist at UP named Paul Rozin who’s done a lot of comparisons of food styles, and he finds that Americans associate food with health more than pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t take pleasure in it, but our pleasure is surrounded by guilt and anxiety and worry. It’s not unambivalent pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Now I’ve been talking to a lot of voters who keep telling me that they want all the candidates to have a plan. I want you to have a plan. I mean, everybody should have several plans. Do you have some plan for what we could do to sort of junk the science, junk the junk science and the junk food, leave the guilt behind and learn to love food?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, I don’t know if it’s a plan but, I mean, I think there’s nothing more important than families sitting down to dinner together, and I think it’s a very important socializing institution. On any given night, something like 85 percent of families are not having a family dinner, and I’ve done a lot of reporting on large food companies, and they market to individuals. They actually set about eroding the family meal because they don’t want Mom to make these decisions. They want each child to make the decision. So they really are trying very hard to break us down into individual kind of antinomian eaters.

And I hate to say, you know, look at the French or the Italians, but you know, here they are enjoying their pasta, enjoying their bread, and they’re actually healthier for it. So I think, you know, part of it is looking around and seeing who’s doing it in a way that is not only pleasurable but healthy. And the idea that pleasure and health are not opposed, there’s not a zero-sum relationship, that’s a liberating idea.

WERTHEIMER: Michael Pollan’s article will appear in the Sunday Times Magazine.

Michael Pollan, thank you very much.

Prof. POLLAN: Thank you very much, Linda.

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