Obsessed With Nutrition? That’s An Eating Disorder

Not all scientific study of Mars is about extraterrestrial exploration. Some of it is about chocolate. Scientists at Mars Corporation have found evidence that the flavanols in cocoa have beneficial effects on the heart, thus allowing Mars to market products like its health-minded Rich Chocolate Indulgence Beverage.

In the same spirit, nutritionism has lately helped to justify vitamin-enriched Diet Coke, bread bolstered with the Omega-3 fatty acids more readily found in fish oil, and many other new improvements on what Michael Pollan calls “the tangible material formerly known as food.”

Goaded by “the silence of the yams,” Mr. Pollan wants to help old-fashioned edibles fight back. So he has written “In Defense of Food,” a tough, witty, cogent rebuttal to the proposition that food can be reduced to its nutritional components without the loss of something essential. “We know how to break down a kernel of corn or grain of wheat into its chemical parts, but we have no idea how to put it back together again,” he writes.

In this lively, invaluable book–which grew out of an essay Mr. Pollan wrote for The New York Times Magazine, for which he is a contributing writer–he assails some of the most fundamental tenets of nutritionism: that food is simply the sum of its parts, that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, that the primary purpose of eating is to maintain health, and that eating requires expert advice. Experts, he says, often do a better job of muddying these issues than of shedding light on them. And it serves their own purposes to create confusion. In his opinion the industry-financed branch of nutritional science is “remarkably reliable in its ability to find a health benefit in whatever food it has been commissioned to study.”

Some of this reasoning turned up in Mr. Pollan’s best-selling “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” But “In Defense of Food” is a simpler, blunter and more pragmatic book, one that really lives up to the “manifesto” in its subtitle. Although he is not in the business of dispensing self-help rules, he incorporates a few McNuggets of plain-spoken advice: Don’t eat things that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Avoid anything that trumpets the word “healthy.” Be as vitamin-conscious as the person who takes supplements, but don’t actually take them. And in the soon to be exhaustively quoted words on the book’s cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” An inspiring head of lettuce is the poster image for this mantra.

Do we really need such elementary advice? Well, two-thirds of the way through his argument Mr. Pollan points out something irrefutable. “You would not have bought this book and read this far into it if your food culture was intact and healthy,” he says. Nor would you eat substances like Go-Gurt, eat them on the run or eat them at mealtimes that are so out of sync with friends and relatives that the real family dinner is an endangered ritual. Other writers on food, from Barbara Kingsolver to Marion Nestle, have expressed the same alarm, but “In Defense of Food” is an especially succinct and helpful summary.

Among the historical details that underscore a sense of food’s downhill slide: the way a Senate Select Committee led by George McGovern was pressured in 1977 to reword a dietary recommendation. Its warning to “reduce consumption of meat” turned into “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

When Mr. McGovern lost his seat three years later, Mr. Pollan says, the beef lobby “succeeded in rusticating the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein squatting in the middle of its plate.”

Mr. Pollan shows how the story of nutritionism is “a history of macronutrients at war.” If the conventional scientific wisdom has moved from demon (saturated fat) to demon (carbohydrates), creating irreconcilably different theories about the health benefits of various foods, it has also created an up-and-coming eating disorder: orthorexia.

“We are,” he underscores, “people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” This book is biliously entertaining about orthorexia’s crazy extremes. A recent “qualified” F.D.A.-approved health claim for corn oil makes sense, Mr. Pollan says, “as long as it replaces a comparable amount of, say, poison in your diet and doesn’t increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.”

Since a Western diet conducive to diabetes has led us not to improved eating habits but to a growing diabetes industry, complete with its own magazine (Diabetic Living), Mr. Pollan finds little wisdom from the medical establishment about food and its ramifications. “We’ll know this has changed when doctors have kicked the fast-food franchises out of the hospitals,” he says.

Until then he recommends that we pay more attention to the reductive effects of food science, recognize the fallibility of research studies (because to replicate the healthy effects of, say, the Mediterranean diet completely, you need to live like a villager on Crete) and dial back the clock. Mr. Pollan advocates a return to the local and the basic, even at the risk of elitism. He recommends that Americans spend more on food: not only more money but also more time. Eat less, and maybe you make up the financial difference. Trade fast food for cooking, and maybe you restore some civility to the traditional idea of the meal.

“No, a desk is not a table,” he points out. Though he shouldn’t have to tell us that, readers of “In Defense of Food” will be glad he did.