What’s for Dinner?

In his 2006 blockbuster, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan gave voice to Americans’ deep anxiety about food: What should we eat? Where does our food come from? And, most important, why does it take an investigative journalist to answer what should be a relatively simple question?

In the hundreds of interviews Pollan gave following the book’s publication, the question everyone, including me, asked him was: What do you eat? It was both a sincere attempt to elicit a commonsense prescription and, when it came from cynical East Coast journalists, a thinly veiled attempt to trap the author. “Oh! So he shops at farmers markets,” we snipped enviously to one another. “Well, easy for him out there in Berkeley where they feast on peaches and cream in February! What about the rest of us?”

In Defense of Food is Pollan’s answer: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

For some, that instruction will seem simple, even obvious. (It will seem especially so to those who read Pollan’s lengthy essay on the same topic in the New York Times magazine last year.) But for most people, those seven little words are a declaration of war on the all-American dinner. Goodbye, 12-ounce steak. Instead, how about three ounces of wild-caught salmon served with roasted butternut squash and a heap of sauteed kale? For many, following the rules may not be so simple after all.

Yet in this slim, remarkable volume, Pollan builds a convincing case not only against that steak dinner but against the entire Western diet. Over the last half-century, Pollan argues, real food has started to disappear, replaced by processed foods designed to include nutrients. Those component parts, he says, are understood only by scientists and exploited by food marketers who thrive on introducing new products that hawk fiber, omega-3 fatty acids or whatever else happens to be in vogue.

Pollan calls it the age of “nutritionism,” an era when nutrients have been elevated to ideology, resulting in epidemic rates of obesity, disease and orthorexia, a not yet official name for an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. “What we know is that people who eat the way we do in the West today suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity than people eating any number of different traditional diets,” he writes. “When people come to the West and adopt our way of eating, these diseases soon follow.”

Part of Pollan’s answer to improving our health is going back to traditional foods and ways of eating: Eat leaves, not seeds. Steer clear of any processed food with a health claim. And for goodness sake, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

But equally important is changing the way we relate to food. Pollan argues that we’ve traded in our food culture — a.k.a. eating what Mom says to eat — for nutritionism, which puts experts in charge and makes the whole question of what to eat so confusing in the first place. Indeed, Pollan makes a strong case that the “French paradox” — the way the French stay thin while gobbling triple creme cheese and foie gras — isn’t a paradox at all. The French have a different relationship with food. They eat small portions, don’t come back for seconds and spend considerably more time enjoying their food — an eminently sensible approach.

In Pollan’s mind, trading quantity for quality and artificial nutrients for foods that give pleasure is the first step in redefining the way we think about food. The rules here: Pay more, eat less. Eat meals, not snacks. Cook your own meals and, if you can, plant a garden.

Each of the rules is well supported — and only occasionally with the scientific mumbo-jumbo that Pollan disparages. But what makes Pollan’s latest so engrossing is his tone: curious and patient as he explains the flaws in epidemiological studies that have buttressed nutritionism for 30 years, and entirely without condescension as he offers those prescriptions Americans so desperately crave.

That’s no easy feat in a book of this kind. What should we eat? The answer is here. Now we just have to see if Americans are willing to follow good advice.