Michael Pollan’s simple dietary advice: Eat ‘real food’

    “Real-food” advocate Michael Pollan walked on stage for the Philadelphia Speaker’s Series on Monday night carrying bags of groceries. Those in the Kimmel Center audience familiar with Pollan’s mantra — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — had to be thinking: Whole Foods? Local food co-op? Lancaster County farmer’s market?

    Nope. He had spent the afternoon shopping at Acme.

    “Real-food” advocate Michael Pollan walked on stage for the Philadelphia Speaker’s Series on Monday night carrying bags of groceries. Those in the Kimmel Center audience familiar with Pollan’s mantra — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — had to be thinking: Whole Foods? Local food co-op? Lancaster County farmer’s market?

    Nope. He had spent the afternoon shopping at Acme.

    Why? The man, who in his 2006 bestseller “The Omvivore’s Dilemma” told us that we had a “national eating disorder,” wanted to show us some of the crooked medicine we’ve been ingesting.

    Pollan, who The New York Times has called “America’s food conscience,” spread the items out on a table next to his podium. The cornucopia of industrialized, prepackaged, high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden foodstuffs called to mind the artfully corporate touch of an infomercial’s set decorator.

    However, he arranged the products not to promote them but to condemn them. Wisely, Pollan did this with empathy for human weakness, an understanding of the confusion caused by unscrupulous marketing promises and, perhaps most importantly, a lot of jokes.

    Of the sugary breakfast cereal that brags of having “more whole grain than any other ingredient,” Pollan quipped, “The second-most prevalent ingredient: marshmallows.”

    Remarking on recently bankrupt Hostess Brands, Inc., he assured the audience: “At least the Twinkie will never die.” Why? “The bacteria know not to eat it.”

    “Peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches have become too difficult for us,” he said. “Smucker’s now sells pre-made PBJs with the crusts already taken off.” He then joked that there must be a room in the Smucker’s warehouse filled only with sandwich crusts.

    The humorous tone, though, belies Pollan’s deep commitment to the seriousness of his message.

    He breaks it down into three basic facts:

    The so-called “Western diet” — high-calorie, high-fat, high-salt, and a lot of grain-fed meat — brings with it diseases previously unknown to man. Pollan noted that when this diet is introduced into a new culture (for instance, African villages), heart-disease, diabetes and cancer quickly follow.
    We are omnivores and are adaptable to a great variety of food.
    If we get off the Western diet, we’ll see a significant change in our health.

    After spending the better part of his journalistic career espousing this, he knows that to flatly confront people about their deeply engrained personal eating habits is a fool’s errand.

    But he also knows that to remain silent is equally foolish in a land flush with heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

    And so, throughout Monday night’s presentation (as well as in his most recent book, “Food Rules”), Pollan urged the audience, through what smacks undeniably — perhaps embarrassingly — of common-sense, to awaken to the horrors of the modern food machine.

    Common sense point No. 1 for Pollan seems to have to do with how we define what food is. Too often, he told the audience, we get caught up in thinking of food only in nutritional terms: We don’t see an apple as an apple; we see it merely as source of fiber. And following some strange nutritional calculus, he said, we arrive at the thought that the prepackaged breakfast bar aggressively promising said fiber is somehow the apple’s equivalent. Pollan contends that it isn’t. For him there’s “food,” and then there’s “edible food-like substance.”

    When we eat the latter (including all processed foods), we need “experts” to tell us what to eat. We’re thrown into a tizzy with each passing diet craze. And we grow more and more physically and neurotically unbalanced. This leads us, in one instance, to jettison butter in favor of margarine — only to later learn the truth about trans-fats and stampede back in the other direction. Another instance finds us categorically vilifying one of the oldest and simplest foods in our diet: pasta.

    When we eat the former, “real food,” as humans have done throughout most of our history up until about midway through the 20th century, we do pretty well, said Pollan.

    This is true across time, he told the audience, and in many varied regions throughout the world. Many native peoples of the Americas ate mostly plants. The Maasai in Africa ate mostly meat. The Inuit of the Arctic ate mostly fat (whale blubber). Yet each group stayed healthy. The common denominator: Eating real food unaltered by agro-chemical alchemy or Jersey Turnpike flavor labs.

    And when we eat this real food, according to Pollan — especially if we cook it ourselves and actually sit down to eat it at table with (gasp!) other people — meals can be what they’re supposed to be: pleasurable, nourishing and communal.

    Yet, as many know, this pastoral ideal faces many hurdles, not the least of which is figuring out exactly what counts as a real food — a difficult question that opens a Pandora’s box of complexities that intrude into almost all subject areas, and will be parsed out here only cursorily:

    Can a real food be genetically modified? Pollan is against it, but the issue is complicated because genetic modifications inadvertently get into organic crops.
    Does real food have to be organic?Pollan prefers it, but often takes the source of the food into greater consideration, especially because getting organic labeling is now a bureaucratic process. Of course, he said, it depends on your personal priorities. His are often to his local community and the small farmers surrounding it. The question at farmer’s markets, he said, shouldn’t be “Are you organic?” but rather “How do you deal with pests and fertility?”
    Does it include meat? A complicated issue. Pollan definitely thinks it can, but is very selective about where he gets his meat — specifically, looking for an animal raised in a dignified, non-cruel way without use of antibiotics. He calls himself a “flexatarian” who eats meat “once or twice a week” from farmers he’s met and interviewed personally.

    Through his dissection of these and many other diet-related questions, Pollan left the audience with much food for thought.

    And when the audience stopped cheering and Pollan had long left the stage, all that was left in Verizon Hall was a table of processed food sitting alone, untouched — just the way Michael Pollan would have it.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.