Sunday, January 3, 2010

Michael Pollan Insulted Me

As you may know if you’ve read my recent posts, I am up in Vermont. We have been here for 10 days of skiing, snowshoeing and hanging out with the kids by the fire. It may be hard to believe that in such surroundings anything could ruffle my feathers but something did. Actually, someone did and to add insult to injury it’s someone I really respect. While the kids were skiing one day, I decided to catch up on reading and work. I opened up one of Michael Pollan’s emails and heard about his new collection of food wisdom entitled Food Rules.

I enthusiastically read on as Mr. Pollan explained Food Rules and the reasoning behind it. And then I read something that extinguished my excitement, Mr Pollan wrote “a healthy diet is a whole lot simpler than the food industry and many nutritional scientists –what I call the Nutritional Industrial Complex—would have us believe.” Ouch! I spent years at New York University’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies pouring over textbooks containing…nutritional science. That coursework helped me greatly as I entered the workplace first at St Lukes Obesity Research Center (creating nutritional science) and later at Foodtrainers where clients came to see me, at least in part, because they felt I had two nutrition degrees and an implied handle on nutritional science. It seems Michael Pollan, whose books I read and lectures I attend, was taking a jab at my profession and colleagues and it wasn’t really the first time.

We have 2 sons who play hockey. My husband, in an effort to toughen the boys up, says to them “if someone pushes you (on the ice), you push them back.” While I initially objected to such reasoning, I am going to jump on my husbands’ bandwagon in the case of Mr Pollan. Lauren Slayton MS RD is pushing back. Let’s start with what has become Michael Pollan’s mantra for healthy eating:

“Eat real food, not too much of it, and more plants than meat. Or, put another way, get off the modern western diet, with its abundance of processed food, refine grains and sugars, and its sore lack of vegetables, whole grains and fruit.”

While this is sensible, clear advice it is limited in the “how” and “where” people should obtain this real food when we are surrounded by faux, junky food. For example, I would love to know what Michael Pollan would feed his children in a ski lodge or what he’d suggest I feed my children. Even our savvy Foodtrainers’ clients get confused in the supermarkets and need a roadmap of specifics. You simply cannot send people to a market and say “eat more plants.” We created a whole Market Foodtraining program to show people which food products are toxic and dangerous and which are ok when you’ve had your kale and your apples and crave something else.

Soon after the first email from events@MichaelPollan, a follow up email listing some of the Food Rules arrived. Don’t get me wrong, a lot or maybe all of what Mr Pollan writes is logical and sound. If you are interested in healthy eating, this new book may be a good primer. What I am saying, and remember I am “pushing back”, is that this list of rules may not be enough. Take one rule, “#47 Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.” On its surface, this makes sense. However, a great many Americans are emotional eaters eating when bored or stressed or for many other reasons other than hunger. Reading rule #47 is going to do as much as doctors who say “you may be better off eating an apple than a cookie.” Eating is often a deeper issue and may require further work, maybe with a nutritionist (trained in the very nutritional science Mr Pollan insulted). After years of counseling all types of eaters, I wish there was a list that could simplify eating and cure us of our food issues but I don’t think it’s enough on its own.

Nutritionists may be the very people who can carry out Michael Pollan’s wisdom. Doctors don’t have the time and a pamphlet, though concise, isn’t enough in my opinion to properly educate people about eating. For this reason, and of course my own feelings, I worry Mr Pollan may be alienating the very people who can carry out his mission. We, the nutritionists, can fill in the gaps and offer up the specifics.

I will purchase Mr Pollan’s book because, despite the affront, I see value in what he does and writes. I hope that, despite some of the shortcomings of nutritional science, Mr Pollan will respect nutritionists too.


  1. I suspect Don's response on FB is correct - if one were to take the comment literally Pollan is focusing on the agra/chemical/government organizations and the people that run it - the "Nutritional Industrial Complex" - definitely not professionals like you who operate outside of this machine and who are spending countless hours educating and rallying against what amounts to financially incentivised propaganda.

    I think what Pollan is suggesting is that we must question the conventional wisdom that comes from this "NIC". He wants us to really consider what they ("the experts") are putting out there - ex. the best way to get rid of E. coli is to inject beef with ammonia; that it's ok to label Fruit Loops as a healthy choice because it is enriched with vitamins; that overloading poultry, cattle and pigs with antibiotics and steroids is a great way to get food on our tables faster, etc.

    Ultimately, it seems like he is looking to the real nutrition professionals (like you) to help guide and provide clarity around the mass of information that is out there.

  2. I don't know if I entirely agree (though appreciate the comment). Yes, I think he objects to industry and their nutrition info but he also, inhis talks, objects to nutrition information being over complicated, even dietary needs etc. So while I sort of know nutritionists aren't his main foe he talks of nutritionalism and isn't necessarily pro nutrition.

  3. Very interesting post, and issue. I have often had this own debate internally. In my heart of hearts, I really want to be extremely healthy, to consume nutritious foods and provide them to my family, but I often feel very daunted by the complications of nutritional science. For me, if there were a way to render this complex science in more simple strokes so that we laypeople could understand it and absorb it, that would be fantastic.

    I am optimistic that there is a way to do this because you have done this for me in the past! I applaud you for standing up for yourself and your profession. And I appreciate this compelling snapshot of a bigger - and important - debate.

  4. hmm. i respect michael pollan a lot, but i'm not well acquainted enough with his work to know exactly what he says about nutritionists. it may be that it's just a jab at focusing on nutrition and forgetting the larger picture--i.e a nutritionist might say yay salmon's great, but it's not so great for sustainability.

    although, seafood's not a great example, as pollan seems to eat a lot of it (did you see his diet in nymag? i wrote about it in my blog).

    great thoughtful post by the way!

  5. Thanks for your comment and the heads up about NY mag piece. I think Pollan blames nutritionists for complicating nutrition. He shouldn't lump us all in one group!

  6. Lauren, I'm a dietitian and ACSM health fitness expert and besides my training I've had an intersting upbringing that spans from being on WIC to dealing with a dieting household to helping my mom manage quadruple bypass and diabetes.

    I agree with your sentiments about Pollan throwing dietitians and nutrition scientists under the bus. If you don't agree with him 100% you're wrong.

    I also learned in grad school communications classes that it is a common strategy to make someone the villian (nutrition scientists/RDs) so the victor (Pollan) can save the victims (the public who will buy his books).

    It's a business just like Hungry Girl and Eat This Not That etc.

    I'm a big fan of many minds at the table. We need the thoughts, brains and activism to create real change. I also believe that the solution is "build a bigger pie" and everyone can have a bite (or in this case, the pie is already big). However, I don't think it is necessary or even smart to mislead consumers and make accusations that entire fields of experts who have dedicated their life to making a difference aren't capable of helping people be healthier in a way that fits for them.