Let me start with congratulations. Your best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is a brilliant exposé of modern farming and food production practices; your description of the industrialization of organic agriculture will motivate all of us, myself included, to order more of our produce from CSAs and make more trips to farmers’ markets; your account of the week spent on Joel Salatin’s pasture-based farm will inspire many other farmers to adopt his elegant alternative; and your analysis of the arguments for vegetarianism provides much ammunition against this unsustainable, unnatural lifestyle. All this is presented to us in your masterful writing style, making The Omnivore’s Dilemma a delight to read.
And yet… after this feast of words, the reader is left strangely hungry. That’s because you promised us more, more than just a description of what many of us already know, of a food system gone wrong and making us very sick. You promised to throw light on that burning question: what should we have for dinner, what should we eat to have a healthy life? You note that “whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety” and hint that returning to the “quaint and unscientific criteria [of] pleasure and tradition” may leave us healthier and happier than the dictates of conventional nutritionists.
Perhaps the lack of cohesive answers in your book provided the motivation for your subsequent article, “Unhappy Meals,” published January 28, 2007 in the New York Times. After your best-seller extolling the virtues of a system wherein animals are raised outdoors and allowed to express their biological distinctiveness—their chickenness, pigness or cowness—a system that provides our best solution to the problem of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), soil depletion and global warming, here’s the crumb you give us: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. “A little meat won’t kill you,” you tell us, thereby dismissing the whole system that Joel Salatin has so valiantly pioneered. If a lot of meat is going to kill us, as you imply, why bother with meat at all? If the solution to the health crisis is to eat more plants, we’d better get to work monocropping more broccoli.
What’s so disappointing about your conclusions is the fact that after revealing the dark side of the industrial food system, and blasting the vegetarian argument out of the water, you end up dishing up the food industry’s tired old anti-saturated fat, plant-based-diet propaganda. What you’ve done is present your health-conscious yuppie readers with the prudent diet dressed up in designer clothes and introduced your foodie readers to food Puritanism in a silk gown. She looks lovely and slim, she’s popular with all the right people, but the shocking secret that emerges on the honeymoon is her frigidity; the girl in green turns out to be barren, unable to provide us with the thing we most desire—a healthy productive life.
In retrospect, your inadequate prescription is not surprising because you actually show your hand right at the beginning of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where you tell us that foie gras and triple crème cheese are “demonstrably toxic substances” and that bread and pasta are “two of the most wholesome and uncontroversial foods known to man.” You describe yourself as an investigative journalist, so we are justified in asking: have you found any science proving that foie gras and triple crème cheese are “demonstrably toxic?” These delicious traditional foods are not demonstrably toxic to the French, so why would they be toxic for us? And have you interviewed even one person among the millions suffering from carb addiction or celiac disease, or stood in the bread aisle and read the labels on what passes today for bread, the stuff made from plants that we are supposed to eat six to eleven servings of every day?
Because you are such a persuasive writer, people believe you when you say that saturated fat is bad, that lean meat is healthier than fatty meat, and that vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters. You repeat these ideologies, these “shared but unexamined assumptions” as you call them, without examining them at all, passing on to your readers many of the malicious dietary falsehoods put together by the industry you claim to dissect. Your endorsement of the McGovern Committee recommendations—at least of its original recommendations to cut back on meat and dairy products—is truly perplexing given that a quick search of the internet reveals the former senator’s marriage to corporate agriculture, a system that would much rather we consumed plants, especially processed plants, than animal foods.
It’s interesting that you make corn your focus in the chapter on industrial agriculture, and not soy; and that you follow the carbohydrate branch of the corn processing tree, not the one that leads to the production of oil. For it is impossible to understand fully what has happened to our food supply without following the river of vegetable oil—first corn oil and then soybean oil. Just a little digging will reveal that it was the edible oil industry, the industry that gave us polyunsaturated cooking oils, margarine and “pure vegetable shortening,” that spawned the anti-saturated fat propaganda, the fiction that butter is bad and cream is toxic. Instead you have fallen for this industry lie hook, line and sinker. There’s not a bit of butter to bless yourself with in your four meals, not even on Joel Salatin’s delicious heritage corn. It’s obvious that your answer to the question you raise in the very first pages of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “The trans fats or the butter or the ‘not butter’?” is the “not butter.” In “Unhappy Meals” you remind us that margarine was “one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced,” as though you can’t even bring yourself to mention the B word. You’ve figured out that margarine is a fraud but are still doing the industry’s work of belittling her competition.
Your book gets off to such a hopeful start as you refer to “native wisdom” and “deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.” But you don’t tell us much about native wisdom, for example the native wisdom that always sought out the fattest animals and never ate meat without the fat; the native wisdom that ate the organ meats first, the foie , the gras of the intestines and the triple crème marrow; the native wisdom that, with few exceptions, honored plants as food for animals and animals as food for humans. Health, you tell us, depends on reading biological signals such as smell and taste—except, apparently, the biological signals that make fat so appealing. These must be suppressed, say the gurus, and you’ve bought into the dogma.
It’s true that we’ve lost this native wisdom, this instinct for what we should and shouldn’t eat. In this phase of our evolution, we can only turn to science to guide us. But you are not very happy with the science either, referring sarcastically to the study of nutrients in our food as nutritionism. What’s fascinating is the fact that good science—not food Puritanism masquerading as science—validates traditional wisdom. Good science has discovered vital nutrients in the fats and organs of animals, especially of grass-fed animals, nutrients like vitamins A, D and K, which are critical for normal growth and reproduction; and good science also validates the need for cholesterol and saturated fat, which likewise support normal growth and play key roles in the function of the brain, lungs, kidney, immune system and reproductive systems.
Native cultures did not know the names of vitamins, but they understood the concept of nutrient-dense foods and taught these concepts to the younger generation. In fact, every food choice and preparation technique in traditional cultures aimed to maximize the nutrients in the foods they consumed—not to provide them with puny Recommended Daily Allowances but nutrients in superabundance. Thus the choice of organ meats over muscle meats—liver is at least ten times richer in most nutrients than steak and a thousand times richer in nutrients than fruits and vegetables; the liberal consumption of animal fats; the daily use of bones to supply calcium, usually as bone broth; the fermentation of fruits and sap and infusions to make condiments and beverages bubbling with nourishment; and the careful preparation of grains and legumes to neutralize substances that block the uptake of nutrients and to increase nutrient content—like the liver-steak ratio, the level of nutrients in fermented grains and legumes can be increased an order of magnitude. Thus the Native Americans processed cooked cornmeal by wrapping it in corn husks and letting it ferment for two weeks. When we compare industrial foods with native foods, we need to realize that the comparison is not of foods impoverished by processing with the parent food, but of foods impoverished by processing with the parent foods greatly enriched by processing—a difference that is more likely to be one hundredfold rather than a mere tenfold.
More than anything, traditional cultures valued the fats and organ meats of animals on green grass—and it is the recognition of the benefits of these foods, more than a desire to eat local or opt out of industrial agriculture, that will drive consumers to farms like Joel’s. The nutrients lost when we move animals from grass to CAFOs are the very nutrients that protect the arteries from calcification, prevent arthritis, cure cancer and confer that greatest of gifts—children who are healthy, strong and happy.
So the prescription for good health is not to eat more plants, but more butter—butter from cows eating lots of green plants—and to imbibe that quintessence of green grass, the gift of the sacred cow, whole, unprocessed milk; and to eat egg yolks and gras and foie from grass-fed animals, and to feed these sacred nutrient-dense foods to babies, to start them off and truly nourish them during their period of growth with the richest, most nutrient-dense foods that science can reveal to us.
You wonder whether farms like Joel Salatin’s have any future on a planet on which the industrial food system seems to have a vise-like grip; not only do these farms have a future, they are our future, our only future, because only those with the wisdom to support these kinds of farms and eat the nutrient-dense foods and fats of grass-fed animals will produce healthy offspring in future generations.
These offspring will not suffer “stresses and anxieties” over their food because they will be well nourished. Stress and anxiety are signs of fat deficiency; the unhappy meal is a wrong-fat meal or a lowfat meal.
Allow me to offer some suggestions to turn your angst-producing meal to one that leaves you satisfied and content. We’ll focus on your hunter-foraging meal, which is the one that comes closest to the precepts of nutritional wisdom. Dispense with the fava beans and double the pâté, pâté accompanied with traditionally fermented pickles, which help the body digest rich foods. Sauté your morels in butter, lots of butter, and serve them with a cream sauce—forget the fettuccine, it’s just empty calories. Use plenty of reduced bone broth on your meat—and not just for this meal but all your meals. Spread your wild East Bay yeast levain with butter, butter so thick it leaves teethmarks when you bite it. Place a dollop of raw whipped cream on your Bing cherry galette and wash down your meal with a traditional lacto-fermented beverage like root beer or cream soda. These suggestions, followed in principle at all your meals, provide a surefire remedy for anxiety and a recipe for good health.
One more thing: why not devote your next book, or at least an article, to the Weston A. Price Foundation? You mention us in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but don’t accurately describe our message. Come to our next conference where you will learn about traditional dietary wisdom, soak up our enthusiasm and taste real sodas. Visit some of our chapter leaders and find out how they are reconnecting thousands of consumers to grass-based farms that produce not only meat but raw milk. Find out why our members have jars of strange bubbling concoctions on their kitchen counters. Help us celebrate our rejection of industrial misinformation couched as science and our embrace of traditional fats, starting with the deep yellow butter of grass-fed cows. Apply your fine journalistic skills to describing this nascent movement, a movement that will return food happiness and good health to the industrial age. And then tuck your toes under one of our nutrient-dense traditional meals, loaded with good fats, velvety stocks and satisfying condiments. Watch that angst dissipate, replaced by a sense of oneness with the natural world.
The omnivore’s dilemma is not in fact a dilemma at all, but a construct of false nutritional doctrine. We need investigative journalists like you to help us clear away the misinformation. Please accept our invitation to a meal.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2007.
Eat real food. Eat a lot. Mostly local.
Posted on March 15, 2011 by Craig Fear
If you could encapsulate what you believe about food in three statements of three words or less, what would it be?
I’m prompted to ask this question for two reasons: 1) It’s fun and 2) Michael Pollan is wrong!
That’s right, I said it. Michael Pollan got me thinking about this because everyone seems to love and quote his mini-tidbits of nutritional wisdom. They’re becoming so commonly quoted that most people are unaware they stem from his writings. Here’s a few you’ve probably heard:
“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
“Avoid food products that make health claims.”
“Shop the perimeters of the supermarket and stay out of the middle aisles.”
I love them and quote them myself all the time! And here’s probably the most popular one of all:
“Eat Food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.”
Sounds good, right?
Truth be told…I hate it. And I’m not the only one.
Thousands of people are waking up to our escalating health epidemics in this country. And the further we get from the source of the problem, the more the truth becomes clear. Vegetarians say it’s meat. Vegans say it’s all animal products including eggs and milk. Doctors and dietitians say it’s saturated fat and cholesterol. Fitness experts say it’s lack of exercise. Basically, everyone says it’s some combination of those things. But the real reason is none of the above.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Michael Pollan as much as the next real food enthusiast. His book, Omnivore’s Dilemma , is the Silent Spring of this generation. It raised the red flag on industrialized agriculture and it made us look harder than ever at where our food is coming from. In so doing he has given a voice to small farms, to sustainably grown food and to everything that is good and noble and important about our food system.
His follow up to that book , In Defense of Food , condensed the message in Omnivore’s Dilemma into a more direct look at the controversial events and studies that led to our modern-day ideas about nutrition, which he wryly calls “nutritionism.” Pollan cleverly describes the inherently flawed nature of all nutritional studies, especially those that have led to the lipid hypothesis, the theory that fat causes disease. He attacks the forty-year government-pharmaceutical-medical-promoted war on fat, which he correctly points out has done nothing to improve our collective health. Pollan blows apart the lipid hypothesis with sheer venom and wit: What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism, the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism–its supreme test and, as is now coming clear, its most abject failure.
At this point you’re probably saying to yourself, Hold on just a minute. Are you really saying the whole low-fat deal was bogus? But my supermarket is still packed with low-fat this and no-cholesterol that! My doctor is still on me about my cholesterol and telling me to switch to low-fat everything. I was flabbergasted at the news too, because no one in charge–not in the government, not in the public health community–has dared to come out and announce: Um, you know everything we’ve been telling you for the last thirty years about the links between dietary fat and heart disease? And fat and cancer? And fat and fat? Well, this just in: It now appears that none of it was true. We sincerely regret the error.
No, the admissions of error have been muffled, and the recent mea culpas impossible to find. But read around the recent scientific literature and you will find a great many scientists beating a quiet retreat from the main tenets of the lipid hypothesis.
Pollan contrasts the low fat mantra with nutritionism’s greatest enemy:
the almighty Common Sense. In a chapter from In Defense of Food titled “The Elephant in the Room,” Pollan discusses the life and research of Dr. Weston Price. Price traveled the world in the 1930s studying the diets of cultures untouched by civilization. Dr. Price found a wide variety of diets but nowhere did he find cultures eating low fat or low cholesterol. He found that most cultures relied heavily on animal foods be they milk, meat, or eggs and found that these foods were considered sacred for good health, child development, and fertility. And nowhere did Dr. Price find type II diabetes, heart disease, or any of the other major epidemics that plague us today.
Of course Dr. Price didn’t find processed foods either, and processed foods are certainly the biggest culprit in our national health crises. And that is exactly Pollan’s point, which he conveys beautifully. It is not high-fat foods, which cultures have subsisted on for thousands of years, that are causing our health problems. It’s processed, industrialized food, plain and simple. As Dr. Price showed, wherever the foods of civilization go, so go their diseases–heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, digestive disorders, etc. None of the foods in our supermarket, especially those in the middle aisles, resemble anything that traditional people ate. Nor anything our great grandmothers ate. And as our health epidemics escalate, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the elephant in the room.
So then what’s my problem with Michael Pollan?
After tearing down the lipid hypothesis, after tearing down the nutritional fads of the past forty years, after celebrating the wonderful diversity in traditional diets, he reaffirms the one-size-fits-all USDA low-fat-low calorie food pyramid by saying, “Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.” This advice does not match up with what Dr. Price found! And it does not match up with what researchers, missionaries, explorers, colonialists, scientists, and researchers found when the Western world started coming in contact with so called non-civilized cultures.
So I think I can say it better. Ready? Here goes:
Eat Real Food. Eat a lot. Mostly local.
Let me explain.
First off, I realize what Pollan meant by “Eat Food” was exactly to eat real food. This is really the essence of what he writes about. But I think “eat real food” says it a little better and a little clearer. But that’s where the similarities end. The last two, “Not a lot” and “Mostly plants,” I take issue with and believe I can make a much clearer distinction about what we should eat and why.
So let’s look at his second statement. “Not a lot.” Of course we should not overeat. And of course Americans overeat. I get it. Everyone gets that. But again this statement is reaffirming this idea that’s been conditioned into us which is that for good long term health we should not eat a lot of calories. We have weight-loss programs, books, and marketing schemes making millions off this idea.
I say this all the time, and I can’t emphasize it enough: It’s not how much you eat, it’s WHAT you eat that really matters.
In his groundbreaking book, Good Calories, Bad Calories , researcher Gary Taubes shows how subjects on long-term low-calorie diets do lose weight but how a heavy price is paid. Subjects consistently report constant hunger, cravings, cold body temperatures, reduced energy, decreased blood pressure, anemia, inability to concentrate, and a decrease in sexual interest. Upon completion of the diets, the subjects almost always overindulged and put the weight back on and more.
Taubes goes on to show that a healthy metabolism and a healthy weight are most influenced not by caloric intake or even exercise but by the quality of the food being consumed. Thus those on nourishing, real foods, even without regular exercise, can maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. Conversely, those on nutrient-deficient diets, even with regular exercise , have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight and metabolism even at lower caloric intakes.
We’ve been so conditioned to think of food in terms of this simplistic equation where calories in equal calories out. The conventional thinking goes that if you consume a set amount of calories you need to burn off the equivalent amount in order to not gain weight. But Taubes showed that it scientifically doesn’t work that way at all. He validated the work of all the low-carb pioneers who were considered quacks at the height of the low-fat craze. They were all saying that calories were much less important than watching the carbohydrate intake in the diet, for it’s the carbohydrates in the diet that will most dictate how fat is stored in the body. Excess carbohydrates are converted to fat. Remove carbohydrates, especially the refined ones and you can eat quite liberally without have to obsess over calories.
This is what Dr. Atkins was saying since the early 1970s. I say it over and over–don’t worry about calories! The simplest thing I do with people is to help them lose weight. Just watch your carb intake and make sure you’re eating real food. That’s the key. Your body knows what to do with real food. It will regulate your appetite naturally and keep sugar cravings at bay. After all, it’s those refined, high-sugar, nutrient-deficient convenience foods that are easily digestible and that keep us overeating. Real foods won’t make you fat and they won’t make you sick. You can even eat a lot! Big meals used to be common before industrialization forced us off farms, away from the family unit and into the high-paced, eat-on-the-go lifestyle full of microwaveable, boxed, instant, canned, highly processed foods that most people take for normal today.
And finally, “Mostly plants.” This is the one that really makes my eyes roll. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say that all you have to do is eat more fruits and vegetables, I’d be a very rich man. Of course plants are an important part of most diets! Everybody knows that. They deliver essential nutrients in the form of minerals, vitamins, fiber, antioxidants and so forth. But, let’s get back to common sense for a minute.
In his decade-long study of traditional peoples, Dr. Price did not find many cultures eating primarily plant-based diets. Generally speaking if you were to take the high-carbohydrate USDA food pyramid and reverse it, you would find a much better representation of traditional diets. Fat and protein formed the foundation. Carbohydrate foods formed the middle and top.
Again, this is just common sense. Humans have adapted to a wide range of habitats, many of which do not have fertile farmland. In those regions, humans fish, or they domesticate animals, or hunt, or do a combination of these things depending on the ecosystem. In fact, of the three macronutrients–fats, proteins, and carbohydrates–carbohydrates are the only one that can be completely removed from the human diet with good health remaining intact. Just ask the Eskimos or any extreme cold-weather dwelling culture.
There are a lot more reasons why animal food-based diets are a better model for health. Unlike plant foods, animal foods represent a complete source of protein. They also contain cholesterol, which plays dozens of essential roles in the body. Cholesterol is an antioxidant and is an essential part of the inflammation process. If you have surgery or a dental procedure, your cholesterol will temporarily skyrocket. Once the body heals itself, the high cholesterol comes down. Likewise, remove inflammatory foods such as sugar, grains, and trans fats, and watch your high cholesterol come down.
Animal foods contain vitamin D. Most commonly eaten plant foods do not.
Animal foods contain the true version of vitamin A, retinol. Plants do not contain retinol. They contain beta-carotenes, which are converted to retinol in the digestive process, albeit less efficiently.
Furthermore, many of the wonderful nutrients in plants are more efficiently utilized in the presence of fat and protein. Just ask your taste buds.
Do you really like steamed greens plain? Makes my mouth pucker just thinking about it. How about those same greens smothered in butter and sea salt? Now we’re talking, right? Is there perhaps some biological reason that we like our vegetables better with butter or olive oil or a cream sauce or cheese? I think so. OK, just to belabor the point: How does freshly sliced garden tomatoes on a freshly baked bread sound? A little plain, no?
Now how does it sound drizzled with olive oil and smeared with goat cheese?
Pretty dang delicious, if you ask me.
Finally, many plants have anti-nutrients in them that are difficult on the human digestive system. Grains, even whole ones, are not always the nutritious foods that they’re made out to be. Gluten, the main protein in wheat, barley, and rye, is causing widespread problems in our culture right now. It’s a very difficult protein for the body to break down. Grains, as well as beans, nuts and seeds also contain naturally occurring substances called phytates, which block the absorption of a number of vitamins and minerals. Sprouting, soaking, and fermenting neutralizes phytates at the same time it increases nutrient concentration. However, few people do this anymore. And don’t count on Kellogg’s to do it anytime soon.
So saying we should eat mostly plants does not jive with what most people have survived on throughout human history. Nor does it jive with the human digestive tract, which is exquisitely designed to digest both plant and animal matter. We have enzymes for breaking down fat, protein, and carbohydrates. And guess what all the trillions of bacteria in your gut feed off?
Carbohydrates. That’s right, plant matter, grains, and beans are the primary causes of fermenting, rotting food in your colon, as the bacteria in your gut will feed off excess carbohydrates. Many nutrition protocols for common digestive problems involve reducing grains and certain types of carbohydrates that can feed these bacteria.
In fact, the most cutting-edge diet I know of today is a diet that is based mostly on meat and certain types of carbohydrates that not only don’t feed the unhealthy bacteria but also promote healing in the gastrointestinal tract. It’s called the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet, and it’s proving wonderfully effective for treating serious, chronic health problems such as autoimmune issues, chronic skin problems, chronic digestive problems, and even things like autism. For more information on the GAPS diet visit www.gapsdiet.com
So when it comes to saying what we should mostly eat, I think “mostly local” says it so much better. Saying we should eat “mostly plants” immediately gets bogged down in the controversial science of fats, carbs and protein–the very “nutritionism” ideas that Pollan is trying to escape from in the first place. And “mostly local” is just common sense. It’s large-scale agricultural practices and the corporate policies that promote them that are destroying our environment, destroying our health, and are in turn creating food shortages around the planet. It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that these large-scale practices are NOT sustainable.
The answer lies in small-scale, sustainable food systems. These can feed the planet, even in cities. In fact, just today I came across this article about a UN report that refutes the notion that only industrialized agriculture can feed the world:
I have travelled extensively in Asia and my favorite part of Asia is the urban food markets. These bustling, colorful markets are present every day, on the streets, on the sidewalks, in the alleys, at all times of the day.
The food is always fresh and, of course, always local. It feeds entire cities. This model may not be completely adaptable to the US urban landscape quite yet but even rooftops, balconies, lawns, and small backyards can yield a surprisingly diverse and large amount of food. Sooner or later (and probably sooner), we’re all going to have to re-learn some of the ways our great grandparents went about raising food.
Finally, local, sustainably grown foods are healthier for you and for your children. They’re better for the health of the animals. They’re better for the health of our communities. They keep farms alive and support local farmers. They promote biodiversity and prevent overdevelopment. And they are less dependent on oil, as industrial foods (including organic ones) must travel long distances from farm to fork. To put it simply, local foods are just better for our planet. Period. Ironically, this is the essence of what Michael Pollan has so eloquently taught us. I just think I outdid him at his own game.
So there you have it.
Eat real food. Eat a lot. Mostly local.
Think you can do better? Try it! It’s fun. Leave a comment below with your own version.