What does it mean to eat clean? In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan deciphers food jargon with Well + Good.
Michael Pollan is the Julia Roberts of the food movement.
The Bay Area writer’s books are blockbusters (he’s at five New York Times bestsellers and counting), his ideas are approachable (cue, “Eat foods, not too much, mostly plants”), and he’s considered one of the most powerful figures in that world (it’s no People’s Most Beautiful list, but Time named him one of the 100 most influential people back in 2010). He’s even award show-approved, with Food Inc., the 2009 documentary he consulted on and narrated, receiving an Oscar nomination. Last year’s In Defense of Food was the PBS documentary version of his “eater’s manifesto” that lays out the connections between diet and health and takes head-on our detrimental obsession with nutritionism (just google “Snackwells fat-free devil’s food cookie” if you need a refresher).
If anyone can convince us to cut the corn, meet local farmers, and bring the joy of eating back to the dinner table, it may well be America’s (sugar-free) sweetheart.
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“I end up speaking about obesity in front of really skinny people all the time,” Pollan explained after a screening of the TV documentary in New York City. That’s what made turning to television so important to him; he may be a superstar in the food world, but the people whose lives would most dramatically be impacted by his message may have never heard of him before. “Finally,” he adds, “that’s how we’re going to meet America.”
Here are six ways that Pollan wants us to start thinking about food. —Rebecca Willa Davis
1. We’ve got to keep it real (and not packaged).
“The first step in reforming appetite is going from processed food to real food. Then, if you can afford organic or grass-fed, fantastic. But the first step is moving from processed industrial food to the real thing. It’s very hard to make money selling simple food. An avocado can’t change its stripes very well; the changes [in how we view avocados] have been with our attitudes, but the avocado was always there.”
2. Just because GMOs are deemed safe doesn’t mean that they’re good for us.
“When we’re talking about health, [GMOs] aren’t that important. Corn and soy are not feeding us; mostly we’re feeding them to cars (about 30 percent of what we grow) and feed (about 40 percent). On the whole, we’ve had 15 years of GMOs in the marketplace and have accomplished remarkably little. What we’ve gotten is food soaked in glyphosate, pesticides… I think [GMOs are] a huge disappointment. We haven’t seen anything to prove they’re unsafe—but the industry has sold us on the argument that to be critical of GM is to be anti-science.”
3. It’s okay to eat some meat, and here’s why…
“There are a great many moral and ethical reasons to not eat meat. I eat it; besides the fact that it’s delicious, I want to support good agriculture [that creates] a virtuous circle of nutrients. All meat isn’t created equal. The first way to lower meat consumption is only eating pasture-raised and grass-fed [meat]—that stuff is really expensive! [But] meat should be front and center in Paris [at COP21]. In a way, it’s the low-hanging fruit if we want to lower carbon emissions.”
4. Don’t fall for nutritionism (AKA food marketing lingo that sounds like science).
“The dairy industry has really done a good job on us—[they have us thinking] you’d have no bones if you don’t drink it. [Dairy’s] absolutely not necessary; you get more calcium from spinach than milk. Low-fat milk is kind of a joke.”
5. The food movement needs to become a political movement.
“This movement, if it deserves to be called that, needs to get people to the ballot box. Politicians aren’t afraid of us; food companies are. It really needs lawyers, policy-makers, and organizers—I would say that’s really important.”
6. But ultimately, the secret to healthy eating might just be in your kitchen.
“The more I’ve been working on these issues, the more I realize that cooking is the solution. Cooking food yourself: There’s no single step you can take that will automatically solve so many problems. It’s also key for the food movement—I believe it’s a political act. The way you support farmers is by shopping and buying raw ingredients.”