A couple years ago, I started to read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollen. I was aware of his first book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma and somewhat intrigued, but I never got around to reading it. When this came out, I decided to read it because I was hoping for a good science based description of our diet. In the end I only made it through a few chapters before I decided to DNF it. I still had plenty to say on it because the book is founded in fundamentally bad science that people often fall victim when thinking about their nutrition. I came across my review of the book on goodreads, and I thought it would work as a good thing to talk about in a blog discussion.
As I said, I did not finish this book. He was saying some things I found concerning, but I wanted to hear him out because I thought he might get more into the science as the book progressed. Afterall, his suggestions aren’t inherently bad; it’s the logic he used to get there that fails. Here are his basic principles with my own description of why it is actually a good thing to strive for.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables and little to no meat: Of course, meat is filled with saturated fats and cholesterol.
- Eat less processed foods: Sure, processed foods tend to be higher in fats, sodium, and other nutrients that are known to have adverse effects on health.
- Eat less sugary food: Well sure, this tends to be calorie rich and nutrient low.
Unfortunately, he eventually gets to his point, and it is a concerning one at that. It all comes down to the age old traditionalist argument. In his mind, our problems started when we wandered away from the traditional methods of food gathering. This argument isn’t new, but it is very flawed. I don’t disagree that such a diet will be mostly good for you. As it turns out, it provides a large variety of nutrients that we need while limiting excess of nutrients that are harmful in high amounts. It’s the underlying way of thinking that is flawed; he asserts that one must eat traditionally to achieve the right balance of nutrients.
In truth, you can eat processed and sugary foods. However, you have to recognize how to balance it and how it easily it is to over do it with these types of food. They are not bad because they are not natural; the harm is the pattern that we have in consuming it. That is what the science says, but Pollen tries to muddy the waters by painting the current science as flawed, inconsistent, and forever changing. He incorrectly tries to portray the efforts of industry and pseudoscience fades as science because these things come and go.
And there in lies his mistake. First, science has not changed as much as he would like to assert because the thing he wants to paint as science just is’t. Science is hard. It is complex, and it is easy for it to become mixed with fake science. Science has been fairly consistent with its instructions through the years: eat a varied and balanced diet, avoiding over doing it in any one area. That’s why his style will probably work; it is mostly the same as the science.
The problem is he relies on bad arguments and bad science as a means to try and undermine the actual science as a whole. I must, as a scientist and skeptic, take issue with it.
I want to take a moment to discuss health science because I recognize people who agree with Pollen aren’t going to just change their mind because I assert it. I am not a nutrition scientist. Although, I am skilled in the method of science and skepticism. I try to understand the science and reliable sources that discuss it. This means investigating science journals and the experts who work in the field (actual scientists not “nutritionist” or other buzz words); as with any field of science, you don’t have to be an expert in it to interpret what the experts are actually saying.
I took issue with what he was calling science and the way he was trying to instruct the reader to distrust it. That is the first red flag because this is a common techniques in the realm of pseudoscience. Naturally, I became skeptical of what he was saying. However, I was trying to hold an open mind and even decided to investigate the papers he cited to compare his assessment with what the paper said. It was the conversation on fats that led me to DNF the book.
There is a new idea that fats are wrongly labeled as bad, and it is proposed by Gary Taubes, in a revolutionary (cue sarcasm) new book. According to him, there are no good calories or bad calories. This is something I’ve heard of before. Specifically, I had read about Gary Taubes less than a week before I saw him mentioned here on Science Based Medicine, a site of medical experts dedicated to addressing pseudoscience in medicine and health. In the article on Taubes, SBM describes his argument and the basic science that contradicts it.
This is not intended to be a walk through of the science of health. Science Based Medicine offers a tone of nutrition based resources (here is another breakdown of nutrition and “clean eating”), each with direct references to the science to back it up. Instead, I want to promote a good resource for science based health information to help people understand how to make productive changes to their diet.