Michael Pollan begins The Omnivore’s Dilemma by lamenting the role of experts in our food choices. He writes,
For me the absurdity of the situation became inescapable in the fall of 2002, when one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table. I’m talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight, Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia seized the country, supplanting an era of national lipophobia dating to the Carter administration. (1)
This didn’t exactly match my recollection of how the low-carb craze went down. I knew that a substantial minority of the country went on the diet, but in my own life, I’d most often heard the Atkins diet discussed as a subject of ridicule.
Of course, my own experience need not be representative of the nation, so I decided to look into it. Pollan doesn’t cite any sources or give data to back up his claims, and the numbers I could find tell a far less dramatic story. NPD Group reported that low-carb diets peaked in February of 2004 when 9.1% of Americans identified as followers of these programs. ACNielsen reported that sales of white bread dropped by 4.7% in 2003. Thus, while the low-carb fad had a noticeable impact on our collective eating habits, it was not as far-reaching as Pollan would have us believe.
To Pollan, the “violent” (2) change in our cultural eating habits is evidence of “a national eating disorder” (2), which he posits would not have been possible in a culture having “deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.” He tells us that such a culture “would probably not…feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day” (3).
Pollan points out that Italy and France “decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of ‘unhealthy’ foods, and lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are.” We are, he says, “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”
But would a people obsessed with healthy eating really feed a third of their children fast food every day? Would such a people consume high-fructose corn syrup in huge quantities, as Pollan will soon tell us we do? Indeed, the USDA reports that in a 2000 survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults aged 18 and older, 70% reported eating “pretty much whatever they want.”
It’s hard not to wonder if our national eating disorder is one of thinking too little about what to eat rather than too much.