Another look at the national eating disorder

In my first post on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I addressed Michael Pollan’s claim that the United States has a national eating disorder. I want to revisit this because he devotes a section (section 4 of chapter 16) to the same idea later on.

Earlier, Pollan introduced the national eating disorder by writing,

So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. (2)

I’m not so convinced. Nor, for that matter, am I sure that Pollan is convinced. He points to France as a country that has a food culture that “successfully navigates the omnivore’s dilemma” (301) but then admits, “American fast-food habits are increasingly gaining traction even in places like France” (303). France has a bit more in common with us than that, though. As of 2006 (when The Omnivore’s Dilemma was first published), forty-two percent of France’s population was overweight, and  Pierre Dukan now claims that his high-protein diet has 2 million followers in France.

Pollan claims that “we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success” (303). As evidence for the failure of nutritional science, he points to a few food fads, notably the low-carb diets that became popular a few years ago. I have to object to the claim that following a low-carb diet is placing one’s faith in science, though. Pollan tells us that avoiding carbs is the new orthodoxy, but the low-carb diets have been controversial within the scientific community.

A somewhat broader point arises when Pollan writes,

What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these applecart-topping nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this nation’s diet overnight. (299)

If true, this might be evidence that we’re susceptible to food fads, but it’s less clear that science is the problem. Putting one’s faith in science is not the same as following a “lone crackpot with a medical degree,” nor does it mean acting on a single scientific study. And government guidelines, as Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, are influenced by political pressures as well as science.

On a more basic level, I think it’s a mistake to cite our susceptibility to weight-loss diets like that of Dr. Atkins as evidence that following science is making us unhealthy. People tend to go on weight-loss diets because they perceive themselves to already be unhealthy. As I mentioned in my first post on the national eating disorder, seventy percent of Americans claim to eat “pretty much whatever they want,” so I can’t help but wonder if people tend to turn to science only after they believe they have a problem.

Pollan also neglects to tell us that culture hasn’t always done all that well at telling people what to eat. For instance, nutritional science deserves credit for saving countless lives from beriberi, a deficiency syndrome that was once common in societies eating large amounts of white rice. According to a Time article from 1951, rice-dependent cultures took too much pride in eating white rice to begin eating brown rice, whose vitamin B1 content is sufficient to prevent beriberi.

This isn’t to say that science is necessarily a better guide than tradition, but that the idea that tradition is always a good guide to eating is something of a fantasy. Good science can make important contributions to our diets, even at the expense of traditional orthodoxy.

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2 Comments »

  1. Molly said

    Pollan’s point may be that people who follow low-carb diets *think* they are placing their faith in science, even if that faith is actually placed in a crackpot. They don’t know any better, because they aren’t doing in-depth research.

  2. […] our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success” (303), he writes. Yet much of his evidence that “we place our faith in science” lies in our […]

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