The Atkins diet and the “American paradox”

Michael Pollan suggests that rather than talk about the “French paradox” we ought to confront the “American paradox” which he defines as “a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily” (9). We’re to make a connection and believe that our preoccupation with healthy eating is making us unhealthy.

The evidence he provides for for this, however, leaves much to be desired. As I wrote at the Berkeley Science Review blog, Americans didn’t follow much of the dietary advice which Pollan argues “bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us” (60). (James McWilliams has also pointed out that Pollan even refers in In Defense of Food to Americans’ increasing consumption of junk food when it suits his point.)

One piece of evidence which Pollan brings to the discussion underscores the limitations of his argument. He tells us that “when the Atkins diet storm hit the food industry in 2003, bread and pasta got a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the proteins) while poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the carbohydrate cold” (38).

A tendency to go on weight loss diets is hardly evidence of an obsession with healthy eating. Attempts to lose weight are often motivated more by aesthetic concerns than health concerns, a distinction made particularly clear by the case of the Atkins diet, which many doctors and dietitians warned was unhealthy. Moreover, even when motivated by  health considerations, a weight-loss diet is an attempt to change an existing condition which is perceived to be a problem. Pollan seems to want us to identify the diet as the cause of the problem, which gets the chronology backward. Although Julie Guthman has argued that we need to look beyond food to understand obesity, to the extent that food is to blame, it seems more plausible that the problem lies with the soft drinks, fast food, and other junk food that were the villains of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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