Posts Tagged low-carb

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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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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Our national eating disorder

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.

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