Michael Pollan: I’m a writer. I don’t have a scientific background. And I thought, ‘Am I qualified to take people on this journey and offer any kind of advice?’
But as I delved into it, I began to realize it was actually a strength. I brought a very open mind, and I think I could see it freshly. I had spent a lot of time writing articles and books tracing the food chain, and showing people where their food came from, how it was produced, following meals all the way back to the farm.
But I found that what I kept hearing from readers was, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve told me where the food comes from and how the animals live and everything. But what I really want to know is, what should I eat?’
And it’s no wonder people are confused. Every day there’s a new headline: Eat more fiber. Drink less milk. Eggs are bad.Eggs are good.
As eaters, we feel whipsawed by the changes in the nutritional advice we’re getting. And I became absorbed in this question. Yeah, what do we know? What do we know about the links between diet and health? That was something I hadn’t really focused on very much.
So, I decided to see I could come up with some guidance for myself, for my readers, for my family on how to eat if you’re concerned about your health.
I really thought the answer to this question would be so much more complex than it has turned out to be.
Michael Pollan on stage : Thank you
Michael Pollan: I’m Michael Pollan. Join me as I make the case in defense of food.
Announcer: Major funding for this program has been provided by the National Science Foundation. Where discoveries begin. And by viewers like you. Thank you.
Michael Pollan: Food. Why does it need defending? It’s everywhere around us. And who doesn’t love it?
Woman: Oh my goodness, I love pizza.
Boy: My favorite dinner is chicken pot pie.
Man: A nice piece of char-grilled steak.
Man: I love arugula, can’t get enough of it.
Woman: And of course I like ice cream, too.
Woman: I think food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I don’t have one favorite food. I just like food.
Michael Pollan: But the food we’re eating today is very different from what it used to be. And that change has been taking a heavy toll on our health.
THE WESTERN DIET
Michael Pollan: The Scavotto family lives outside Boston. (ska-VOTT-oh)
Scavotto in scene: Would you call this shredded carrots?
Anthony Scavotto in scene: Yeah.
Michael Pollan: Anthony is eleven.
Anthony Scavotto in scene: Yes I would.
Anthony Scavotto: Last year when I went to the doctor’s, he said that I gained 30 pounds in a year. I didn’t like that at all.
Nancy Scavotto in scene: See if that says whole wheat on it.
Anthony Scavotto: Most of my friends, they can run and they can, not get tired. They can, like, be athletic and I can’t do that. I couldn’t do that.
Nancy Scavotto: When I found out he gained 30 pounds under my watch, that’s crazy to me. I definitely felt I failed in the food department.
Anthony Scavotto: My mother and my father were buying foods that said they were healthy, but they weren’t.
Nancy Scavotto: You know, granola bars, they’re not so healthy if you look at the sugar. Yogurt. We were doing all that.
Anthony Scavotto: I was mad at myself. I was trying to eat healthy, but apparently it didn’t work. I didn’t like it. I wanted to change my body.
Michael Pollan: Anthony’s doctor referred him to a program for overweight kids at Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s a busy place.
Clerk in scene: Anthony.
Michael Pollan: Over the last thirty years, the rate of childhood obesity in America has more than doubled. More and more young people are now getting a disease that used to be very rare in children: Type 2 diabetes.
David Ludwig in scene: OK.
Michael Pollan: Being overweight increases your chances of getting the disease.
David Ludwig in scene: Hold your hand out like that.
Michael Pollan: So Anthony may be at risk.
David Ludwig, M.D., Director, Optimal Weight for Life: Obesity can affect virtually every organ system of a child’s body. And in some cases, resulting in Type 2 diabetes, the ultimate metabolic meltdown.
David Ludwig in scene: Swallow.
David Ludwig: It’s one thing for an overweight adult to develop Type 2 diabetes at age 50, and then have a heart attack at age 60.
David Ludwig in scene: Take a deep breath.
David Ludwig: It’s a very different thing if the clock starts ticking at age 10.
Michael Pollan: Since 1975, the percentage of Americans who have Type 2 diabetes has more than tripled—and is expected to keep on growing.
Four of the top ten things that will kill you are chronic diseases linked to diet. So something’s wrong.
The diet most of us eat these days has become known as the Western diet. It includes lots of meat, white flour, vegetable oils and sugar. And very little fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
It’s cheap. It’s convenient. And most of it has been processed to taste really good.
Kelly Brownell, Dean, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University: The food industry has gotten incredibly good at manipulating the properties of food. So it has just the right texture, just the right color, just the right smell to make you consume as much of it as possible, miss it when you don’t have it, crave it to the point where you want to keep coming back for more.
Michael Pollan: And the key to getting us hooked is our inborn craving for salt, sugar and fat.
Kelly Brownell: We’re biologically designed to like foods that are very high in calories, very high in sugar, fat and salt because that was adaptive during almost all of human history when food was scarce and there were things like famines.
But now food is abundant, and our biology is mismatched with what’s occurring out there in the environment.
David Kessler, Former Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Take buffalo wings. What are they? You start off with the fatty part of the chicken. Usually fried in the manufacturing plant first. That pushes a lot of fat into that chicken wing.
Fried usually, again in the restaurant, that pushes more fat into that wing. That red sauce, what is it? Sugar and salt. That white creamy sauce on the side? Fat, sugar, and salt. What are we eating? We’re eating fat on fat, on fat on sugar, on fat, sugar and salt.
Michael Pollan: From fast food meals, to all the packaged products in the supermarket, we’re eating more processed foods than ever before. They now make up some sixty percent of our diet.
David Ludwig: The food industry makes its greatest profits through the most extensively processed foods.
Michael Pollan: The key ingredients for those foods––corn, soybeans, wheat and rice––don’t cost the food companies much because government subsidies keep supplies high and prices low.
The food companies turn those crops into things like hydrolyzed soy protein, mono and diglycerides, and high fructose corn syrup—ingredients that end up in so many processed foods.
David Ludwig, Author, Always Hungry: The American farm system has turned into a calorie conveyor belt, that produces massive amounts of commodities to make sugary beverages, fast food, junk food very, very cheap.
Michael Pollan: And you’ve added all this packaging, and this marketing, and these characters, you know, that appeal to kids, and you’re selling it for an order of magnitude more money.
Kelly Brownell: And of course this is a good business model for the companies ’cause they want to maximize their sales. But it’s not very good for human health.
Michael Pollan: People who eat a lot of processed food struggle more with health problems. And so we’ve been really curious to understand what happened to the food.
So we look at what’s present and absent from processed foods to understand where they went wrong, why they make people sick.
Take bread, one of my own favorite foods. It’s made from a few basic ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. Which you mix together, let rise, and then eventually bake.
We’ve been eating it for thousands of years. But the bread our ancestors ate was very different from what you find in most supermarkets today.
Flour used to be made by grinding grains like wheat between two big stones. This kind of flour—called whole wheat—contains all of the wheat seed, including the bran and the germ. But whole wheat bread was usually dense and hard to chew.
Removing the bran and germ made the flour white and the bread softer. But white flour was a luxury few people could afford—until the late 19th century, when a new technology came along.
David Jacobs, Prof., Epdemiology & Community Health, University of Minnesota: Roller milling was this great idea. You could shake the bran and the germ of that grain off. It would fall down into the bottom, underneath the roller. You could feed that stuff to the cattle. Whoops, it turns out that that stuff is the good stuff.
Michael Pollan: The bran and the germ are rich in many nutrients, including vitamins. The part that’s left is mostly carbohydrates, which break down when we eat them into the sugar molecule glucose: one of the body’s main sources of energy.
And we love that. We love that sensation of sugar coming into our body. Our brains crave sugar. They live on glucose. That’s the brain’s high-octane fuel.
And white flour is very stable. It will last on the shelf indefinitely. Unlike whole wheat flour, it doesn’t turn rancid because the germ, which can easily spoil, has been removed.
And when you moved to white flour it was a great boon for the food industry because, you know, one giant mill could feed millions of people and send out flour that would last forever.
The one little problem is, as you made the flour last, you basically ruined it as a food source, because you were taking out all the nutrients, or most of them. You still had some starch and you still had some protein, but you lost most of the vitamins.
The shift to white flour, and to processed corn and rice, took a toll on people’s health. They were getting diseases, like beriberi and pellagra, which are often fatal.
But the link between those diseases and people’s diets remained unclear until the twentieth century, when we discovered they were caused by a lack of vitamins.
Historian & Author, Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture : You had these deficiency diseases. Nobody knew where they came from. And then you fed these people a food that had the right vitamin in it, and they’d become healthy. This was a true miracle.
Scientists, nutritionists, chemists were delving into the miracle of vitamins. And this information was delivered to an excited public, through newspapers, through magazines.
Michael Pollan: Before long, everyone was talking about vitamins. And food companies jumped on the opportunity.
Catherine Price, Author, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection: For food marketers it was kind of like being given this beautiful gift of this word that the public’s obsessed with that no one really understood the chemical details of.
My favorite example was, Schlitz Beer came up with Schlitz Vitamin D Beer, with the tag line that beer is good for you, but Schlitz Vitamin D Beer is extra good for you.
Rima Apple: Manufacturers were quick to pick up on the fact that vitamins were a very good selling point, and if they weren’t naturally in the food, then why don’t you add it?
Animated figure 8 archival: You want to grow bigger and stronger, don’t you?
Animated boy archival: Golly, sure!
Animated figure 8 archival: OK! A sandwich daily and two slices of Wonderbread every meal give you eight elements you need. As much muscle building protein as roast beef. As much calcium for bones and teeth as cottage cheese. As much vitamin B1…
Michael Pollan: The story of Wonderbread in a way is the story of the food system writ small. Why do you need to add all these special vitamins to bread? Well, because you’ve taken them out of flour.
And had we left good enough alone, and we’d continued to either eat whole grains, or even partially whole grains, you wouldn’t have created this problem.
So Wonder Bread was an amazing technology solving a problem that technology created. I mean, you’re essentially selling the problem and the solution in one neat package.
Some of our dietary problems began long before the rise of modern technology. When we invented agriculture, which gave us bread, we set in motion other changes that are still affecting our health today.
We used to eat a lot of green plants. They’re one of nature’s best sources of a class of fatty acids called omega-3s that are vital to our health.
But once we started farming seed crops like wheat, rice and corn, they began to dominate our diet.
The bulk of what agriculture does is grow seeds. Seeds are full of energy; they have lots of carbohydrate in them and protein. I mean they’re wonderful things. They have everything a new life needs.
But green leafy plants are usually much better than seeds as sources of omega-3s.
Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., Research Psychiatrist, National Institutes of Health: Omega-3 fats are essential for optimal brain growth, for optimal heart health and for optimal immune function.
And omega-3 fats can’t be made by the human body. They have to be eaten.
Michael Pollan: Traditional diets gave us many ways to get omega-3s. In addition to green plants, omega-3s are also plentiful in fish, which eat lots of plants in the ocean.
Meat used to be a good source of omega-3s, because farmers fed livestock their natural diet, green leafy grass.
But now, most of the animals we raise for food are mainly eating corn and soy. So they get fewer omega-3’s and their meat and milk have less of them too.
But many of the foods we eat are quite rich in a rival group of fatty acids called omega-6s.
There are lots of them in oils pressed from seeds, like soy and corn oil.
Susan Allport, Author, The Queen of Fats: Omega-6s are the darlings of the food industry because they have a much longer shelf life than omega-3s do.
Michael Pollan: Though we need both omega-6s and omega-3s to survive, there’s evidence that eating too many sixes blocks out the threes.
Susan Allport: It’s like a game of musical chairs. There are only so many seats. And if they’re occupied by the omega-6′s you’re going to have many fewer omega-3′s.
Michael Pollan: And some scientists believe the loss of omega-3s is hurting our health.
Joseph Hibbeln: A deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids increases risk of heart disease death. It will impair the development of kids’ brains so that they don’t have optimal IQ. They will have greater risk of major depression.
Michael Pollan: So we’ve gone from a diet that gave us all the omega-3s we needed to one where they’re much harder to get.
Coke jingle singer archival: I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.
Michael Pollan: But perhaps the biggest threat to our health comes not from losing a nutrient, but from flooding our bodies with one we seem powerless to resist.
Coke jingle singers archival: I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.
Robert Lustig, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco: We now consume about a thousand percent more sugar more per day now than we did 200 years ago.
Michael Pollan: Sugar’s appearing in foods that were never sweetened before. There’s sugars now in bread. There’s sugars in ketchup and in condiments of all different kinds. We have figured out a way in this country to make sugar, sweeteners very, very cheap.
When soda costs less than milk, or even bottled water, and is marketed as a normal thing to have with a meal or give to toddlers and young children, we have a problem.
Walter Willett, M.D., Chair, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health: When we look at factors that are related to obesity and diabetes, the single most important factor we have seen is sugar-sweetened beverages.
Thomas Farley, M.D., Former Commissioner, NYC Department of Health: Increasingly, you’re seeing sugary drinks that have labels on them that’ll say that they have vitamin C or they’re good in antioxidants or otherwise somehow imply that they’re healthy for you. They’re still basically sugary drinks. There’s more sugar in a 20-ounce bottle of lemonade than there is in a Coca-Cola.
We know that sugar has a lot of calories. But sugar causes other metabolic changes as well.
Michael Pollan: Roughly half of the sugar in sweetened drinks and foods is a kind of sugar called fructose.
Robert Lustig: Fructose is the sweet molecule in sugar. We love it. It’s the reason we go after sugar.
Michael Pollan: But there’s evidence that too much fructose can damage the liver.
Robert Lustig: And when your liver gets sick, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, all start accumulating.
Michael Pollan: Eating foods like potatoes, white rice or anything made from white flour, also floods our bodies with sugar. Because even though they may not have added sugar, they’re made up of carbohydrates that break down into glucose when we digest them.
And flooding our bodies with glucose triggers the release into our bloodstream of a very important hormone called insulin.
Robert Lustig: Insulin is necessary for life. So what does insulin do?Well, it lowers blood sugar.
Your blood sugar rises because you’ve eaten. When you’re healthy, your pancreas senses the blood sugar rise. The insulin goes up. And the various cells of the body will take up the glucose so that the glucose will come back down in the blood to normal.
Michael Pollan: But there is evidence that, eventually, too much sugar can push insulin to the breaking point—and lead to Type 2 diabetes.
It’s a disease that’s hitting low-income communities the hardest.
Erica Sheppard McMath, “Death Recipe” PSA:
Yesterday I decided to write down some ingredients in my day-to-day diet.
First there was a million things I could not pronounce.
And then there was
Michael Pollan: This video was made by The Bigger Picture Campaign, which brings together young poets and health care workers in the San Francisco Bay area to highlight the problem of diabetes.
Erica Sheppard McMath, “Death Recipe” PSA:
It’s like, ‘Let me hit that cookie one time.’
It’s like knowing most of your family has diabetes but you’re still smacking on your sour patches as you’re walking your aunt into her dialysis appointment.
It’s like Aunty Marlo being blind at 32.
It’s like Grandma Susie dying from a heart attack at 51.
Thomas Farley, M.D., Former Commissioner, NYC Department of Health: The people who are suffering the most in the obesity epidemic today are the poor and the minorities. Twice the rate of diabetes in African-Americans, Latinos as whites. That’s not because of their genes. That’s because of the marketing in those low-income neighborhoods of food that’s bad for people.
Hodari Davis, Creative Director, The Bigger Picture Campaign: We’re dealing with a crisis that’s at an emergency level. Their lives are at stake. I think all of our lives are at stake.
Erica Sheppard McMath, “Death Recipe” PSA: It’s like damn. It’s like suicide.
Erica Sheppard McMath, Poet, “Death Recipe”: It’s very painful for me to watch my family literally pass away. We will go to funerals that were caused because of food, and then turn around and eat the same food that put the person in the grave in the first place.
Brandon Santiago archival, The Bigger Picture Workshop, San Francisco, CA: So what if I told you that a hundred years ago, one in a hundred people contracted a disease called Type 2 diabetes. Only one in a hundred people. What if I told you that fifty years from now, one in three people…
Young woman with orange hair archival: Wow
Brandon Santiago archival: One in three people are going to have Type 2 diabetes. How would that make you all feel?
Michael Pollan: Type 2 diabetes. Obesity. Heart disease. Heartbreak. You know, a lot of misery has been created by this modern diet.
LESSONS FROM NATURE
Michael Pollan: It seemed clear that the Western diet is making lots of people sick. So I started looking at the kind of diet that we evolved to eat. Food that comes not from factories, but from nature.
My search took me back to the beginning of life.
Bruce German, Professor, Food Science & Technology, University of California, Davis: It turns out that one thing did literally evolve to nourish healthy individuals. Lactation and milk. Everything that the infant requires has to be in milk. So milk is literally a comprehensive diet in one product. All of the essential nutrients. Every vitamin, every mineral, every amino acid, every fatty acid that the infant needs has to be in milk.
Michael Pollan: At the University of California at Davis, Bruce German and his colleague, Daniela Barile, are trying to understand how mother’s milk keeps babies healthy—and what the rest of us can learn from that.
Daniela Barile, Assoc. Prof., Food Science & Technology, University of California, Davis: Milk is really, the perfect food. Because it’s always changing. If you have milk from day one and milk from day ten, the vitamin content, the lipid content, the protein, the carbohydrate is evolving to match the needs of the baby.
Michael Pollan: But not all mothers can breast feed.
Shirley German in scene, Breastfeeding Support Group, University of California, Davis: If there’s any kind of challenge that you’d like to share with us that gives us an opportunity to discuss it, mother to mother.
Regan in scene: I’ve had struggles with breastfeeding from the very beginning, I had low supply, so I’ve been supplementing with formula.
Bruce German: Mothers have been unable to feed their babies throughout history. If you couldn’t breast feed a baby, that baby was really in trouble.
Rima Apple: In the nineteenth century, infant mortality rates were extremely high. People were very fearful for the lives of their children. Particularly infants.
Michael Pollan: Then, in the 1860s, parents were offered a potentially life-saving alternative, when a German scientist named Justus von Liebig introduced the first commercial baby formula. He believed his product contained all the essential nutrients in breast milk.
Rima Apple: Liebig’s food opened up an entire market. It quickly was followed by many copiers.
Michael Pollan: But our attempts to make a substitute for breast milk have taught us just how hard it is for science to mimic nature. Those early formulas were missing valuable nutrients. Vitamins hadn’t been discovered yet. And the importance of omega-3s wasn’t understood until the 1970s.
We learned that as close as we get, the ultimate goal is constantly retreating, because mother’s milk is a very complex food.
In 2006, Bruce German and his colleagues discovered one of its secrets, when they solved a longstanding mystery.
Bruce German: One of the things that was absolutely astonishing is that human milk contains undigestible material. The babies literally can’t digest it. It goes right through them.
When we looked at how much there was it was staggering. It was the third most abundant component in milk.
Michael Pollan: it was a kind of complex sugar called an oligosaccharide.
Bruce German: Mothers literally are feeding undigestible matter to the baby. Why?
Michael Pollan: German had a hunch.
Bruce German: The first thought was well, babies can’t digest them. Maybe bacteria can. Because we know bacteria inhabit the intestine of all of us, including babies.
David Mills, Professor, Food Science & Technology, University of California, Davis: Bruce came over to my lab and we tested to see if the oligosaccharides that he found in milk could grow any bacteria that I happened to have in my lab.
Bruce German: And he tested ‘em and he came back and he said, ‘No, they don’t.’ And he was looking at bacterium after bacterium after bacterium. Nothing. No growth at all.
But then he found one. And at that point we began to realize the genius of milk.
Michael Pollan: What Mills found was a little understood bacterium called bifidobacterium infantis.
Bruce German: And when you look at breast fed babies, their lower intestine is full of just that bacterium.
The great question is, ’Why would this bacterium be valuable? What could the bacteria do for the baby?’
It occupies all of the surfaces of the baby’s large intestine. And prevents germs that could cause disease from attacking the baby. So it starts to grow and multiply and grows and multiplies until the baby is literally full of just this one group of bacteria.
And no other bacteria can compete. That’s an ingenious process.
Michael Pollan: The story of mother’s milk shows how well nature provides for us. And that’s something that remains true throughout our lives. No matter where we live, nature offers us an astonishing variety of healthy foods.
We are omnivores. We live on six of the seven continents. We have managed to construct from what nature has to offer in all those different places—deserts, jungles, grasslands, forests—a healthy diet.
In the Andes mountains in Peru, the Quechua(catch-u-a) people eat mostly potatoes and grains, with a small amount of meat.
In East Africa, the Masai thrive on a diet consisting mostly of cattle blood, milk and meat.
In the Arctic, the Inuit people’s traditional diet includes tremendous amounts of fat—from whales, seals and fish.
And here in Tanzania, members of the Hadza tribe eat hundreds of different wild plants and animals.
Although one in five Hadza babies still die before their first birthday, those who survive childhood tend to live long and healthy lives.
Alyssa Crittenden, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Nevada: We don’t see these so-called Western diseases among the Hadza. Things like cancer, things like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, very low rates. For the most part they are a very healthy population.
Michael Pollan: So what can we learn from the way they eat?
The Hadza are some of the last people on earth who still get their food the way our ancestors did: by hunting and gathering.
Alyssa Crittenden: For the bulk of our history, we were living like the Hadza. We were foragers. What we are doing now in the industrialized West is what’s different or odd.
Michael Pollan: They’re doing what people used to do everywhere on the planet, which is figure out a way to use what nature has to offer.
Nyanzobe Mpanda [speaking Hadzabe, subtitles]: These are the foods we seek because they are the foods that are in our environment. They all have their times when we can eat them. The seasons.
We women gather every day. And we usually go in the morning.
Michael Pollan: The women dig for roots called tubers. They’re very hard to chew. But when other foods are scarce, they’re almost always available.
They also collect a fruit that falls to the ground from tall trees. It’s called baobab. The inside is kind of chalky and dry.
To make it easier to eat, the Hadza pound it into a powder, and sometimes add water to make a sort of smoothie. This is a kind of food processing—but very minimal.
While the women and children gather plant foods, the men go out hunting for meat, and searching for honey.
Alyssa Crittenden: Honey is the number one ranked Hadza food. Foragers will go to incredible lengths in order to access honey.
Mahia Shandalua [speaking Hadzabe, subtitles]: When I really want honey, if I have to pound stakes in the tree to get up to it if it’s high, I do that. Then I cut into the hive and get the honey.
Michael Pollan: Imagine if we had to climb a tree every time we wanted a sugar fix from a Coke. We’d probably think twice.
Mahia Shandalua: There are times where I eat so much honey that I don’t feel good.
Michael Pollan: The Hadza get their meat straight from nature too.
Mahia Shandalua: When we get a large animal, we will skin it, we will start cutting it up. We will roast certain parts right there and eat.
Michael Pollan: On days when the Hadza kill a big animal, they eat lots of protein and fat. On other days, they might have mostly sugar or starch. It’s not what we might think of as a balanced diet, but it works very well for them.
The Hadza eat what their parents ate and their grandparents ate and they don’t stress about it. Here is a people that don’t know what a nutrient is, and have very good dietary health at the same time. I think that has something to teach us.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Michael Pollan: So whenever I give a talk, I explain the choice we’re facing.
Michael Pollan on stage: We are at a fork in the road when it comes to food. We have two options. One, surrender to the Western diet, stay on processed food, and junk food, and fast food, and wait for evolution to adapt us to it.
It will happen eventually. It should happen eventually. But there will be so much suffering. There will be so much expense before that happens that I would argue it’s really not sustainable.
Well, there’s another option. We can take the more practical, the more economical, and the more beautiful path, which is simply to change the way we’re eating.
Michael Pollan: And everything I’ve learned about healthy eating can be summed up in just seven words:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
And those seven words tell you all you need to know about how to eat in a healthy way.
When I say, “Eat food,” I’m basically saying eat the kinds of things that people have been eating for a long time. Meat. Fish. Vegetables and fruits. Grains.
Eat food. Which is to say, eat real food. And that other stuff, we shouldn’t even dignify with that beautiful word, “food.” And so I call it something else. I call it edible food-like substances. And that’s all that processed stuff in the middle of the supermarket. The Western Diet is in the center aisles.
Go to the produce section. The healthiest food in the store is in the produce section. And there are no health claims.
You go to the middle of the store where the food is just screaming about its whole grain goodness and there are cereals that are going to like save you from heart attacks.
They don’t talk that way over in the apples and the broccoli. Why is that? Well, they don’t have packages. They don’t have big budgets. The quieter the food likely the healthier the food.
Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, New York University: You don’t have to be a scientist to know how to eat. To me that’s one of the interesting things about nutrition, is everybody can eat a healthy diet, and they can put together their own healthy diet without knowing thing one about the biology of nutrients.
Just go around the outside of the supermarket and pick up fruits, vegetables, meat, and stay out of the processed foods, because they’re fun to eat once in a while, but they shouldn’t be daily fare.
Michael Pollan: Saying that we should eat food may sound obvious. But these days, much of the food industry is built on a different idea: that what really matters is eating the right nutrients.
Manufacturers bombard us with claims about the good nutrients they’ve put into their products and the bad ones they’ve taken out.
This way of thinking has a name: nutritionism.
And the more I learned about it, the more convinced I became that it’s the reason something as simple as eating has become so complicated.
Nutrition is one thing. Nutrition science is a science, but nutritionism is an ideology. It’s the ideology of believing that the nutrient is the key to understanding food.
Michael Pollan on stage: The big premise of nutritionism is that the most important thing about any food are the nutrients it contains, right? A food is the sum of its nutrient parts, which is basically how science studies food.
So take an apple, or take carrots. And, what’s important about carrots is a certain amount of beta-carotene, and a certain amount of vitamins, and a certain amount of fiber, and a certain amount of sugar. That’s what a carrot is. So that seems kind of, okay, no big deal. That’s–nutrients are the basis of food.
But if you accept that idea, that the important thing about a food are the nutrients it contains, you suddenly find yourself dragged along to tenet number two of nutritionism. And that is the idea that since nutrients are invisible, then it falls to experts to tell us how to eat.
It’s sort of like a religion ’cause now, if what matters about a food is something you can’t see, then you need a priesthood to mediate your relationship to that mystery. And so we have a priesthood that consists of doctors, who we consult about food, and various experts, and writers of books on nutrition and nutrition scientists of all kinds. And we defer to them.
Like most ideologies, nutritionism divides the world into good and evil. So that, in the nutrition area, there is always a group of blessed nutrients and a group of evil nutrients.
So let’s get a few examples. Give me some examples of a blessed nutrient.
Audience member: Kale.
Michael Pollan on stage: Kale is not a nutrient. It’s a food. But thank you.
Audience member 2: Vitamin C.
Michael Pollan on stage: Vitamin C.
Audience member 3: Fiber.
Michael Pollan on stage: Fiber.
Audience member 4: Antioxidants.
Michael Pollan on stage: Antioxidants.
Audience member 5: Omega-3s.
Michael Pollan on stage: Omega-3s, yes.So those are the blessed nutrients.And on the other side, there is always the evil nutrients we are trying to drive from the food supply. Saturated fat. High fructose corn syrup. Sugar in general. Evil nutrients.
But it’s important to know that the identity of the good and evil nutrients is constantly changing.
Michael Pollan: You go back to the turn of the last century, around 1900, there was an ideology then that the great evil nutrient was protein. Now, we think protein’s great, but then some people thought protein was really bad.
The best-known critic of protein was Doctor John Harvey Kellogg––a member of a Christian denomination called the Seventh-Day Adventists, that promoted vegetarianism. People flocked to his sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, to be cured of the gastrointestinal curse of the day.
Catherine Price, Author, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection: America’s diet in the 1800s and early 1900s, it was a lot of meat and potatoes. And constipation was, like, an obsession. Everyone was obsessed with constipation.
Michael Pollan: Which Kellogg claimed was caused by bacteria in our colon that thrive on the protein in a meat-heavy diet. They thought that it released toxins in your gut as it fermented and, and that would lead to cancer and all sorts of things.
Celebrities including Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, and future president Warren Harding, eagerly submitted to Kellogg’s vegetarian diet and anti-bacterial treatments.
And people did the most insane things under the direction of this pseudo-science. I mean go on all-grape diets for a day and eat 14 pounds of grapes and nothing else. Take yogurt enemas. And you were supposed to chew every bite a hundred times.
That can interfere with the pleasure of a meal.
Kellogg asked his brother Will to perform experiments to design healthier foods. They really wanted to dethrone protein, which was the morning meal. Eggs and bacon and sausage. And they thought that carbohydrates were the clean, blessed nutrient.
One day in 1894, the brothers stumbled on a discovery they hoped would transform the American breakfast: the flaked cereal—made mostly of carbohydrates.
First came wheat flakes. And then Will invented the corn flake––so wildly successful it would make him wealthy.
But John Kellogg’s theories about the perils of protein, not to mention his ideas about yogurt enemas, were eventually disproven by science.
You know, we look back on that and we think this is complete quackery. Well, I hate to say it, but someone will look back on us in a hundred years, and say much the same thing for a lot of our own nutritional practices.
We look at gluten the way they looked at protein. You know, we have millions of Americans now working to remove gluten from their diet. We’re looking for answers. We’re looking for dietary salvation.
And when someone comes forward with a theory, we fall into line.
Male announcer archival: Because so many women are concerned about too much saturated fat, a great change in eating habits is taking place in homes all over America.
Jingle singers archival: Oh, I don’t want it, you can have it, it’s too fat for me. It’s too fat for me. It’s too fat for me.
Michael Pollan: The campaign to reduce fat in our diets is the best example yet of what can go wrong when the science of nutrition gets hijacked by the ideology of nutritionism.
Female announcer archival: Reducing fat in your overall diet can help make you healthier
Michael Pollan: We spent thirty years in this country obsessing about fat.
Woman in commercial archival: Health specialists recommend that children more than two years old begin eating a diet that is lower in fat.
Female announcer 2 archival: Eat foods that are low in fat.
Female announcer 3 archival: Low fat
Female announcer 4 archival: Low fat
Male announcer 2 archival: Low Fat
Female announcer 5 archival: Fat.
Male announcer 3 archival: Fat.
Female announcer 6 archival: Fat.
Michael Pollan: Fat got a reputation as an evil nutrient back in the 1950s…
Man in commercial archival : Cheers.
Michael Pollan: …when scientists began searching for the cause of what seemed to be a big increase in heart disease.
Finding the reason why became an obsession for a Minnesota physiologist named Ancel Keys. He and his wife Margaret, a biochemist, traveled the world studying heart disease.
Sarah Tracy, Ancel Keys biographer: Ancel Keys’ hypothesis at the beginning of his research was that something in people’s diets was responsible for the generation of heart disease. His studies in Naples made him think that that something was fat.
Michael Pollan: Ancel and Margaret first visited Naples in 1952. They had heard that working class Neapolitans had less heart disease than their more comfortable neighbors.
So they decided to compare their diets.
Sarah Tracy: Those who were more affluent loved their steaks. They loved their rich, creamy sauces.
Now amongst the working classes, they were eating lots of pasta, lots of vegetables, lots of fresh fruits, but they were missing the fat that was so common on the dinner plates of the upper crust of Neapolitan society.
The connection that Ancel Keys saw between fat and cardiovascular disease was cholesterol.
Michael Pollan: This sticky substance is something our bodies make and need. But scientists were finding that too much of it in the bloodstream clogged arteries.
Sarah Tracy: Scientists could see cholesterol on the interior linings of arteries, especially the arteries of those people who suffered heart attacks.
Michael Pollan: Keys and others found that your blood cholesterol level went up the more you ate a particular kind of fat.
Unidentified scientist archival: Saturated fat. Like palmitic acid, stearic acid. They are saturated with hydrogen
Michael Pollan: Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature. We get them most often from meat, milk, butter and cheese.
Sarah Tracy: As he looked around the globe, Keys found that the more animal fat, red meat and dairy products, the more heart disease within the population.
Michael Pollan: Keys was practicing a statistical kind of science called epidemiology. He was looking through data about large numbers of people, trying to find patterns.
Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, New York University: Epidemiology is very powerful in its way because it identifies trends and potential relationships.But you always have to be skeptical of any of those kinds of associations unless you’ve got other kinds of data that show causality.
And it should be written on every single epidemiological study, ‘Red flag, association does not necessarily mean causation.’
Michael Pollan: But based on the strong association Keys saw in his data between heart disease and saturated fat, he advised people to eat less of it.
By the 1970s, Keys’ theory was being discussed in the Senate.
George McGovern archival: There were some one million people who died in 1967 from heart disease…
Michael Pollan: In 1976, George McGovern was chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition.
McGovern witness archival: We’re eating much more animal fat…
Michael Pollan: They hear over and over again that animal fat is the problem. And they issue a set of guidelines called the Dietary Goals of the United States.
The goals urged Americans to reduce fat to 30 per cent of the calories in their diets. How? By eating less meat and less dairy. ‘Decrease consumption of meat,’ they said.
Marion Nestle: And never has a nutrition report been more controversial.
Sarah Tracy: The meat industry would have none of that.
Marion Nestle: They went right to their friends on Congress. Congress held hearings.
Sarah Tracy: And McGovern had to rewrite those guidelines.
Michael Pollan: So, ‘Eat less red meat’ is rewritten as, ‘Choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake.’ And in the move from that first sentence to that second sentence, that translation process to my mind is the beginning of full-blown nutritionism.
Because think about it. First of all, we’re no longer talking about a food that everybody recognizes, meat, red meat. We’re talking about a nutrient that no one has ever seen, really understands, and is an abstraction, saturated fat.
For the food industry, the mandate to reduce fat was an opportunity to sell new products—low in fat, perhaps, but often high in sugar.
Sarah Tracy: The food industry could all of a sudden use low-fat or no-fat as a marketing strategy. Don’t you want something that’s healthy for you? Why not buy a highly processed, sugar-laden cookie that is fat-free?
Michael Pollan: People thought, ‘God, there’s no fat in this. I’m not just going to have one of those cookies, I’m going to have a whole box.’
Snackwell’s Commercial Woman archival: I think they’re zesty. I could eat a million. I think I will.
Marion Nestle: The message to eat less fat was translated into, ‘It’s okay to eat more sugar.’
Michael Pollan: So the food industry re-engineers the f ood and if you look at it, fat as a proportion of calories in the diet goes down, which sounds really good. But in fact what happened is fat stayed level and we ate a lot more carbohydrates. And that meant more calories. So we were kidding ourselves, and the industry was helping to let us kid ourselves.
Blue Bonnet jingle singers archival: It looks like and cooks like the high-priced…
Michael Pollan: Prodded by health experts, the industry also encouraged us to switch from butter to margarine.
Blue Bonnet jingle singers: America’s favorite margarine, Blue Bonnet. Everything’s better with Blue Bonnet on it.
Michael Pollan: Margarine is made from vegetable oils. They contain polyunsaturated fats, which were touted as blessed nutrients, because some of them can lower cholesterol.
But to make vegetable oil hard enough to spread, you have to hydrogenate it. That means injecting hydrogen gas into the oil under controlled temperature and pressure. A process that changes some of the polyunsaturates into a kind of fat called trans fat.
Margarine and other vegetable oil products with trans fat were cheaper than butter, and stayed fresh longer. They became popular in baked goods, deep-frying, and all kinds of processed foods.
For decades, we were told they were healthy alternatives to foods with saturated fats. But in the 1990s, scientists discovered that trans fats were in fact not very healthy at all.
Walter Willett, M.D., Chair, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health: Many people associated with the American Heart Association had been advising people to consume margarine that was loaded with trans fat. Although lower in saturated fat.
As it turns out people who had more trans fat in their diet had higher rates of heart disease and diabetes. Those margarines were about the worst things that people could be eating.
Michael Pollan: So, think of it: what we told people is to get off a possibly unhealthy fat called “saturated fat,” and replace it with a fat that we subsequently learned actually does give you heart attacks.
As time went on, many people began thinking that all fats were bad.
Paul Rozin, Former Editor, Appetite, Prof. of Psychology, U. of Penn.: Fat was oversold as public enemy number one. Now fat is an essential ingredient. You will die without certain fatty acids soIyou need some fat.
There are many people in the United States who think you should eat a no-fat diet.
You’d be dead.
Michael Pollan: In 2001, scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health issued a scathing report. “The low-fat campaign,“ they wrote, “has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.”
Essentially, to read this article is to see the entire scientific edifice around the low-fat campaign crumble before your eyes.
The scientists said the low fat campaign had oversimplified the science.
They reported that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat did lower the risk of heart disease.
But they noted that while a significant association between saturated fat and heart disease was found in two studies, it was not found in seven others.
And they pointed out that as people replaced fat with carbohydrates and sugar, the prevalence of obesity and diabetes grew dramatically.
It’s tragic, because in the process of doing this, all supposedly with the idea of improving the public health, we may have made the public health worse.
This was a tremendous public health mistake. And that mistake was getting so obsessed with a single nutrient.
Joan Gussow, Professor Emerita, Nutrition Education, Columbia University: The glamour is in the nutrients, and there’s no question that when you do that, you stumble down the path and you hit something and say, ’Oh, that’s it. That’s it, it’s fat. It’s fat. Cut out the fat.’
And then about ten years later, you say, ‘Well, now, wait a minute. It really isn’t all fat.’ And they’re always coming out with something new, telling you what’s the ideal diet. So of course people are confused.
Michael Pollan: Scientists now understand that a healthy diet has to do with a lot more than one kind of food or nutrient.
Joan Sabaté, M.D., Professor, School of Public Health, Loma Linda University: A single nutrient or a single food are not the magic bullet. That is, the combination of foods that is the most important determinant of health.
Robert Lustig, M.D., Author, Fat Chance: We should not be talking about nutrition-ism, we should talk about nutrition. We shouldn’t talk about components of food. We should talk about food.
Super: South Bronx, New York City
Michael Pollan: But eating food isn’t always easy—especially for the millions of people who live in low-income neighborhoods where so much of what’s available is processed food.
Stephen Ritz, Educator: If you go shopping across the street, you’ll be able to purchase a wide variety of cigarettes, chocolates, soda, malt liquor and potato chips. Probably some canned vegetables, rice, sugar, bread, cheese and processed meat.
People make decisions based on what they can afford. And sadly, what they can afford, often, is cheap food. Things that will enable you to stretch your dollar as far as possible.
Luis Novoa, South Bronx Resident : Growing up what I typically ate was fast food, whether it’s Mickey-Dee’s or a Burger King, going to the corner store buying a bag of chips and a soda for less than three dollars. That’s what you’re used to.
Stephen Ritz in scene: We’re gonna move all these towers into this beautiful formation and then we’re going to go farming.
Michael Pollan: But all over the country, including here in the South Bronx, people are finding ingenious ways to get real food.
Stephen Ritz in scene: Malik found a home. One for you. But don’t cut yet. Let’s walk our way through this. Do we want to take all the leaves off the plants?
Students in scene: No
Stephen Ritz in scene: No. So what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna come over here we’re gonna go right down to the bottom, take the top shoots off, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. Boom.
Michael Pollan: Teacher Steve Ritz runs a network of food projects––which includes this hydroponic vegetable garden.
Stephen Ritz: There’s a myth that people are happy with cheeseburgers and French fries. They’re not.
Stephen Ritz in scene: You got a whole lotta crop going on here, sweetie.
Alexandra Payne in scene: I know.
Stephen Ritz: But many people don’t know there are other options. And that’s what we’re doing here, teaching people about options.
Kimberly Velez in scene: Tastes good and fresh…
Alexandra Payne in scene: I know, right?
Stephen Ritz: What we found is that when you give people in low-income areas the opportunity to grow food, they respond resiliently.
Stephen Ritz in scene: You’ll be picking the produce at the peak of freshness and nutritional value, so not only are you getting fresh food, you’ll be getting healthier food.
Michael Pollan: Ritz got his start growing food back in 2005. He had become tired of seeing his students grow fat and become diabetic.
With fresh vegetables hard to find in the Bronx, he and his kids got access to a vacant lot––and started growing their own.
Stephen Ritz: We were able to transform this space from something that was a blighted area into something that was a productive area, and that made the kids feel good. It made me feel great. I couldn’t believe it.
Michael Pollan: Ritz now has kids growing vegetables all over the Bronx. And they’re feeding hundreds of people a week.
One group he works with are teenagers who’ve dropped out, or been kicked out, of the public schools.
Bill Peacock in scene: All right listen up. Advanced culinary guys, that’s you, you and you. If these kids don’t know what they’re doing, give them a hand. This is only their fourth day in the kitchen. All right.
Michael Pollan: Ritz learned that JVL Wildcat Academy, a school that gives kids second chances, had a restaurant kitchen and was training kids to become professional cooks.
Bill Peacock in scene: I’m going to demonstrate how to make pesto, classic pesto, OK? It’s a basil-based sauce, ah, with nuts and cheese. All right? Why don’t you guys go and get washed up, claim your stations and let’s go.
Stephen Ritz: I saw a great commercial kitchen that has kids from troubled backgrounds learning how to cook and be engaged in the food service industry. And next to that kitchen, I saw a huge, open space, and I said to myself, hmm, wouldn’t it be great to grow the food that they need for that kitchen right next door to it, zero miles to plate, if you will?
Michael Pollan: So the basil they grow in the garden goes right into the pesto they make in the kitchen.
Bill Peacock in scene: Let’s grab some chives.
Michael Pollan: The head of the kitchen is Bill Peacock.
Bill Peacock in scene: Let’s come on down here. Let’s go over to here. Five arugula.
Michael Pollan: After years cooking in restaurants, he came here to teach in 2003.
Akeem Luke in scene: Two butterheads?
Bill Peacock in scene: Yep.
Akeem Luke in scene: All right.
Bill Peacock, Chef, JVL Wildcat Acadaemy: These students, they’re going out to fast food and they’re eating convenience foods. They’re not going to be eating fresh fruit or fresh vegetables because it’s not there.
But now we’ve got the hydroponic garden. They’re seeing the life cycle. And seeing these things actually growing. They’re moving it from stage to stage. Makes a big difference.
Luis Novoa, Assistant Chef, Graduate, JVL Wildcat Academy: Being able to grow our own product right next to where we cook just seemed mind blowing, the fact that we can do that. And show, you know, where we live that we can do this is something I can’t describe. It’s an amazing thing.
Bill Peacock in scene: OK, why are we making it, making sure it’s so dry?
Randy Robinson in scene: So the salad won’t fall off.
Bill Peacock in scene: Not the salad…
Randy Robinson in scene: The salad dressing.
Bill Peacock in scene: There you go is, the salad dressing.
All right, listen up. We are coming towards time to eat. Now everybody is going to cook their own plate of pasta. Have fun. All right. There you go.Where’s your plate?
Bill Peacock: The salad was a big winner today, which was surprising because these kids have never eaten anything like this. Never knew that a green can have a peppery flavor. Never knew that a green could have a soft, subtle flavor.
Bill Peacock in scene: All right, let’s see what we got here, Gustavo. Very nice. All right, grab your salad, get yourself an iced tea and enjoy your meal.
Bill Peacock: The fact that all those kids shoved that lettuce in their mouth today was only because they grew that lettuce. So it’s an ownership.
Bill Peacock in scene: You look like you’re eating it.
Stephen Ritz: If you expose people to locally grown, healthy food, they tend to like it. They really do. It’s not something that’s exclusive. It’s not something for the highfalutin or for the fringe, you know, fringe outliers.
And when you can grow your own food, people are really inspired by that.
Michael Pollan: But the big food companies, of course, still provide most of the food people eat. And they say they’re making processed food healthier. How? By doing what they’ve always done: tweaking the nutrients.
Heather Leidy in scene: This is really seeing can dietary protein alone impact lean mass cause it’s always been…
Michael Pollan: More than twenty thousand people are gathering in Chicago for America’s biggest food expo: the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists—the IFT.
Colin Garner, Rice Bran Technologies: The IFT brings together all manner of companies, from the small to the medium to the huge multi-billion dollar corporations. It’s a supermarket of ingredients for the food producers.
Michael Pollan: And those producers are making foods that last.
If you want something fresh you could go to the bottom of the garden. If you want something that is going to live in your pantry for three months, nine months, or more than that, then you’ll have to have something that’s well preserved, and built in such a way that it is stable.
Michael Pollan: People from companies like Kraft and General Mills come here to see what food scientists are developing for tomorrow.
Like hot dogs made with rice bran, the vitamin-rich part of the rice seed that’s usually thrown away.
Or gluten-free pizza, whose crust has no wheat, and is made instead from a byproduct of cheesemaking called whey.
Polly Olson, Davisco Foods: The gluten-free industry has gone crazy. And it’s amazing how many are interested in the gluten-free. And they can’t believe the difference that it doesn’t taste funny. It tastes like the real pizza crust that would have wheat in it.
Michael Pollan: And one of the world’s biggest food companies, Cargill, is here showing prototypes for healthier processed food products for kids.
Adam Waehner, Cargill: The theme of our exhibit this year is around childhood nutrition. We understand, or, recognize that obesity is a concern in the United States and that more and more people are looking for more healthful alternatives to the food choices.
Michael Pollan: Cargill buys a huge share of the world’s farm products––from which it makes hundreds of food ingredients. The company is showing how some of these ingredients could be used to take advantage of the growing interest in healthier eating.
Adam Waehner: The first exhibit we’re going to look at is a peanut butter spread that has added chicory root fiber. You get three grams of fiber per serving.
Next, we have a chewy chocolate chip granola bar.This contains whole grain corn so you can get some added fiber there as well.
This is our reduced sugar chocolate milk, and it’s had 25 percent of the sugar replaced with Cargill Stevia leaf extract, which is a natural sweetener that reduces the overall sugar content.
One thing we’ve learned over and over again is if food does not taste good, consumers simply won’t buy it. And that’s the challenge that the food scientists take on just to find that perfect sweet spot of health, convenience, and taste.
Michael Pollan: There’s no question that processed food is convenient and often tasty. But when it comes to health, the claims manufacturers use to sell their products are frequently confusing, if not deceptive.
Michael Pollan on stage: A trip to the supermarket has become kind of a journey through a treacherous landscape. I mean, what are we to make of a product like Splenda with fiber? They’re selling the lack of one nutrient, sugar, and the gratuitous presence of another, fiber. So it allows you to have this amazing thing, never before tasted in the history of mankind, which is high-fiber coffee.
These guys were really the champs of aggressive health claims, POM, POM Wonderful. They were advertising these products as helping everything from, uh, your heart to your prostate, to—and I kid you not—erectile dysfunction, this drink right here.
They got in a little hot water for that because they tested it.They–they performed these experiments on, rabbits. And some animal rights people got very upset. Okay.But the thing that struck me is, do rabbits have this problem?
Anyway, they went too far, though, when they put a health claim on or a slogan that was, I’m not kidding, Cheat Death with this product. And the FTC said, you can’t do that. You can’t promise uh, immortality with your products.
You think about people trying to make good choices in the supermarket and finding themselves not losing weight, not improving their health, and you wonder why.
Well, look at yogurt. Yogurt is a healthy choice, we’re told.We give it to our kids in huge amounts. This is Yoplait. This is one of the first of the very successful yogurt brands. And this is, Yocrunch, and this one comes with M&Ms. Talk about a confused message.
But here’s the thing. Yoplait, Coca-Cola–obviously, this is the better choice, right? But if you look at how much sugar is in this, there is exactly the same amount of sugar in these two things. This is the latest sugar delivery system. And so we feel good about not giving our kids soda, but we give them this instead. So that’s what I mean when I say it’s really gotten treacherous out there.
Michael Pollan: So how do you know what’s really healthy and what’s not? How can you tell the difference between food and edible food-like substances? I’ve come up with some common-sense guidelines I call food rules.
Like: eat only foods that will eventually rot.
Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans
And avoid foods you see advertised on television.
So if we’re going to eat real food, the next obvious question is, what kind of real food?
And that part of my overall food guidance is in some ways the most controversial. Mostly plants. Why do I say mostly plants?
It didn’t please vegetarians, who thought I should go all the way. And it certainly didn’t please meat-eaters, who thought I was dissing meat. But I used that word after a lot of consideration, because it’s a somewhat equivocal message.
There are people who demonize meat, but there’s no reason to do that. Meat is healthy food. Humans have eaten meat for a very long time with great pleasure.
I think our problem is we eat too much of it. So, and that’s why I say mostly plants.
Michael Pollan on stage: Every additional daily serving of vegetables and fruit reduces your risk of stroke by 5 percent and your risk of heart disease by 4 percent.
We only eat about between two and three portions of vegetables and fruit in this country. If we up that by just one more, that would save 30,000 lives and five billion dollars in healthcare costs.
Man in scene: Remember our rules for letting them out?
Kids in scene: Don’t bother them.
Man in scene: Don’t bother them, that’s right. But we are going to police them away from our vegetables, right?
Michael Pollan: At a day camp in Sunnyvale, California, Stanford scientist Christopher Gardner is exploring what it takes to get children to eat more vegetables.
Christopher Gardner, Director of Nutrition Studies, Stanford Prevention Research Center: One of my research interests is just how many vegetables could I get a kid to eat. What are the barriers? What are the things that get in the way? Is it a peer pressure thing? Is it really a taste thing? Is it familiarity?
Asha in scene: So today we have garlic basil hummus and we also have lemon cucumbers, green beans and corn. You can try the raw veggies by themselves. You can dip them into the hummus.
Erin Bird in scene: Here’s another really big one over here.
Erin Bird, Camp Director, Full Circle Farm: What they learn is that it’s really delicious food. But it’s just taking that first jump into feeling comfortable enough to try it.
Erin Bird in scene: So, in terms of teamwork…
Michael Pollan: To make that jump easier, in the cooking assignment that culminates the week, the kids have been told to use three different vegetables to make…pizza.
Emmy Williams in scene: Does pickles count as a vegetable?
Erin Bird in scene: Yeah.
Christopher Gardner : One of the main points of the camp is to get the kids connected with food. Because you see this light bulb go off over their heads and a sparkle in their eye when they see, ‘Oh, that food it grows just like this!’
Erin Bird in scene: So yesterday we came up with a list. We have squash, peppers, kale, green beans, cucumber. Eggs is not considered a vegetable but it can be an additional topping to your pizza.
Emmy Williams, camper: It’s pretty much dough, and then I have pesto, tomato paste or sauce. I have cheese, a mixture, we cooked onions, peppers, and garlic together so I have that on my pizza. Tomatoes. And then I have an inner ring of pickles, which I’m really excited about because I’ve never had pickles on a pizza.
Woman in scene: What do you think, does that look done?
Christopher Gardner: I’m kind of stunned actually how many different vegetables they’re willing to try by the end of the week, and how many they’re willing to say they like, just within a few days.
Michael Pollan: When people eat a plant-based diet their whole lives, the benefits are impressive. Here in Loma Linda, California, many people belong to the same religious denomination that the Kellogg brothers did: the Seventh-Day Adventists.
Woman in scene: Green onions.
Michael Pollan: Founded back in the nineteenth century, the church has always emphasized healthy living.
Woman in scene: Green chards, lots of green chards.
Michael Pollan: Today, Adventists have the longest life expectancy of any group in the United States.
Woman in scene: I can’t believe you’re going to be a hundred and one in August.
Michael Pollan: The residents at this retirement home are almost all Adventists.
Carol Nelson, 92 years old: We feel that our bodies are the temple of God. And we owe it to ourselves and to our community to keep up our health.
Exercise leader in scene: One, two…
Carol Nelson: We have at least two or three people who are a hundred years old here. And they seem to get along very well.
I’m ninety-two years old. The average age is ninety-three.
I walk 4 miles a day. I used to walk outside. But now I walk in the villa here. I realized that if I go from end to the other and back 6 times, it’s a mile.So I go back and forth 24 times in the morning.
Michael Pollan: Almost all Adventists abstain from smoking and alcohol. And about fifty percent of them are vegetarians.
Carol Nelson: I have been a vegetarian all my life.
Interviewer: And you, Richard?
Richard Nelson, 94 years old: I could say the same thing. And I haven’t missed anything. It’s pretty well established that especially the red meats are not really that good for you.
Michael Pollan: And that’s true if you eat too much of them. Studies show that the more red meat you eat, the greater your risk of getting heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
Some of the meat studies were done at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
Walter Willett, M.D., Chair, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health: From what we’ve seen in our research, eating mostly plants is a good idea. We’ve done a series of analyses over the last few years comparing red meat with poultry with fish, with nuts, with legumes in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And very consistently replacing red meat with other protein sources turns out to be related to lower risk of mortality from these diseases.
Michael Pollan: In Cleveland, researchers have made a new finding that they think might explain some of the risks of red meat. Stanley Hazen is a cardiologist.
Stanley Hazen, M.D., Cardiologist, Cleveland Clinic: We were looking for characteristic markers or features in the blood that predicted near-term risk for heart attack, stroke and death.
Michael Pollan: Hazen and his colleagues found something that seemed to do just that: a compound called TMAO.
Stanley Hazen: When we first found that this compound was associated with heart disease risk, we didn’t know very much about it. So we tried to essentially reverse engineer, where did it come from?
Michael Pollan: The answer pointed to red meat, which contains a substance called carnitine. Bacteria in our intestines feed on carnitine, and help turn it into TMAO.
Hazen found that the more TMAO there is in our bloodstream, the more likely we are to develop heart disease.
Stanley Hazen: What we have found is that TMAO is enhancing heart disease risk by changing cholesterol metabolism.
Michael Pollan: In mice, higher levels of TMAO made the sticky deposits of cholesterol called plaque more likely to form in their arteries.
Stanley Hazen: I like to think of TMAO as a rheostat on a light switch. If you have a high TMAO, you’re going to have more plaque. If you have a low TMAO level, you end up having less plaque.
Based on our findings, I have not stopped eating red meat but I have decreased the amount and also the frequency. So now instead of having it multiple times a week I try to have it at most one time a week.
Michael Pollan: We still don’t understand precisely why meat causes problems.It could be the carnitine. Or the kind of iron in it. Or the saturated fat. Or the problem may simply be that meat crowds plants out of our diet.
But we do know this: eating less meat and mostly plants is good for you.
Joan Sabaté in scene: OK.
Michael Pollan: Nutrition scientist Joan Sabaté teaches at Loma Linda University. He and his wife Carmen, who both grew up in Adventist homes in Barcelona, follow a vegetarian diet.
Joan Sabaté: For supper I eat a good salad, or a good soup, and vegetables with carbohydrate foods such as pasta, or potatoes, or bread. And then fruit for dessert. That seems like a good meal.
But don’t stick with just cauliflower and potatoes. The plant kingdom is very rich in textures, in flavors, in colors. So, a rich variety of plant foods is the best.
Michael Pollan: Sabaté has done studies comparing the longevity of both kinds of Adventists: meat eaters and vegetarians. He’s found that vegetarian Adventists live three to four years longer than non-vegetarian ones, and six to nine years longer than the rest of us.
Mrs. Wareham in scene : You’re awfully easy to please, honey, I must say.
Michael Pollan: Ellsworth Wareham is one of those vegetarian Adventists. He’s 99. He was a heart surgeon for more than five decades, and retired at the age of ninety-five.
Ellsworth Wareham, M.D., surgeon (retired): During the last 20 years I assisted in cardiac surgery. I wasn’t the principal surgeon. But I worked full-time.
I try to live a healthy lifestyle. And that involves, of course, trying to have proper nutrition.
Do I keep a list of things that I’m going to eat? No.
Mrs. Wareham in scene : This has little hot peppers in it.
Ellsworth Wareham: You eat a plant-based diet. I want to just say how simple it is. It is simple to have good eating habits.
Michael Pollan: At the University of Pittsburgh, researchers are exploring just how eating mostly plants may promote health.
Colon cancer specialist Stephen O’Keefe spent many years working in Africa, where he saw very little colon cancer among his patients.
But when he moved to the United States, he was struck by the fact that African-Americans have one of the highest colon cancer rates in the world, even though many are genetically similar to Africans.
Stephen O’Keefe, M.D., Professor of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Studies have demonstrated that the factor most associated with differences in colon cancer between Africans and African Americans is diet.
Michael Pollan: Most Africans tend to eat more vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains, and less processed food than we do in the West. And those plant-based foods contain substances our bodies can’t digest—which we call fiber.
We understood for a long time that fiber was important, and we thought it was important to help people overcome constipation and improve what’s called transit time of food through your body.
But O’Keefe’s studies reveal that fiber does something else. It feeds bacteria in the colon that help to keep it healthy, by producing a compound called butyrate.
Stephen O’Keefe : Our cells don’t produce it, but bacterial cells do. If you eat enough fiber, you maintain a bacterial population that convert the fiber into butyrate which maintains the health of the colon and prevents cancer.
Michael Pollan: Fiber is food for these microbes, and if you don’t feed it to them they’re not going to be well and you’re not going to be well.
And the less fiber you eat, O’Keefe has found, the more bacteria you have that make harmful compounds that can lead to cancer.
Since the Western diet that many African-Americans eat is low in fiber, and most Africans get plenty of fiber, O’Keefe wondered what would happen if Africans and African-Americans switched diets?
O’Keefe’s team fed fiber-rich diets to African-Americans, and fiber-poor diets to people in South Africa.
Stephen O’Keefe : And then we basically measured substances that are good or bad for the colon, before and then two weeks after their dietary switch.
Michael Pollan: After just two weeks, the amount of harmful compounds increased in the colons of the Africans, while the amount of beneficial compounds like butyrate increased in the African-Americans.
Junhai Ou in scene: This is the butyrate.
Stephen O’Keefe in scene: It’s very dramatic. It’s very easy to see. Yes.
Junhai Ou in scene: Yeah.
Stephen O’Keefe : The exciting thing is that by changing your diet you or I can influence our risk of colon cancer in just two weeks.
Michael Pollan: So the larger lesson is that we’re not just eating for ourselves. We’re eating for the trillions of microbes that inhabit us. Like the ones that help protect breast-fed babies.
The community of microbes inside us has become known as the microbiome. But scientists are just beginning to understand how big a role those microbes play in our dietary health.
Jeffrey Gordon, M.D., Distinguished University Professor, Washington Univ. School of Medicine: Our ability to transform the complex chemicals in the foods that we eat into products that we can grab ahold of and use, very much depends upon our microbial partners. And in a sense, we never dine alone. And that’s why we proceeded to try to understand this intersection between the foods that we eat, the microbes that we harbor, and our health.
Michael Pollan: Jeffrey Gordon and his colleagues have found that these microbes can actually influence both obesity and malnutrition.
In Malawi, his team studied unusual pairs of twins. Even though they’d been fed similar diets, in dozens of cases, one twin was malnourished, and the other one wasn’t.
It turned out that their intestinal bacteria—for reasons still unknown –were starkly different.
Jeffrey Gordon: This suggested that there may be a causal relationship between the microbes and malnutrition, but it didn’t prove it.
Michael Pollan: To test this hypothesis, the scientists transplanted the children’s intestinal bacteria into mice that had been bred to have none of their own.
The mice that got the sick twins’ bacteria developed symptoms of malnutrition. Those that got the healthy twins’ bacteria did not.
Gordon did a similar study of twins in the United States, this time looking at obesity. In cases where one twin was obese and the other wasn’t, it again turned out that they had different kinds of gut bacteria—which suggests that certain microbes may contribute to obesity.
Jeffrey Gordon: If we think about our microbes as a garden, how can we grow this garden? How can we cultivate it to ensure our health?
Michael Pollan: In places like Bangladesh, Gordon is investigating whether traditional diets may do that by encouraging the growth of a wide variety of intestinal microbes.
Jeffrey Gordon: One fascinating finding that we have made is that Westernization is associated with a reduction in the diversity or richness of microbial life in the gut. And diets that increase richness are probably going to be beneficial.
Michael Pollan: Researcher Jeff Leach thinks the Hadza in Tanzania can also tell us a lot about how to cultivate our microbiome.
Jeff Leach, Founder, The Human Food Project: One of the holy grails in microbiome research is trying to figure out what is an optimal or balanced microbiome.
Michael Pollan: The Hadza’s gut microbes feed mainly on wild foods, like the kind our ancestors ate for tens of thousands of years.
Jeff Leach: We think that the Hadza contain in their stomach a microbial Noah’s Ark to what ails the world.
Michael Pollan: To learn more about these microbes, Leach is collecting stool samples from some 500 Hadza: men, women and children.
Jeff Leach: We provide the individuals in the village little tubes and a swab.
Jeff Leach in scene: Samples for Bahti?
Assistant in scene: Bahti.
Michael Pollan: The samples are shipped to the labs of Leach’s U.S. colleagues, who can precisely identify the microbes they contain.
Jeff Leach: At the end of the day, what we hope to find is, are there certain diets that drive certain groups of bacteria? And what does that tell us about the health of the person?
Michael Pollan: Studies suggest that the Hadza have different kinds of microbes than people in Western countries. And this may partly stem from the high levels of fiber they get from all the plants they eat.
Jeff Leach: I think the Hadza are gonna teach us that plants should be the primary source of calories in the diet, and that those plants should also contain lots of dietary fiber.
Michael Pollan: I think one of the most interesting things that Jeff Leach is up to is looking for that baseline of what the human microbiome looked like before the rise of agriculture and then before the rise of processed food.
We don’t know how these changes in our diet may have affected the microbes inside us. The microbes may provide a very important missing link between food and health. We need to take them into consideration when we’re deciding what to eat.
So there are many good reasons to eat mostly plants. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that eating a variety of vegetables and fruits can probably reduce rates of stroke, heart disease, and some cancers.
They’re nutritious and have lots of fiber. They’re good for the microbes in your gut. And if you’re eating mostly plants, you can be sure you’re not eating too much meat.
So, treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.
If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.
Eat your colors—that is, eat as many different kinds of plants as possible.
And now the last—and most challenging—of my seven words: not too much.
In a country where two-thirds of us are overweight, this may seem obvious. But it can be tough not to eat too much. One big reason is that we’re constantly being tempted by food.
Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, New York University: People are eating more food, more often and in greater portions. Food is everywhere. You used to be asked to leave food outside if you came into a clothing store. Now they give you snacks.
Michael Pollan: The wonderful human institution of the meal, this time where people stop what they’re doing, sit down at a table, eat socially, is in trouble.
We eat at our desks. We eat while we’re driving. We eat while we’re walking down the street. There were social taboos on all these activities once upon a time and they’re all gone.
Marion Nestle: We can see if we look at data on the number of calories that people are eating, people are eating much more now than they did 25 or 30 years ago. And those kinds of trends are going to take a lot more than removing a gram or two of sugar or salt from a food product to make any difference.
Michael Pollan: And that’s why we need to talk, not just about nutrients or even just about food, but about how much we eat.
Brian Wansink in scene: Thanks for coming for lunch today. Like I promised, it’s a free lunch. OK. So let’s go on, let’s get started.
Brian Wansink, Director, Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University: One thing that I’ve learned, having done hundreds and hundreds of studies relating to eating behavior, is that to a person, we believe we are master and commander of all of our food decisions. But we’re not.
We make over 200 decisions about food a day. And the majority of these decisions are basically unconscious to us.
Brian Wansink in scene: So, um, grab a plate up there, the pasta is right on the stove. Serve yourself up.
Michael Pollan: Brian Wansink is an expert on eating behavior. He’s discovered we’re often not aware of why we eat as much as we do. Sometimes it’s because of something we don’t give the slightest thought to. Like the size of our plate.
Brian Wansink: We’ll bring people in, we’ll give them a large plate, to serve themselves, but what they don’t realize, is that the pasta is cold.
Michael Pollan: Wansink concocts an excuse, so that everyone has to get a different plate, which is slightly smaller.
Brian Wansink in scene: These things weren’t the right temperature. So I’d like you to come back and just grab another plate out of the cupboard, there.
Brian Wansink: One of the things we find is that they’ll serve themselves a second time, they won’t believe they served an amount any different than they did the first time.
Brian Wansink in scene: Did you guys notice anything any different between the first time you served yourself and the second time you served yourself?
Young man in pink shirt: Plate feels a lot smaller, it looks smaller.
Brian Wansink in scene: So here’s one thing we found. The size of a plate tremendously biases us in terms of how much we serve.
Michael Pollan: The smaller the plate, the less food people take.
Brian Wansink in scene: You serve four ounces on a nine-inch plate, you go, ‘Holy cow, I’m never going to be able to eat that.’ So let’s take a look at what happened to you guys.
So the big plate, two hundred and seven calories. The smaller plate, it dropped down to a hundred and sixty-two calories. Whoa. That’s about forty calories,
If this happened three times a day, over the course of a year, by using a smaller plate, you’d end up weighing nine pounds less than you would if you had a bigger plate. Just really, really small things make this really huge difference.
Brian Wansink: When it comes down to it, the changes we can make most immediately are the changes we can make when we go home tonight. They’re the changes we can make in our kitchen or in our own house. Like simply using smaller plates.
Michael Pollan: Use smaller plates and glasses.
Serve the vegetables first.
Super: Lansing High School, Lansing, New York.
Michael Pollan: Wansink has also found that the order in which we encounter foods influences not just how much we eat, but what we eat. He’s now working with schools around the country, to re-design lunch lines so that kids will choose healthier foods.
Brian Wansink: This is about the most difficult place in the world to get people to eat better. It’s a middle school and a high school cafeteria. Here’s how we do it.
We re-organize the line. Put the healthiest food first. We find people are eleven per cent more likely to take the first thing they see than the third thing. So let’s load it up with the healthy vegetables.
After that we’ve got the low fat hamburgers. Whole grain buns here, bean quesadillas. It’s only then do they hit the really indulgent stuff. But you know hey, it’s too late. Their plates are already full with the good stuff.
Sandi Swearingen, Food Service Director, Lansing Central School District: You know that it’s working by the fact that, we used to only do, 25 pounds of carrots a week for all three buildings and now we, we go anywhere’s from 70 to 75 pounds of carrots a week. And they don’t even realize it, a lot of ‘em, that ‘Wow, we’re eating better.’ It’s just happening.
Brian Wansink: The other thing we do, we take the fruit and we put it right next to the cash register.What we find is that fruit sales go up a hundred and three per cent. Simply by putting the fruit in a nice basket and putting it next to the cash register. And the exact same thing that works for selling Twinkies in a convenience store works for getting people to eat healthier in high schools and junior highs.
Michael Pollan: And it’s not just kids who are influenced by where and when they see food. The order of items at a breakfast buffet had a similar effect on adults.
Brian Wansink: We found that the first three things they saw comprised 66 percent of everything they took.So in one case they saw cheesy eggs first, they saw bacon, they saw fried potatoes. Two-thirds of their plate, cheesy eggs bacon, fried potatoes. If instead they saw fruit first, and low fat granola, low fat yogurt, they’d end up taking two-thirds of their plate from those items.
It’s incredible the impact the order of food has on whether we take it or not.
Michael Pollan: All these little environmental cues are very important in our appetite. We think of appetite as this biological absolute. ‘This is how hungry I am.’But, in fact, it, like so many other things, is constructed. It’s socially constructed, environmentally constructed and influenced by all these little, little things.
So I see great potential to harness that kind of thinking and those kind of insights to redesign the buffet line, to redesign the plate, to redesign the food environment in which we live.
It’s very interesting how we’ll put up with social engineering from corporations, endlessly. When they come up with the Big Gulp they are social engineering, right, they’re getting us to drink more than we would otherwise. When they manipulate the salt, fat, and sugar, all that is social engineering too and we don’t resent it.
Yet as soon as it’s being done on our behalf, an elected official doing it on our behalf, this is too much. This is social engineering. This is socialist, we can’t, we can’t go there.
So it seems to me we have a double standard.
Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, New York University: The government is already involved in food choice, up to its ears. Government policy has determined the kind of food system that we have. It determines what food products get supported and which ones don’t.
So what those of us who are advocating for a healthier food system are after is not getting the government involved in food policy. It already is. We just want it tweaked so that the government role in food policy is to produce a food system that promotes health. Healthier people and a healthier environment.
Jeffrey Ritterman archival: This is the amount of sugar that your child or you eat when you drink one can of soda a day for a year. I’m gonna put this down in front.
Michael Pollan: In 2012, Richmond, California councilman Jeffrey Ritterman proposed that the city collect a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages. He hoped the tax would discourage people from consuming so much sugar.
Chairwoman archival: Please be respectful while we’re discussing this. Thank you.
Michael Pollan: Ritterman is also a cardiologist.
Jeffrey Ritterman archival: Unequivocally, medically right now it is proven that one can of soda a day increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes. It causes heart attacks, and it causes obesity and it makes some cancers grow.
Michael Pollan: The tax proponents raised close to seventy thousand dollars.
But in this city of about 100,000 people, the soda industry spent nearly two-and-a half million dollars to defeat the tax.
Phone bank woman archival: I was calling on behalf of the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes.
Marion Nestle: They established an ostensible grass roots organization to fight the soda tax. They went into minority neighborhoods and put up big posters saying, ‘Your rights are being taken away from you.’
Courtland ‘Corky’ Boozé, Richmond City Council archival: When we get to the point of being a dictator to people, I think it’s wrong.
Reporter archival: Measure N is losing. We can now confirm that it has gone down to defeat.
Michael Pollan: In the end, Richmond voters rejected the tax by a margin of nearly two-to-one.
Across the country, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came up with a different strategy to cut down on people’s intake of sugar. He proposed a regulation to limit the serving size of sugar-sweetened beverages to 16 ounces.
Michael Bloomberg archival: There’s an epidemic in this country of people being overweight bordering on obesity. The number, percentage of the population that’s obese is skyrocketing. We’ve gotta do something about it.
Thomas Farley archival: So this is the proposal. The maximum size that a food service establishment could sell of a sugary drink is sixteen ounces….
Thomas Farley, M.D., Former Commissioner, NYC Department of Health: If you go into a fast-food restaurant in New York City, you can find an awful lot of things like this. This is a 64-ounce container. That’s a half a gallon, by the way. It contains about 800 calories or more than 50 packets of sugar. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, this is how much sugar is in there.
Marion Nestle: We know from research that people eat what’s in front of them.If you give somebody a 16-ounce soda, that person will drink 16 ounces. If you give that same person 32 ounces, that same person will drink 32 ounces and have twice as many calories.
Michael Pollan: The beverage industry filed suit to stop Bloomberg’s rule, and launched a slick campaign to turn the public against it.
PSA Announcer: New Yorkers don’t want the mayor to tell them what size beverage to buy.
PSA Man: I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions about what I drink.
PSA Announcer: Hey New York. It’s time to take a stand. Join us.
Michael Pollan: In March 2013, a judge ruled in favor of the industry and threw out Bloomberg’s rule, calling the limit ‘arbitrary and capricious.’
Michael Bloomberg archival: Being the first to do something is never easy. When we began this process, we knew we would face lawsuits. Anytime you adopt a groundbreaking policy, special interests will sue. That’s America.
Marlboro announcer archival: Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.
Michael Pollan: Personal freedom also used to be one of the tobacco industry’s favorite arguments against government regulation. But the evidence of harm became so overwhelming that the government finally had to act.
Kelly Brownell: For many years there was very firmly established science that smoking cigarettes was killing people. But it took a long time for government to react. Once it did, though, it did things that were considered inconceivable at one time. Standing up to the tobacco companies?
Bel Air jingle singers archival: Breathe easy. Smoke clean. With new Bel Air…
Michael Pollan: In 1970, 37 per cent of American adults smoked cigarettes. The U.S. government banned cigarette advertising on television that year, and cigarette taxes began to rise. Since then, the percentage of adults who smoke has been cut in half.
Kelly Brownell: So I don’t think it can be very far off where we ask government to do with food what it’s done with tobacco.
Michael Pollan: And in 2014, people in Berkeley, California did just that, passing the first soda tax in the nation’s history.
Vicki Alexander archival: Got the measure passed. Whoo!
Michael Pollan: This time, tax proponents successfully countered industry spending––thanks partly to former Mayor Bloomberg.
PSA Announcer: If we’re going to reversing the epidemic of childhood obesity, it starts November 4th.
Michael Pollan: He spent a reported six hundred fifty thousand dollars in support of the measure.
PSA Announcer: And no to childhood obesity and diabetes.
Michael Pollan: I think it’s a big deal because we are going to test this idea that by adjusting the price of soda, you can reduce the consumption of it.
It’s already working in Mexico, where a national soda tax took effect in 2014.Since then, Mexicans have been drinking significantly less soda, suggesting that the amount we eat or drink is more than just a matter of willpower.
Now we’ll see whether a tax can have a similar impact when we try it in just in one city. And if we discover that that works, and in turn we find rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes moderating or declining, we will have discovered a very powerful tool. It may or may not work, but I’m delighted that finally we’re going to get to try this.
Make water your beverage of choice
Stop eating before you’re full
And eat more like the French do.
Eat more like the French do? Aren’t they known for their love of rich food?
Well, one of the remarkable things about the French is that they actually enjoy better health than people in many other Western countries. It’s a mystery known as the French paradox.
They eat very fatty foods very often. They have lavish, lush desserts. They drink lots of wine. And it drives us crazy, but they’re not as fat as we are, and they have less heart disease, and slightly better longevity. How could this possibly be? They’re breaking all our rules of eating.
Claude Fischler in scene: [speaking French, subtitles]: Hello, M. Philippe.
Butcher in scene: Hello, M. Fischler, How are you?
Claude Fischler in scene: I’m well.
Michael Pollan: Claude Fischler is a French sociologist who studies how people eat.
Claude Fischler in scene: I would like a veal roast.
Butcher in scene: OK, a veal roast.
Claude Fischler in scene: …for six people.
Butcher in scene: For six people.
Claude Fischler, Director of Research, French National Centre for Scientific Research: The French are very rigid when it comes to issues associated with eating. They eat at exactly the same time, in all regions. Any given weekday at 12:30, you can be sure that 50 percent of the French that are busy eating.
Across the English Channel or in the U.S., it’s, more like 15, 16, 17 percent of people that are eating at the same time.
Michael Pollan: Fischler thinks this rigidity, or reliance on tradition, actually makes life easier for the French.
Claude Fischler: It’s not such a maddening individual obsession about controlling yourself. Because there’s a lot that is controlled by the culture.
Paul Rozin, Former Editor, Appetite, Prof. of Psychology, U. of Penn.: The big difference between the French and the Americans is that they serve less food. That’s the big one. They serve smaller portions. That’s part of their tradition.
Another thing is they think of food more as something you enjoy.
Fischler in scene: Hello madame
Fischler: How are you?
Shopkeeper: I’m well, and yourself?
Fischler: I’d like a little assortment of cheeses.
Shopkeeper: an assortment…
Claude Fischler: The French view of health issues is, ‘Si c’est bon, c’est bon.’If it tastes good, it’s good for you.
Fischler: Thank you very much.
Shopkeeper: Have a good evening!
Fischler: Goodbye. See you soon.
Paul Rozin: The French, when they say they eat, mean they have a meal together. They wouldn’t call eating a snack, eating. The way they use their word eating is an event. They have a world in which food is a celebration with others.
Michael Pollan: Tonight’s dinner is at the home of Fischler’s friend, Hervé de Lannurien.
Female Guest: I’d like a small glass
Male guest: I’d like some too.
Male Guest: This is always a bit ceremonial.
Fischler: How is this?
Michael Pollan: In keeping with tradition, the meal follows a script. Appetizers. A first course. A main course. A cheese course. And salad. Later they had dessert.
In France, they eat slowly, which is very interesting and significant. One of the most striking things about the American way of eating is we are some of the fastest eaters on the planet.
Claude Fischler: It’s about a hundred and thirty-five minutes a day in France spent eating. Compared to something like seventy-four, I think, for the U.S.
Paul Rozin: So they’re used to eating smaller portions, but they’re used to taking longer to eat them. So the pleasure of eating comes from the good food in your mouth.
Michael Pollan: So the French paradox may have nothing to do with the miracle of nutrient in the red wine, which some people thought, but it may have everything to do with habit.
As powerful and wonderful as science is, culture also can teach us how to eat. And so far, until science makes the breakthroughs it needs to make, culture is the best guide we have.
Try to spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
Michael Pollan on stage: Last rule, break the rules once in a while. Cultivating a relaxed, non-punitive attitude toward food is essential. Being anxious about your eating cannot be good for your health. What matters is not the special occasion but the everyday default practice.
So I stand with Oscar Wilde, actually, who said it best.He said, ‘All things in moderation, including moderation.’ Thank you very much.
Michael Pollan at farmers’ market: Tomatoes, assorted.
Seller: Do you want a strawberry to go?
Michael Pollan at farmers’ market: Thank you.
Michael Pollan: There’re many aspects of our lives where we feel like we have very little power. But when it comes to food, we do have power.
The rise of farmers’ markets, the rise of organic agriculture, the rise of the food movement, none of this was the result of government action. All of this was the result of consumers voting with their forks, signaling to farmers and the food industry they wanted something different. And this has created a multi-billion dollar alternative food economy.
Michael Pollan: So we may be at a turning point.
Super: Oakland, California.
Hodari Davis in scene: We are feeding people today in so many different ways.
Michael Pollan: More and more people are making the connection between food and health.
Hodari Davis, The Bigger Picture Campaign, in scene: We have some young people who have been working to combat Type 2 diabetes directly. To actually end Type 2 diabetes in young people in the state of California. And we need your help. We need you actually eating good food. We need you actually sharing that message.
Queen Nefertiti Shabazz, The Bigger Picture Campaign, in scene: When we talk about wanting to eat healthy, we also have to think about the system that is making us eat the wrong things.
Luis Novoa: I believe we can change the whole community. Growing and knowing where your food comes from makes a difference. I would love to see in the next five, ten years the South Bronx have more healthy alternatives. Where—actually where the healthy isn’t an alternative. The fast food is the alternative and this is the standard.
Michael Pollan: Back in Massachusetts, the last year has also marked a turning point for Anthony Scavotto. He’s cut way down on junk food––especially sugar.
Anthony Scavotto: I think more about it because I kind of know what it does to my body now. I feel pretty good about the changes I’ve made.
I like fruits and vegetables. I love cauliflower. I love, like, apples. I like lemons, is that weird? I love lemons.
Michael Pollan: Though Anthony has gained a few pounds, he’s also grown two inches taller, so he’s carrying less excess weight.
Nancy Scavotto: Anthony is doing great. His energy level is up.
Anthony Scavotto: I love sports. My goal’s to stay the same weight…
Coach Scott Dupre in scene: There you go.
Anthony Scavotto: …to be healthy.
Nancy Scavotto: I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Coach Scott Dupre in scene: Nice shot.
Michael Pollan: You know, after talking to scores of nutrition scientists, nutrition educators, when I finally realized what they’re really telling me is, ‘Eat food,’ it was just like a light had gone off. It’s like, ‘Is it– could it really be that simple?’ And the more I thought about it, it was like, it is that simple.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants, is what our species has done for hundreds of thousands of years. So that advice, I think, is about as universal as any advice you could offer.
It’s very rare in our lives where the answer to a complicated question is so simple. But when it comes to eating it is.