Should we buy Michael Pollan's nutritional Darwinism?

The state of the universe.
Jan. 31 2007 6:24 PM

Survival of the Yummiest

Should we buy Michael Pollan's nutritional Darwinism?

New York Times Magazine

Adam and Eve must have been a healthy pair. They got some exercise, ate lots of locally grown fruits and vegetables, and while they may not have been thin by today's fashion standards, they certainly weren't ashamed of their bodies. Now look what's happened: In just 6,000 years, we've abandoned their sensible eating habits for a high-fat, sugar-loaded diet, and turned ourselves into a nation of lard-asses. Goodbye Garden of Eden; hello Olive Garden.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Whence our fall from grace? According to Michael Pollan's essay in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the serpent wears a lab coat. For decades scientists have been analyzing the food we eat, breaking it down into component parts, and studying how each nutrient affects our health in controlled conditions. More often than not, the "expert advice" that emerged from this work did more harm than good, it seems. When the government told us to eat more low-fat foods, we ended up binging on carbs. We bought margarine when the gurus told us to avoid saturated fats; now city governments are telling us that margarine is against the law. Well-intentioned blunders like these have crowded out the ancient wisdom that once guided our culinary habits, Pollan argues.

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Blame the scientists. They "need individual variables they can isolate," Pollan explains. "Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another." We'll never understand the biology of eating because it's just too hard to study in the lab. Large-scale clinical investigations won't be much help, either: There's no good way to observe or control how people eat; when doctors ask us about our diets we either misremember or make up stuff.

That much may be true, but it doesn't mean there's an inherent flaw in the scientific method. An optimist would say the worst years are behind us. Sure, we've made a few mistakes, but the science is getting stronger every day. Just as the discovery of vitamins made it easier to treat beriberi and scurvy, so will the latest research eventually help us to vanquish coronary heart disease and diabetes. That's how science works: You keep plugging away in the lab until you finally get somewhere.

It would help me to accept Pollan's claim to the contrary if I could think of any other topic in the universe so complicated that it defies scientific investigation. Yes, there's a lot to consider when you're looking at nutrition. But is climatology any easier? Should we throw up our hands at the idea of studying global warming, simply because it reflects a wilderness of variables in complex and dynamic relation to one another? Once we might have charged psychology with the same crimes here ascribed to nutrition: The mind is too complex, and individuals too unreliable, for us ever to understand what goes on inside our heads. But surely we've now seen the benefits of opening the black box—and tinkering around with the 100 billion neurons of the human brain.

Pollan presents the food scientist as a reductionist bogeyman, trampling willy-nilly over the delicate complexities of the natural world. (The illustrations assigned to his article convey dread at the notion that a fruit might be reduced—gasp—to its constituent parts.) It's a dangerous path, he argues, since those complexities have kept us alive over the course of human history. We don't have to identify which of the three-dozen antioxidants in a sprig of thyme, for example, will protect us from cancer; if we've always been eating fruits and vegetables, then they must be good for us. It's natural selection of the human diet: Thousands of years of trial and error must have pushed us toward increasingly wholesome foods. Any unhealthy eating habits would have gone extinct along the way. Why toss out these extraordinary evolutionary data in favor of a few decades' worth of lab experiments?