Posted Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009, at 12:30 PM
We can't trust academics to tell us how to eat, says Michael Pollan in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine . At best, the nutritional experts get it wrong — like when they told us to eat margarine instead of butter. At worst, they're colluding with food marketers to mislead the American public. So how might we find the path to healthy eating amidst a treacherous food landscape populated by lab-coated eggheads? By trusting in the " accumulated wisdom of the tribe ."
It's an idea Pollan has been pushing for a long time. In a Times Magazine article from 2007, he proposed that traditional ways of eating — the ones we learn from our mothers and grandmothers — have evolved over many generations to optimize health . Now he's compiling some of these tried-and-true dietary folkways for a new book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual . To that end, he invited readers of the Times ' Well blog (written by Tara Parker-Pope ) to supply their own homespun aphorisms about eating, and then published 20 of his favorites in the magazine on Sunday.
What about the other 2,703 suggestions made by Times readers? You can find them all on the Well blog, but only a few will make it into Pollan's guide for healthy eating. His aim, he tells us, was to collect "genuinely useful, and nutritionally sound, examples of popular wisdom about eating," but some of the tips provided "made little, if any, nutritional sense (and therefore didn't belong in the book)." Wait a second, how does Michael Pollan know the difference between what's nutritionally sound and what isn't? Is he — God forbid — -depending on the expertise of academics rather than the accumulated lore of the tribe?
Some tips from Mom, it would seem, are more correct than others. Quite a number of readers shared Mom's favorite dinnertime dictum: "Clean your plate." But that tip, passed down through the ages, does not make "nutritional sense" to Pollan. It certainly doesn't jibe with his cardinal rule to " eat less ."
If we need someone with special knowledge to arbitrate among all these food-related traditions, then why bother with any of them? It all reminds me of something my mother used to say: "If you already know the answer, then don't bother asking."