More Thinking on “Unhappy Meals”

I know I said I wouldn’t ruminate any more until I got some real baking done, but what can I say: I lied. There’ve been just too many things quietly bugging me about Unhappy Meals the past few days, and I feel an urge to write them down. I could always do that myself in my living room on a legal pad, but hey, why should I spare you guys any of my personal torment? But on to the subject at hand…

One of the things I think Unhappy Meals illustrates is just how hard it is to be a Luddite in a room full of scientists. In other words, it’s hard to argue that science is of no or limited value, since in order to be credible you have to argue the point on scientific grounds. You must prove your anti-scientific point scientifically, and that tends to undermine your whole starting position. In most debates like this, the instigator is revealed to actually be in favor of science after all, just a science that yields different results. Unhappy Meals is like this. “The scientific study of nutrients is useless to any discussion of the true nutritional value of food”, Pollan tells us in essence, then proceeds to back up his claim with scientific studies on nutrients (those concerning omega-3’s in meat, for example). “The scientific study of nutrients is useless to any discussion of the true nutritional value of food — except when it supports my argument” is closer to what he actually means.

The most conspicuous example is his lengthy attempt to discredit the findings of the Women’s Health Initiative. Long-time readers of this blog may remember me referring to it once or twice (I think actually only once, now that I think about it). In summary, it was a $415 million study conducted by the government which followed 49,000 women over eight years to determine the link between fat consumption and disease. It was by far the biggest, longest study of its kind ever undertaken. And it’s findings? No connection whatsoever between fat intake and incidence of disease. It was a gigantic blow to dieticians and health enthusiasts everywhere, who had been anticipating it, relying on it to validate the cornerstone of their belief system. Instead they were left stunned, stupefied really, while silent cheers went up at burger stands across the nation.

That was a year ago, and since then I’ve been waiting for some prominent someone-or-other to stand up and call bull on the whole affair. The methodology was flawed! It’s a do-over!. Imagine my surprise, after a year of waiting, that it would be Michael Pollan to don the dented armor of his predecessors and throw himself once more into the breach.

Now, between you and me, I never entirely bought the results of that study, even though it was the most comprehensive of its type ever launched. I mostly chuckled, since so many were pinning their hopes on it as the final slam-dunk victory in their war on everything yummy in the world. But life just isn’t like that, especially when you’re dealing with vagaries like human behavior. Still it’s starting to look as though Mr. Pollan is set to become the de-facto leader of the anti-WHI crowd, who no doubt are prepared to roll the national survey dice as many times as it takes to get the numbers to come up 7.

Which again, is not to say that I think diet and disease aren’t related. But for my part I believe that while it may be myopic to obsess about nutrients outside the context of food, it’s equally so to obsess about diet outside the context of lifestyle. And I don’t just mean exercise, critical though that may be to health. I mean broader questions still, like: how happy are you? How much stress is there in your life? Do you like your job? How much time do you spend around people you really love (and who love you in return)? Not to get all Oprah on you, I just happen to believe that a life, just like a food, is an organic thing.

So what’s my answer, Mr. Smart Guy, to the problem of the Western diet? I don’t have one, save to say I think there are as many solutions to the problem of the Western diet as there are Westerners. We’re rich people, and have the problems you’d expect rich people to have: too much food, too much free time, too much choice. But unless you’re prepared to start taking some of that wealth, time and choice away, I see no one-size-fits-all solution to the highly individual problem of what to have for dinner.

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