A Couple Final Pollan Questions

I wasn’t going to answer any more of these online, but two questions from last week have been eating at me, no pun intended. So I think I’ll just post answers and be done with it. This one from reader Neil:

…despite what you say, you obviously don’t care much for the whole food movement. But something doesn’t make sense for me. I looked [at] most of your recipes and couldn’t help but notice that you usually call for natural or whole or at least non-artificial ingredients. You make a lot of things from scratch, even marshmallows (!). I think you’re most of the way to being a member of the movement, so why fight it the way you seem determined to do?

First let me say, Neil, that your email contained a lot of very thoughtful — and civil — criticism. I thank you for it. There’s a lot I could write in response to the question. The short answer is that I believe that pastry makers and organic/natural/whole foods movementarians are natural enemies. Virtually everything we touch is a product of technology: refined flours, refined sugars, leaveners, chocolates, etc. — and that doesn’t even begin to get into the equipment we use. As a group, we tend to embrace technology. As a group, the Pollanite crowd tends to reject it. That’s a fundamental, I think irresolvable, difference in outlook. So, I’m not nearly as close to the whole foods movement as I may appear.

Next this from reader Meg:

Joe, I was at the lecture you attended last week and I have a question for you. You heard Michael Pollan talk about how populations of indigenous people react physically to the Western diet. You also heard him talk about how when these people returned to their native diets their incidences of diseases like obesity and diabetes went away. So my question is: what’s your argument in favor of the Western diet in the face of such simple and obvious evidence that it’s killing us?

Meg, if obesity and diabetes were the only health problems in the world I might be more receptive to Michael Pollan’s line of argument (don’t forget he also mentioned heart disease). I don’t think there’s any question that people who live in Western societies and who eat the Western diet tend to suffer from a specific set of maladies. However the idea that Michael Pollan was advancing, that throwback hunter-gatherers are by definition healthier than modern Westerners, is absurd.

You’d hardly think it would be necessary to make this sort of point in this day and age, but the rise of Pollanism sadly makes it necessary. We Westerners are rich. As a result, we tend to get rich people’s diseases. People who are poor get poor people’s diseases, and I think it goes without saying that there are a great deal more of those. A short list of the diet-related ones that spring to mind are pellagra, scurvy, rickets, goiter, beriberi and the so-called “wasting” diseases that come from lack of protein. That doesn’t even get into parasitic or dirty water diseases like botulism, cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Malnutrition, shortened lifespans and high infant mortality are directly attributable to hunter-gatherer-style diets. And those are just the eating-related health problems associated with primitive living.

So what Michael Pollan told us was only half the story. Sure, those aboriginal Australians who returned to the bush stopped having rich-people’s diseases, they just started contracting poor people’s diseases again.

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