The Food Police
Why Michael Pollan makes me want to eat Cheetos
It has become common to speak of an “epidemic of obesity.” News sources routinely feature articles on obesity, and some even suggest that the obesity epidemic is one of the greatest public health threats of our times, perhaps rivaling AIDS or avian flu. Obesity is commonly linked to other social problems as well. It has been named as a cost to businesses in terms of worker productivity, a cause for poor pupil performance, a weight-load problem for airlines, and a security threat in terms of military preparedness. Proposed and implemented social solutions have included snack taxes, corporate-sponsored exercise breaks, stronger food labeling laws, and state-mandated student weigh-ins at public schools.
Obesity is a bonanza for social reformers who deploy the rhetoric of fat in support of projects from farm-to-school programs to mixed-use housing and transportation centers; and for puritans who use fatness as an example of the moral decrepitude to which we must just say no. Finally, the obesity epidemic, and its tendency to dignify obsessions that equate thinness and beauty, is hugely profitable, contributing, by some estimates, to a $40 billion-per-year weight-loss industry. Television shows like The Biggest Loser, sponsored by purveyors of diet foods, fitness centers, and pharmaceuticals, contribute to the false idea that diets work, thereby increasing the market for such goods and services. And if the daily spam I receive for Anatrim is any indication, the underground market in pharmaceuticals is cashing in, too.
A rash of popular books on the so-called obesity epidemic take a variety of positions, though virtually all claim to tell the real story about the epidemic and who is gaining by it. For example, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic, while voicing skepticism of the ways in which obesity has been framed, contributes to the frenzy through its tone.
Lately, another group of writers has gotten in on the act. More refined and measured, their books turn on the theme of “what to eat”—which is actually the title of Marion Nestle’s most recent volume. Other books include Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Anna Lappé’s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, and Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating. The sine qua non is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It is like no other because not only does Pollan know his stuff, he also can write his way out of a paper bag, and his book sales show it. Virtually all of these authors extol the virtues of the organic and the local while arguing for a commonsense, ecumenical approach to diet choices. That makes them refreshing in relation to the usual weight-loss books and painfully restrictive messages of latter-day health foodism. Or does it?
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