The Food Police

Why Michael Pollan makes me want to eat Cheetos

| January / February 2008

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?

Many of these authors share a common rhetorical strategy. They refer to the statistics of rising obesity rates, the surfeit of calories taken in relative to those expended, and the inexorable road toward illness with concomitant rising health care costs. They go on to discuss the ubiquity of fast, junky food in order to make their points about what constitutes “real” food. But whereas most of the popular writers on fat attribute growing obesity to a variety of culprits—watching television, long drive-to-work times, supermarket product placement, working mothers, baggy clothes, marketing to children, poverty, affluence, and modernity, basically everything under the sun—Pollan’s analysis is more pointed. As he puts it, “All these explanations are true, as far as they go. But it pays to go a little further, to search for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this: When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” Pollan then points to the culprit: corn.

He tells a compelling story about how corn has become the foundation of the national diet. He traces this first to the transport of corn from what is now Mexico to points north, where it took hold and outdid wheat in yield and ease of cultivation. But corn’s strength turned to its weakness; it was prone to systematic overproduction in U.S. agriculture, so surpluses ended up to no good. Corn whiskey was the beverage of choice in pre-Prohibition drinking binges. Since the 1970s, national farm policy has buttressed overproduction with subsidies. Pollan reminds us that corn is omnipresent in a fast-food meal: the high fructose corn syrup that sweetens the soda; the feed of the steer that goes into the hamburger; often the oil that fries the potatoes; an ingredient in the bun. Processed food, Pollan argues, makes us walking corn, and the “Alcoholic Republic” has now given way to “the Republic of Fat.”

Frank Sheed
3/11/2009 3:59:38 PM

Like the other writers, I don't see any basis for singling Pollan out for his focus on obesity, which is a very minor point in his book, or for finger-wagging or moral superiority, which I think he does a great job of avoiding. What his books do is to educate people about what they are eating and where it comes from, which Americans know far too little about. I don't believe that obesity is the point, nor do I believe Pollan does. I believe the point is that Americans are too far removed from the sources of their food and base their food choices on the self-serving guidance of the food industry rather than on basic nutritional education. It is hard to read Pollan's book and not feel compelled to change your eating habits -- and not because Pollan tells you to, but because you can't look at processed food the same way once you think about what's in it. The one point I do agree with is that obese people should not be stigmatized, regardless of the reasons for their obesity, and that the stigmatization of fat can have complex and often damaging psychological consequences. But this is the only defensible point in the article -- and it is not exactly new (see "Fat Is a Feminist Issue," 1978). There is plenty of data showing that the American diet is linked to the massive increase in obesity and that obesity is associated with a huge increase in health risks. The author is doing no one any favors by blowing smoke on these well-established facts. And even less so by attacking a writer who doesn't even focus on obesity much less stigmatize it but who takes what I think is the most constructive approach, namely, to focus people on understanding what they are eating and letting them decide, based on these facts, what's right for them. I, for one, think Pollan should be required reading in every classroom in America. Perhaps one in ten will decide to eat Cheetos in rebellion against his political correctness. The other nin

Robert Vanella
3/11/2009 2:13:51 PM

Although I appreciate the perspective I also think this is a terribly weak argument. Even the liberal in me is taken aback by the political correctness. While it is true that measures such as BMI fall very short in assessing total fitness and “diets” don’t work, there are some things that are blatantly obvious. #1 As mentioned in other comments, Americans are getting fatter, especially children. BMI and social science are not required to make this stipulation. One only needs eyes. #2 Processed food is not very healthful. This is a fact. It is simply cheap and abundant. #3 Some people are better equipped to make better choices and thereby stay fit (not thin necessarily but fit). I don’t think positing this fact conveys moral superiority. #4 I am fairly certain that the “headless” shots of the obese in news stories and films (such as Supersize Me) are done for legal purposes so the subjects can’t be identified. I think Guthman is grasping here. Too much academic mumbo-jumbo and PC.

3/11/2009 12:57:29 PM

Guthman's article terribly weak. She makes comments to the effect that obesity is not well defined, as per BMI, and that there are not particularly well established connections to what she believes is ill-defined obesity to other human pathologies. Where has she been for the past ten years? I am 48 years old, and I can say for a fact that people are much fatter today than they were thirty years ago. Children are especially fat these days, as are the twenty somethings. BMI, basically how fat you are around your belly, is a great proxy for abdominal adipose tissue. This is born-out with studies where folks' fat is measured with CAT scans and correlated to waistlines. The abdominal adipose tissue has been found associated with heart disease, type-II diabetes, and other arterial disease. I have been reading news blurbs for years in the NYTimes about results like those above published in peer-reviewed journals. Why is Guthman trying to make a case otherwise? Is she herself fat and trying to justify herself? Is she on the payroll of ADM, or some other like-minded outfit? Jealous of Pollan's success? Where are your sources? Is this even a field in which you are qualified? Are you an economist, geographer, or other pseudo-scientist? A psychological profile of Guthman would be more illuminating than this ridiculous article. Why would the Utne reader publish this nonsense? Enjoy your Cheetos.