Michael Pollan, a best-selling author famous for writing “The Omninore’s Dilemma,” and other books on the importance of healthy food, was faced with a dilemma of his own when his son was young.
“For about eight years, he would only eat white food, and we had a period when we’d be thrilled if he’d eat a McDonald’s hamburger,” Pollan said during a phone interview.
Everything changed when Isaac was about 13 years old and got a kitchen job at a high-end restaurant. There, he was drawn to healthy eating when he experienced how quality food was made and saw the ingredients it was made from.
“After that, processed food gave him much less pleasure,” Pollan said.
That kind of understanding about the origins of food is key to motivating people to eat better, said Pollan. For more than the past decade, he’s devoted himself to exploring America’s relationship with food and chronicling the paradox of Western eating: The more we obsess about nutrition, the less healthy we get. The United States is one of the world’s most health-conscious cultures, yet is home to some of the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and other diet-related health problems. Pollan, will delve into this paradox on Sunday, May 18 as the keynote speaker at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s annual Premier Chefs Dinner. The event will feature an auction and a four-course dinner prepared by some of the Northwest’s top chefs. It has raised more than $4.6 million over the past 22 years to support Fred Hutch research.
The Western diet’s unhealthy consequences
Pollan frequently argues that the Western diet, with its reliance on white flour, refined sugar and foods so processed that he calls them “edible foodlike substances,” is responsible for many of today’s health problems, including many cases of cancer.
Fred Hutch scientists are piecing together the mechanisms behind this connection. For instance, Dr. Mario Kratz is studying the link between diet, obesity and cancer. One of his projects investigates whether soda and other sweetened beverages increase inflammation, which is triggered by obesity and may increase cancer risk.
Fred Hutch is also home to the nation’s oldest and largest Cancer Prevention Program, where researchers examine how exercise and diet can decrease a person’s risk of cancer and other diseases.
Pollan says the correlation between the Western diet and disease is unmistakable, pointing to how health in Africa changed when traders started arriving with Western food.
“When people in Africa started eating things like canned food, refined oils and flour, they started seeing diseases they hadn’t seen before, like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and several types of cancer,” Pollan said.
Coming face-to-face with the food industry
It’s one thing to prove certain foods are unhealthy. It’s another, potentially harder challenge to persuade people to change their diets. After all, U.S. obesity rates keep rising despite constant messages about the dangers of unhealthy eating.
But Pollan believes one way to break this link is to stop talking about nutrition and instead teach Americans the truth about the food they eat – and the food they should eat. Pollan himself lunched on cheeseburgers, French fries and beer for much of his 20s. Then he started writing about food and coming face-to-face with the way much of America’s food is produced.
“It’s hard to enjoy fast food if you’ve seen chemicals being sprayed on potatoes or animals standing in their own manure, or been assaulted by the smell of a feed lot from three miles away,” Pollan said.
The most powerful eating tip
In his book “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” Pollan offers tips to help people improve their eating habits. The list includes gems like “eat only foods that will eventually rot,” “don’t buy cereals that change the color of the milk” and “don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.”
But he says the simplest lesson is also the most powerful: cook.
“We need to examine ourselves and find out why asking someone to cook their own meals feels like asking them to scale Mount. Everest,” Pollan said.
Cultures that emphasize cooking have lower rates of heart disease and other illnesses, according to Pollan. In France, for instance Pollan says heart disease and other diet-related illnesses are much less prevalent than in the U.S., even though the French diet includes heavy doses of cheese, butter and bread.
“People who cook are generally healthier, even if they sometimes cook incredibly indulgent food,” Pollan said.
Ultimately, food is what keeps us healthy, a point Pollan illustrates by telling the story of a cardiologist he interviewed during his research for “Food Rules.” The cardiologist specialized in patients who received heart transplants, and would take out a prescription pad and start writing right before they left the hospital. But instead of penning a list of medications, he wrote instructions for how to roast a chicken and how to turn the leftovers into soup.
“He was saying it’s not the drugs that are going to keep you alive,” Pollan says. “It’s the food you eat.”
14 tips from “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (New York: Penguin Press. 2009)
Justin Matlick is a writer and editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He started his career at the Wall Street Journal and has written for a variety of national publications. Reach him at Jmatlick@fredhutch.org.