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Food is more than the sum of its parts, writer argues

Michael Pollan has a simple nutritional tip: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."

Pollan, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, shared this pointer with a full audience in Salomon 101 Thursday night during a lecture in which he argued that nutritional facts and science don't always provide the best guide for how we should eat.

Pollan spoke about and signed copies of his new best-selling book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." He summed up his new book in seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

"We had very good advice on how to eat before we had a science of food," Pollan said, citing culture as what should determine what foods to eat. He also devised some proverbs of his own.

"Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients," Pollan said. "Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot."

Pollan named the problem in the American diet today "nutritionism," the idea that "food is essentially the sum of its nutritional parts."

"We don't feel confident to make decisions about this most basic animal function that is finding something to eat," Pollan said, explaining that Americans' focus on nutrients "empowers an expert class - you can't eat without an expert."

Pollan talked about the history of nutritionism, citing the meat industries' pressure on the government in the 1970s to recall its public health statement that Americans needed to "eat less red meat."

The statement was revised to, "Choose meat that will lower your saturated fat intake," Pollan said, which "changes the language from whole foods that everyone understands to this focus on nutrients."

"The industry is very satisfied with that since they're selling mostly processed foods and can always re-jigger the nutrients," Pollan added.

"We have gotten very fat on our low-fat diet," Pollan said, giving an example of a fixation on a "satanic nutrient" that has produced an adverse effect.

Pollan did admit that following his advice will cost more and take more time than the way most Americans eat, but he added, "We find time and we find money for the things we value."

"We have been devaluing food. We have decided that food should be cheap at all costs," and that "convenience should trump everything else," he said. Thus, big corporations took charge of food preparation in America, but "they don't cook very well," Pollan added.

His solution? "We need to start cooking again." Americans, Pollan said, have few things so important to attend to that they can't cook their own meals.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture, Pollan discussed global warming, the excess of corn and soy in the American diet, organic foods and eating locally.

On local and seasonal fruits and vegetables, Pollan said, "They have to do with preserving the landscape we love, which will not be preserved if we don't eat from it."

Pollan is the author of "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World" and "The Ominvore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," the latter of which was selected as one of the top 10 books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. He said he wrote his latest book "because of the kinds of questions I'd been hearing from people who thought I hadn't adequately solved 'the dilemma,'" presented in "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

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