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Michael Pollan’s “Unhappy Meals”

Michael Pollan’s "Unhappy Meals" in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine was not supposed to be about morality. But I think it begs the question because he does talk about our lifestyle, including the way we exercise, whether we fast, and how thinking about food affects us. In my book, once you mention all that, you’re remiss if you don’t address ethics.

Let’s deconstruct this and other points (and you should definitely read the article, as well as THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA, which is only a dilemma if you don’t mind killing animals and you like eating processed, sugary, salty, nonfood products):

  • Though Pollan clearly advocates eating more plants (specifically leaves), he finds nothing wrong with eating meat. "A little meat won’t kill you," he writes. And it won’t, and at this point in the article, it’s only about nutrition.
  • There’s some fascinating material, some of which is also in the book, about the history of the marketing of foods and diets (low-fat, for instance), and a hint of the prevalence of corn in the Western diet (in the book he calls Americans corn chips with legs).
  • The marketing of food morphed into the marketing of nutrients, for the convenience of companies who don’t actually make food, but make edible products with nutrients. If you haven’t ever felt like a cog in a wheel, now would be the time.
  • Regarding his belief (and that of others, to be fair), that low-fat diets resulted in binging on carbs, which led to obesity: I was a low-fatter for years, and though I always ate a lot of carbs, I based my diet on fresh fruits and veggies, and never exceeded 108 pounds (I’m 5’1"). Low fat, even with higher carbs, does NOT lead to obesity necessarily. If you don’t exercise or sleep well and you eat a lot of crappy food, it doesn’t matter if you’re on Atkins or low-fat–you’re not going to be slim and healthy.
  • I love the part about how people lie when answering questionnaires about their food intake. Makes you wonder about any study results (involving questionnaires) that you’ve ever taken seriously.
  • In the section called "The Elephant in the Room," I thought for sure Pollan would refer to ethics. But alas, his elephant is the Western diet, which results in "much higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity than people eating more traditional diets."
  • As a remedy, he suggests we "start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship." BINGO. Once you say that, you open the door to ethics.
    • "Cow’s milk did not start out as a nutritious food for humans; in fact, it made them sick until humans who lived around cows evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults. This development proved much to the advantage of both the milk drinkers and the cows."
    1. Cow’s milk still makes humans sick–both children and adults (ear infections, mucous, digestive distress, etc…).
    2. How on earth does this system benefit the cows? We create them to keep them lactating, in a small space, for years, after artificially inseminating them and taking their babies, and pumping them with hormones and antibiotics, only to slaughter them. Where exactly is the advantage there?
  • "Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians [‘flexitarians’] are as healthy as vegetarians." Flexitarians? They’re just omnivores, just like the "carnivores" he’s talking about. That distinction is worthless. What I’d like to know is the health difference between vegans and omnivores. Once you remove the eggs and dairy products, there’s GOT to be a difference.
  • Pollan recommends eating "according to the rules of a traditional food culture." I’ve done entire posts on tradition and culture, so I won’t do that again (today). What gets my attention is that "Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you." This begs the question: Should I not think about where my food came from? Because if I do, I’d worry that eating it might be against some kind of moral code I might want to live by such as: killing sentient beings without necessity is morally unjustifiable.

If indeed you believe that killing sentient beings without justification is morally unjustifiable, how can you be a "conscientious omnivore?" In order to not worry about your diet, you shouldn’t be eating anyone you have to worry about.

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