The Dilemma of What to Eat (Published 2010/March)


Back a few years ago, I read a book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, that I learned a lot from and which I found myself surprisingly engrossed by.

The significance of the title is that human beings have infinitely more options on what we can eat that most animals (i.e., we are “omnivores”). We inherently face the dilemma of deciding what we want to eat because there are so many things that we could eat. From Pollan’s discussion following the origins of four every day meals, I learned things that forever impacted my thinking on what I eat. Consider corn (as well as its relationship to big “agri-business”, food suppliers and our government…) Pollan estimates that more than ¼ of all the products in our large modern supermarkets contain corn or corn by-products (Start reading the ingredients!)   Most of that corn is grown and/or marketed by just a few huge agri-businesses and Pollan estimates that each bushel of corn requires 1/3 of a gallon of petroleum products to get it grown and to market (think about that seriously the next time you hear corn-based ethanol being pushed as a solution to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil and what big companies might benefit from that approach)

Other points made by Pollan linger in my mind. The over abundance of corn is significantly funded significantly by our taxes and subsidies that the US government pays to corn producers (perhaps pushed big money, agribusiness lobbyists on Capitol Hill).  What to do with all that corn? The big agribusiness and mega food companies have found ways to integrate this cheap supply of corn sweetners and corn-based carbs in all kinds of the food that are heavily advertised and promoted. (and the rampant occurrence of overweight and diabetes stemming in part from all of that just creates a whole mass of people to market new products to!) Pollan asserts that beef cattle are being stuffed with excess corn which they can’t easily digest any more than we can digest the field grass that they normally would be eating was an eye-opener (Who taught us that corn-fed beef is a good thing?) As a result of eating corn, the cattle are prone to getting sick which results in them being pumped full of antibiotics so that they don’t die too early (but also results in a lot of chemicals passing into the beef and milk-products that we eat so much of…). Fortunately, he also provides stories of how food that we want to eat can be produced in ways that are healthy and sustainable (including going hunting for wild boars!)

While “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a compelling, “page turner” narrative, it’s also 464 pages long and its length may get in the way of you reading it (no matter how much I hope that I have just tempted you to do so!).   If time is tight, you may be interested in Pollan’s newest, just-published book, “Food Rules – An Eater’s Manual” which is light weight paperback ($11 list price, $6 from Amazon) with only 111 pages (with a lot of “white space”).   Pollan’s “Food Rules” offers 64 simple and pragmatic rules that sum up the wisdom in “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and offers quick guidance on solving that dilemma of what to eat.

Pollan’s basic premise is “Eat Food!” (and not food-like substances).

Pollan big advice is to “eat real food, not too much of it, and more plants than meat”.

The rules are short and memorable. How about Pollan’s “Rule #19 – If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t” (most highly processed foods have stuff in them that you’d be better off without).     Or “Rule #36 – Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk” (If the food changes the color of the milk, it probably is too highly processed with refined carbs and chemical additives we don’t need). Then there’s “Rule #39 – Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself” Consider French Fries – there’s a lot of work to peeling, cutting up and frying potatoes plus cleaning up when you’re done! If you only eat fries that you cook yourself, chances are that you’ll eat them less often.

If you’ve got the time, I heartily suggest getting a copy of Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”; it’s a compelling, easy read and I suspect that you’ll never quite approach the “What do I want to eat?” question as easily shaped by what marketing and advertising people want you to do. If time is short, consider browsing a copy of his new “Food Rules” book.

Regardless, thinking before deciding what to eat is a good idea that may change the rest of your life!


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