What Michael Pollan Gets Wrong About Losing Weight

updated May 1, 2019
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By the time The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in 2006, it had already been eight years since I’d eliminated high fructose corn syrup from my diet. I was already one of those people eating almost exclusively whole foods made from scratch. And yet I was at least 10 pounds overweight then and struggling to keep it down all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love and recommend that book, and I credit it for making sustainable food culture part of pop culture. But the ideas in that book, the ideas that make up what I think of the food movement, did nothing to make me thin.

In his writing, Michael Pollan and many other titans of the food movement blame junk, processed, and industrialized food for the prevalence of overweight and obese adults and children. Sometimes stated and always implied is the idea that if you just eat real food, if you can lay off the chips and candy and soda and fast food, you won’t have to worry about your weight anymore. Better food can set you free.

This can be true—for some people. I’ve seen friends drop 20 pounds by simply eliminating sweet beverages. If you are one of those people who has lost weight the Michael Pollan/Mark Bittman/Alice Waters way, that’s fantastic. Sincerely, I’m thrilled that’s been your experience. I think a whole foods based diet can be a very powerful thing.

But I need you to know that you can’t assume an overweight person is eating “wrong” or breaking the so-called “food rules.” It isn’t that simple.

If you are anything like me, you might be nursing a little grudge about all this. In some ways, it was actually easier to manage my weight and keep it at a healthy level when I was willing to eat calorie-controlled Easy-Mac, highly processed frozen dinners, and fat free sour cream. Today, I would never eat a neon orange mac and cheese but I would definitely eat a plate of handmade gnocchi topped with a gorgonzola cream sauce at your house or in a restaurant. What food could be more “clean” or “real” than dumplings made from locally harvested potatoes served with artisan blue cheese and flavorful grass-fed cream?

That’s an extreme example, but the fact remains that whether or not your food passes Pollan’s test for “real food” (Would your grandmother recognize it?) it can and will make you gain weight just like junk food can.

Especially if, like me, you started dieting at such a young age that your metabolic health has taken a hit. For me, almost anything starchy and rich, any combination of flour and fat, flips a switch in my brain and triggers overeating. Once upon a time, I thought I was a weak, gluttonous food lover who can’t resist delicious foods. I thought I was a failed foodie. But over time I’ve noticed there are certain delicious foods that never trigger overeating for me—rib eye steak and salad, roast chicken with Brussels sprouts, lentil soup.

Most food writers leave this part out—different “real” foods affect our individual bodies and hormones differently. Nutrition is a relatively new and hard to study science; there’s clearly more unknown than known when it comes to why we get fat.

I’m not saying that eating more home-cooked food made from responsibly sourced ingredients is a waste of time—I am committed to it! There are many solid health and environmental reasons to pursue a Pollan-approved diet.

But it isn’t an effective strategy to lose weight for many people, including myself.

Loving Food While Losing Weight

Is it possible to talk about the fraught space of food, body, and weight in a healthy, thoughtful way? We think so, and we’re presenting a monthlong column exploring one food-lover and food writer’s journey towards finding her own personal balance. Joy Manning is joining us this month with her own stories, practical tips, recipes, and perspective on the real-life struggle between loving food and loving your body.