Michael Pollan Paleo Interview
Last week, Mother Jones magazine published a scathing article with an obvious click-bait title of “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong With the Paleo Diet,” immediately sending a flurry of angry Paleo Dieters and Paleo sustainability enthusiasts into protest. As most of us know, the Paleo Diet involves eschewing post-agricultural revolution (neolithic) foods such as wheat, dairy, and legumes, and instead of following the Paleolithic template of our hunter-gatherer ancestors— primarily focusing on a diet of meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
In the article, written by Cynthia Graber, the celebrated food author is quoted as responding to our dietary regimen in the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast saying, “The trouble with that view, however, is that what they’re eating is probably nothing like the diet of hunter-gatherers.” He continues, “Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate—I think they’re kind of blowing smoke.”
Like most of us in the Paleo, Community knows, following the Paleo Diet doesn’t mean we are going on pack hunts for elk in the Alaskan Tundra armed with crude tools, spearfishing for our seafood, or yearning for North American Mastodon burgers… No, but we are eating the dietary proxies of the aurochs, wild junglefowl, and the like… because Paleo is not a historical reenactment, it’s just a template.
Because Graber’s article was purposefully inflammatory, and the Inquiring Minds podcast was really centered on Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, I felt it was important to press Michael for a more thorough explanation of his views regarding the Paleo Diet. Besides, we desperately needed some clarification from this figurehead of the Food Movement to set the record straight once and for all.
1. Michael, what are your main concerns regarding the popularity of the Paleo Diet?
I have concerns about ALL diets, frankly, but think Paleo is better than most, and the logic behind it makes a certain sense. However, I think it’s hard to follow now that most of our meat is raised in feedlots on grain diets. Meat today is not like meat ten thousand years ago. Grass-fed definitely comes closer, and wild game closest of all. I also think that humans have changed in ways that make some modern foods more suitable. We’ve evolved to eat some of the novelties of agriculture, and now produce enzymes that allow us to digest milk as adults (lactase) and grain (amylase). So the food is not the same, and we’re not the same. Nor are our gut microbiomes. You can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe said— this is true in evolution too.
2. As you suggest, animals bred by modern agriculture are fed “artificial diets of corn and grains”, rendering unhealthy animals. Why are corn and grains “artificial” for these animals?
Not for all of them, but for cows, certainly—they are grass-eaters—ruminants— who are poorly adapted to a diet heavy in grain. How do we know? They get sick and must be given antibiotics to tolerate it.
3. Do you believe that humans evolved, similar to the cows described above, with a species-appropriate diet? And if we did, is the Standard American Diet which focuses on the relatively new modern agriculture staples of wheat, corn, and soy, also “artificial”?
Compared to cows, we are omnivores and can eat a wide variety of diets. Go around the world and you will find humans thriving on a wide range of traditional diets: high protein (the Masai); high starch (native Americans in Central America) and high fat (Inuit). So I’m dubious there is one ideal diet for our species, though certainly, some are better than others. The Western Diet, or Standard American Diet, as it’s sometimes called, is a catastrophe. (Though give us a few millennia and we’ll probably adjust to it.)
4. When you researched omega-3 fatty acids, you were led to believe that over-consumption of vegetable oils and lack of wild-caught fish led directly to coronary heart disease. Given your conclusions, how do you reconcile promoting the consumption of whole wheat as an ideal protein source given its 27:1 omega 6 to omega 3 Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) profile?
Whole wheat is better than white flour— that’s all I’ll claim for it, and it’s hardly controversial. We probably do eat more omega six than we should. Though real whole wheat, with the germ intact, contains more omega 3s than white flour.*
5. Are grains (corn, wheat, barley, etc.) grown in a more sustainable manner now than they were back in ancient times when they were first grown?
[This question did not receive a response.]
6. Michael, in the past you have said that “a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius.” If all adherents to the Paleo Diet sourced their fruits, vegetables, and meats from small, decentralized, counter-industrial-agriculture farms, would you consider that diet more sustainable than dietary regimens that rely heavily on grain monocultures— even if that came with a heavier reliance on meat?
I am not against meat and think any truly sustainable agriculture will have to contain animals to recycle nutrients. I eat meat, but less now that I insist it is sustainable—because sustainable meat is more expensive, and it still has an environmental cost. On ethical grounds, I think we should favor meat from animals that don’t compete with humans for food.
7. Where can one source pasta and flour for making bread that doesn’t come from a monoculture?
There are more and more diversified farms here in California that are including wheat in their rotation, usually as a winter crop (since it doesn’t usually need to be irrigated.)
8. Why do you feel that the gluten-free trend is ridiculous?
I don’t think it’s ridiculous. Some people struggle with celiac (about 1%) and somewhat more (about 6%) struggle with gluten intolerance. But the trend is much bigger than that, which suggests some people are being influenced by the trend itself.
9. What are the unique nutritional benefits to grains that cannot be found by adhering to a Paleolithic template?
I don’t know enough to say, but whole grains do contain fiber, which is important in any diet.
10. Sir Albert Howard, the father of the Organic Movement once said that the health of the “soil, plant, animal, and man is one and indivisible.” Do you agree with that statement?
*Pop Quiz Question: What crops and crop-growing methods were partially responsible for the 1930’s Dust Bowl, and how did that affect the soil?
You tell me: grain probably. Yes, perennial pasture is better for the soil and sequesters more carbon. If you’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma you know I think that sort of meat-based agriculture is much more sustainable than any grain-based agriculture— though even [Joel Salatin’s] Polyface Farm depends on someone to grow a lot of grain for it.
11. Some studies have indicated that the consumption of red meat causes cancer, and as you mentioned there are confounding factors. What’s interesting is that these studies which indicated that it caused cancer involved animals who were fed an “artificial” diet, and studies of grass-fed meat actually indicated anti-tumorigenic properties due to their CLA, Vitamin E, and anti-inflammatory EFA ratios. When you discuss meat consumption, do you make this distinction?
I don’t know enough to make a distinction, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one could be made. I think the science on CLA is still embryonic.
12. I’d like to address your comment, “Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate—I think they’re kind of blowing smoke.” I agree that we may not know the exact macronutrient ratios of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but many Anthropologists and Paleo Diet adherents believe that they did not subsist on agricultural diets. Do you believe that this is an erroneous assumption?
I don’t follow you, sorry.
13. Would you consider coming to this year’s Ancestral Health Symposium?
1. Hands ES. Nutrients in food. Philadelphia, PA7 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2000. p. 1-336.
*Whole Wheat 27:1 Omega 6, Omega 3 values, White Bread 21:1 Omega 6 Omega 3 values, Hands ES. Nutrients in food. Philadelphia, PA7 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2000. p. 1-336.
Michael Pollan Paleo Interview by Karen Pendergrass.
Wow…really unimpressed by Michael Pollan’s response. Thanks for conducting the interview, Karen.
The Mother Jones article hit us where it counts for two reasons: 1) We expect better from a publication that used to be more assertive against the status quo; and 2) Michael Pollan feels like an ally to us on the real food front.
But neither of these are necessarily true. It’s pretty clear that Mr. Pollan just doesn’t know enough about the bones of Paleo to give responses. There is something about the glitz around “Paleo” right now that makes it easy for many people to shrug it off and not give it the consideration it deserves. Like, “Oh, it’s just a fad trendy diet that will go the way of Atkins.”
He’s absolutely right about lactase persistence and amylase, though he doesn’t mention that a significant portion of the population is still lactose intolerant and that amylase adaptation varies widely from person to person. What’s the most heartbreaking to me is that these figureheads who bemoan the state of our country’s health and recommend “healthy eating” don’t recognize our efforts as valid or helpful. They haven’t seen the life-changing results. They haven’t heard the suffering that’s been lifted. They can’t see that Paleo puts into practice 85% of their recommendations for healthy eating.
So I say to heck with Mother Jones and Michael Pollan. Let us stand on our own merits. We’ll be here when everyone is tired of being sick, overweight, and unhappy for some nagging reason they just haven’t been able to solve any other way. And then they’ll understand.
I am also underwhelmed by Pollan’s response. For such a great researcher and writer, he seems almost willfully obtuse on a few points.
As to Joel Salatin feeding grain to his animals (as a supplement to their primarily pasture-based diets), he has said he buys from local farmers. So I don’t see what the problem is.
Pollan is a great writer and we all owe him a debt for helping to bring millions of people into our world.
That being said, his opinions have increasingly become coloured by environmentalism (and not the good kind) rather than anything to do with human health or best practices in nutrition. And for that we should crucify him.
Wow, really poor questions by the Paleo Movement: A lot of these questions require only closed answers that aim to boast the paleo diet, while the others aim Mr. Pollan towards an answer that reconfirm paleo perspectives. For shame.
That’s funny, since he could have easily used his quick wit and expanse knowledge base to prove his point and make the questions seem misguided, but alas.
Hey, what do you expect when you get questioned by someone who has extensive knowledge on a subject? You think I’ll just ask easy questions, or those that require some level of expertise on a subject that we’d expect an expert response to?
Forgive me if I ask too much of those that I interview (like what I would consider basic knowledge).
I don’t do dumbed down. If you’re looking for that, head over to Mother Jones.
Sorry Mr Pollan, but my respect for you and your opinions continues to wane… Your views seem more and more colored by the emotional stance of the vegan movement than the scientific stance you should be taking all the time…….
I would just like to comment on the fact that Elk do not in fact live on the tundra, the actual animal that you are referring to would be the caribou, or reindeer if you live in Europe/Asia.
Ha! Thanks for the correction 😉
This is my comment on motherjones.com on the Pollan article:
While I agree with much, even most, of what Michael Pollan has to say, I’ve lost just a bit of respect for him based on this article and a subsequent interview meant to clarify his position. (http://paleofoundatio.wpengine.com/michael-pollan-paleo-interview/) It’s not necessary to create a silly straw man to make your points about dietary lessons that we can glean from looking at our ancestors’ ways of eating.
Why must Paleo diet adherents be “Paleo obsessives”? You could just as easily go after “vegan obsessives.” The litany of silly, inaccurate images about Paleo diets and adherents that every food journalist seems to think they have to run through is tired, indeed.
Pollan in fact has no substantive criticism of Paleo because he, at least according to this write-up, is criticizing a phantom, not the reality. Where does he get the idea that he must continually caution people against eating “too much” meat, when he clearly knowns that many societies and individuals have done very well on a high-meat diet? Vegetables are wonderful, and I am just one of many who acknowledge that they eat more vegetables on a Paleo diet than we did when we were vegetarians. Paleo doesn’t say you have to eat high protein, or low carb, and certainly not low fat. It’s an evolving template that each person must fit to their own needs, preferences, stage of life and health, budget and food availability. Even a diet of “meat, nuts and fruits and vegetables” doesn’t imply that enormous amounts of meat must be consumed. But *some* meat is very important as the most nutrient-dense source of key nutrients such as Vitamins A, D and K, and bio-available minerals (whose absorption is greatly aided by consuming sufficient fats, especially animal fats ). It’s no wonder our ancestors prized animal foods, especially organ meats, which are far richer sources of nutrients than muscle meats, let alone vegetables. (Kale is lovely, but it doesn’t stack up against liver or eggs. Even better, we don’t have to choose between them.)
Anecdotally, most people who shift to a Paleo diet do so because of health problems, often stemming from attempts at veganism, or just from eating the SAD* fare that many folks have come to accept as normal. Just about everybody understands that this is not about historical re-enactment, or hunting aurochs or woolly mastodons. Paleo is now widely understood to be a template for returning to the ancestral diets that humans evolved eating. Paleo has one foot in modern science as well as one in the past, so that we can learn from both. That seems eminently sensible to me.
I expected better of Mother Jones, and Michael Pollan.
*Standard American Diet
Nice job, Karen. I like that you footnoted the commonly held belief that ww flour is more healthy than white.
I’m glad SOMEONE caught that! LOL
Nice job, girl!!! 🙂
It’s so easy to just follow someone b/c everyone thinks that they are right or b/c they wrote a popular book(s). Unfortunately, not everyone is going to do their own research but it’s great to know that you are out there doing your part! I’m always proud of you!!!