“Eat food, Not too much. Mostly plants.” So begins what is, in my view, the single most level-headed approach to nutrition by a print journalist in living memory. Before you dismiss these words as clickbait candy, you should know that they were printed in the New York Times, long before that storied publication began producing Internet-friendly content. And before you dismiss their author as a glib opponent of science, or the enemy of chia seeds, you should know that he is neither.
Award-winning writer, and UC Berkeley professor of journalism, Michael Pollan has one goal: to communicate to the widest possible audience what is truly known about the health-giving properties of food.
To be, as he is, truly moderate in his approach to food makes this guy extreme. If my everyday conversation is any guide, many modern Western diners fall into two polarised categories. One is comprised of people who make fun of acai berries. The other is populated by people who worship acai berries. These groups are like Montagues and Capulets—or Paltrows and Martins, if you prefer. Which is to say they should never marry, or even consider enjoying a meal together.
If my everyday conversation is any guide, many modern Western diners fall into two polarised categories. One is comprised of people who make fun of acai berries. The other is populated by people who worship acai berries.
There is a non-militarised zone between these eating plans. Pollan eats from this reasonable menu and so, too, does Dr Giles Yeo, the host of the documentary to be aired this Monday on SBS, Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth. Both blokes say that, yes, dietary science continues to upturn proof for a rich in veg, high in nutrients and low in energy. They concede that, yes, commercial interests can, and have, distorted and co-opted science to make very poor dietary recommendations. At no point, however, would Pollan or Yeo suggest that an alkaline food blogger or Paleo superstar are good inspiration for your shopping list. In short, they say, you should really think about eating a lot of greens.
It's peculiar that such advice can appear radical. But, in an age where half the population is radically opposed to the influence of experts and the other half is yelling at them that they really need to listen to some hard expertise, a level-head can appear quite mad. And this argument does not play out only at mealtimes. We might have furious arguments about the proper use of coconut oil (which I have found is quite a tasty cooking oil and doubles as an excellent makeup remover) but about every aspect of science and of expertise itself.
Both Michael Pollan and Dr Giles Yeo say that, yes, dietary science continues to upturn proof for a rich in veg, high in nutrients and low in energy.
Just to be one of those irritating radical moderates, in the Dr Yeo style, I must say that I have sympathy for both sides of this ongoing argument. I become, of course, quite perplexed when certain facts established by experts are distorted—for example, if someone insists that climate science is a ruse or that racist politicians base their racist policies on anything more reliable than a bad mood, I’m all in favour of The Experts. But, when somebody tells me that I’d better listen to, say, The Experts of the International Monetary Fund, I become equally frustrated and start yelling about the cruel loan conditions imposed on the great nation of Greece.
All of which is to say that I get why some people are suspicious of experts, and I get why some of them are not.
I also understand, at least three times an hour, how much of the expertise contained in this complex world is beyond me. I don’t understand how the Internet works. I don’t understand how my digestive tracts works. Heck, I’d once had a hard time explaining the mechanism of a toaster to a curious toddler. We live in a time and a place where much of the world’s knowledge is completely opaque to us and so, I guess, it’s natural that we would break off into two different reactions: I trust all experts, I fear all experts. Both responses are understandable.
What is desirable, though, is that we use the time amid our confusion to seek out those true expert communicators, like Yeo or like the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, who have the knack of explaining complex concepts to us, the easily confused. We may not have the means to understand just how the liver processes carbohydrates or the way the Eurozone recycles its debt. We do, I think, have the wherewithal to recognise an honest communicator when we see one.
Between the conspiracy theory of the chia seed eater who believes that cancer can be cured with food and the passive consumer who just gives up on accumulating any knowledge, real or false at all, there is another path. It requires some effort and it demands that we see the world in more than the colours of just Montague or Capulet. It asks us, like the most honourable scientists, to embrace doubt but also, like the bravest heretics, to seek out truth.
When there’s a good doco on that strives to embrace the best of science and the most of our everyday curiosity, we should consider making time for it.
It also means that we do away with the old Christian idea of purity and adjust to a world that is always accumulating real knowledge—of the sort that once might have been considered impure.
It certainly means that when there’s a good doco on that strives to embrace the best of science and the most of our everyday curiosity, we should consider making time for it.
Here’s to the true experts who clarify and do not worship science. And the true rebels among us hungry enough to know the difference.
Join Dr Giles Yeo as he investigates the latest diet craze and social media sensation, clean eating, by watching 'Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth' on SBS on Monday 14 August, 7.30-8.30pm.
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