Chocolate Might Save Your Life

'Since I moved to California from New England, I find that I can pretty much eat anything I want without gaining weight," says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. "I'm convinced that when you have high-quality food you don't need as much to be satisfied." Pollan will discuss his book on Tuesday, June 12, as a part of the University of California San Diego's Revelle Forum at the Neurosciences Institute. Though Pollan says that his book about the origins of food consumed in America has turned many people into vegetarians, he continues to eat meat. "The biggest change in the way I eat, based on my research, is that I started avoiding industrial meat, or meat from animals that live in big confinement feed lots. Especially beef. What I saw there really put me off my feed, both as a matter of health and morality. I also stepped up my eating of fruits and vegetables, and I eat less processed stuff."

Pollan only purchases beef that has been grass fed. Cows that are fed corn, which is difficult for them to digest, are in a weakened state of health and thus antibiotics are often added to their diet to stave off infection. "You are what you eat, but you are also what you eat eats."

Pollan says that "taking the trouble to figure out where your food came from" makes one a more responsible eater. "In general, the more people know about where food comes from, the better choices they make." For example, after witnessing a pig in a cramped, smelly environment, Pollan says, "You wouldn't want to eat that stuff."

Pollan warns against a tendency to demonize food. "The misunderstanding is that food can be divided into evil nutrients and good nutrients; that if you eat good nutrients and avoid evil nutrients, you'll be healthy. In America, I think that the most common misunderstanding [about food] is that something like fat is toxic. But fat is good for you, your brain is 70 percent fat. You need to eat fat, but the right kind of fat." Pollan cites a recent study in which a psychologist asked, "What would be the one food you would take with you to survive on a desert island?" Responses included spinach, hot dogs, salad, and chocolate. "The best choices are hot dogs and chocolate," says Pollan. "You need the energy and fat; you would die really quickly on spinach."

There is very little processed food in Pollan's home, though he admits a weakness for chips. On a typical morning, Pollan will have oatmeal or eggs for breakfast. Occasionally he will add bacon from Niman Ranch, a company composed of independent family farmers using only natural methods for raising livestock. For lunch, Pollan often enjoys bread and cheese, fruit with yogurt, or premade tamales he buys at Berkeley Bowl, an independent market in his Northern California neighborhood. For dinner, Pollan might have steak, chicken, or fish. "We eat fish several times a week -- salmon, halibut. We have fruit for dessert and occasionally a cookie." But you won't find the word "Nabisco" in Pollan's pantry -- all his baked goods come fresh from local bakeries.

Pollan says the consumers have more choices available than they might realize: there are many healthier alternatives to fast food or even boxed and canned food. "If you can buy food and cook it yourself, you will eat much better," he says. "The least healthy foods you couldn't possibly make in your kitchen, even if you wanted to. Like a Twinkie -- no one could cook a Twinkie. If you have to shop for food, you look for real ingredients -- you won't be adding things like high-fructose corn syrup."

Food taboos and fads, Pollan explains, have a profound effect on the way Americans eat. Current faddish foods include almonds, pomegranates, and just about any item that has been the focus of recent health research and proven to contain antioxidants or to be "heart healthy." Taboos include carbohydrates and fat. "The Atkins diet put a taboo on carbs. That's a mistake -- there are a lot of healthy carbs. Another current taboo is trans fats. I generally try to avoid novelties in food, like margarine. I can't believe that eating whole-grain bread or even potatoes with skin is bad for you. Food that people have been eating for hundreds of years, there's evidence that it can't be bad for you."

Pollan stresses that Americans who obsess about food and health are precisely those who are prone to the unhealthy habit of binging and dieting. "Health is not the only reason to eat," he says. "There's pleasure, sociality, identity; people eat for all sorts of reasons. We lose track of that in America." -- Barbarella

The Omnivore's Dilemma, booksigning and discussion Tuesday, June 12 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The Neurosciences Institute auditorium 10650 John Jay Hopkins Drive UCSD Cost: $35 Info: 858-964-1056 or http://revelleforum.ucsd.edu

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