Defending and Eating ‘Real’ Food with Michael Pollan

Pre-screening and panel discussion of “In Defense of Food” yields palatable advice for complex problems.

In Defense of Food
Author Michael Pollan holds a bag of snackfood during a discussion after the pre-screening of his documentary, In Defense of Food. From left: Bill Dietz, Kathleen Merrigan, Michael Pollan, Debra Eschmeyer, Michael Schwarz. (Olufunmi Ogundeyin/GW Today)
December 09, 2015

By Sarah Baldauf

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

That is the formula author Michael Pollan derived through years of journalistic research to answer the often asked question: What should I eat to be healthy?

There’s a catch. By food, Mr. Pollan means “real food.” Think vegetables, fruit, grains, fish, poultry and meat in their original, unadulterated forms. Not the processed, reformulated “edible food-like substances” he says now account for far too much of the American diet.

“A lot of misery has been created by this modern diet,” Mr. Pollan said of the skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Mr. Pollan came to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University last Thursday for a panel discussion and pre-screening of his PBS documentary “In Defense of Food,” named after his book of the same title.

William Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, hosted and led the panel discussion with Mr. Pollan, Michael Schwarz, the documentary’s producer, Debra Eschmeyer, executive director of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative and the White House’s senior policy advisor for nutrition policy, and Kathleen Merrigan, GW’s executive director of sustainability.

The post-screening discussion began with Mr. Pollan’s admission that, “I didn’t know where my food was coming from.”

It was this simple realization and effort to find out that sparked a body of work that has contributed to the deconstruction of Big Agriculture, Big Food and Big Soda, the behemoth processors that are responsible for the majority of what Americans eat and drink

Dr. Dietz cited the important data from last week that confirmed adult diabetes rates in the United States are declining, while the nation’s obesity rates are not.

The possible sweet spot, he said, could be that soda consumption, while still considerable in the United States, has declined in recent decades. Many people, he notes, do not make the connection that there is an association between diabetes and soda consumption, nor that soda consumption contributes to obesity.

The takeaways from the post-screening panel were many, but for those who missed the event, below is a crib sheet for your eating and learning pleasure:

Learn to cook

Mr. Pollan discussed the collapse of cooking in our culture, not only in our homes, but also in our schools. The basic skills of cooking used to be acquired by watching a family member— typically mothers, aunts, sisters—in the kitchen or in home economics classes. Knowing how to cook, says Mr. Pollan, is “as important as learning math.”

Dr. Merrigan agreed that knowing how to cook is essential to health, sustainability and importantly, community. She noted that while GW’s students don’t have traditional dining halls, nearly all have access to kitchens. Her goal is to make GW the first university with a cooking requirement for graduation.

On policy: start local, learn from losses

“We need to try a lot of different things,” Mr. Pollan said, from teaching basic cooking skills in schools, to experimenting locally as Berkeley, Calif., has done recently by levying a soda tax.

“Don’t be afraid to lose,” he said of the education gained from failed attempts to enact soda taxes.

The White House’s Ms. Eschmeyer, who was raised on a dairy farm in Ohio and later co-founded FoodCorps, spoke to the power of starting local and growing to scale.

“Smart local policies become incredible federal policies,” she said. Citing the Agriculture Department Farm to School Program as an example, she noted that, “All of this stemmed from farmers and food service directors talking about, ‘How can we do better by our kids?’”

Sustainability on the menu

Stemming our nation’s trajectory of obesity and disease also will require elevating the importance of sustainability in our food system, the expert panel agreed.

It takes 1.8 liters of water to produce one almond, Dr. Merrigan said. While not dismissing the value of the almond, she used it to illustrate how we need to evaluate the use of resources and include questions of sustainability in our discussions, behaviors and policies around health, food, and agri-business. 

“It’s really a wake up call for all of us that sustainability has got to be central to the plate,” Dr. Merrigan said.


The documentary, In Defense of Food, airs on PBS in most U.S. cities at 9 p.m. Dec. 30. It will be broadcast in Washington, D.C., at 9 p.m. Jan. 25. Check for listings.