Finding Meaning in Each Mouthful

Why do we eat? For sustenance, obviously. Also for pleasure, for social bonding, as a form of conspicuous consumption or an affirmation of identity or, in the case of broccoli, putatively for the antioxidants, but actually to convince God that we don't deserve to get cancer. Each morsel we lift to our lips dribbles symbolism like Russian dressing from a Reuben sandwich. Now two new high-profile books probe our allotted three ounces of protein in search of deeper meaning. For the essayist Michael Pollan ("In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto"), food is a way of saving the world. For the trash-talking ex-fashionistas Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin ("Skinny Bitch in the Kitch"), it's a way to firm your butt.

Both extend the franchises of their authors' last books, which still sit comfortably on bestseller lists: Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a meditation on the human diet, and Freedman and Barnouin's original "Skinny Bitch," which improbably succeeded in making veganism seem as glamorous as any cosmopolitan ever guzzled on "Sex and the City." They both play to Americans' endless obsession with their own insides (and outsides, in the case of Freedman and Barnouin) but challenge the conventional check-box approach to nutrition. They could appear only at this moment, when the superabundance of food has caused us to think about a question that previous generations never had to ask: why do we eat?

Pollan addresses both the personal and the ecological consequences of our diet. The "food" he defends is something very specific. "Food" is what your great-grandparents ate; it's things that need to be washed, peeled, seeded or shelled; the preservative-free, unfortified products found on the outer aisles of the supermarket, with no package save their own skins on which to emblazon dubious health claims. In these humble lumps of protoplasm, Pollan sees salvation from the tyranny of "nutritionism"— the reductive science of identifying nutrients and adding them one by one to "fortify" industrial food products. Or, by the same token, demonizing certain constituents of food—in successive eras, saturated fats, sodium, simple carbohydrates and trans fats— from which various products can then be made triumphantly "free." Pollan's common-sense argument is that humans, having evolved to eat a diet of food rather than "food products," will be better off sticking to it. Food includes meat, but preferably much less than most Americans now eat. Attempting to reduce his message to something that could fit on the bumper sticker of a Prius, he came up with the ringingly wonkish mantra "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Pollan is notably skeptical about nutritional science, preferring the time-tested wisdom of the human palate (especially the French one), informed by tradition and a general sense of moderation. By coincidence "In Defense of Food" was published the same day as a major study that found that men who consumed a lot of skim milk, but not other dairy products, were at increased risk of prostate cancer. You could take this as vindicating Pollan's view that industrial manipulation of food almost always makes it worse—except that this is just the kind of epidemiologic evidence his book disparages. He makes a good case that surveying people about their diet, and then looking to see which ones lived the longest, is an inefficient way to formulate nutritional advice. But his argument is likely to be superseded in the near future when nutritional genomics can predict with precision what it is safe for us to eat, as individuals. When we know that, will it still make sense to eat the way our great-grandparents did?

Freedman and Barnouin have even less use for conventional nutritional science. Their veganism is as much an ethical and esthetic stance as a nutritional one; their preferred synonym for meat is "carcass," which tells you a lot about their mode of argument, and their sources tend to occupy the fringes of science where "Ten Easy Tricks to Lose Weight Fast" proliferate. ("Acidic foods cause your body to produce fat cells, in order to keep the acid away from your organs," they write blithely, "… so coffee equals fat cells." Who knew it could be that simple?) "Skinny Bitch in the Kitch" is a collection of recipes that combine rigid abhorrence of meat and dairy with a weird affection for imitation meat products like the "vegan bacon" and "vegan American cheese" that go into their Philly "Cheesesteak." One Web site they recommend sells "vegetarian chicken nuggets" whose ingredients include cane sugar, "wheat fiber protein" and "amino acid." To be sure, no animals were harmed in the production of this dish. Amino acids are just the chemical constituents of proteins—but a taste for them seems out of character for authors whose first book dismissed the entire pharmaceutical industry with the stunningly superficial observation that "medicine is made of chemicals."

Obviously Freedman and Barnouin struck a chord with many readers. There are plenty of good reasons, both personal and ecological, to eat less meat, too, and Pollan's injunction to "eat food" is one I intend to follow. But right this minute, as someone who happens to possess a prostate as well as a cardiovascular system, I wish someone would tell me what kind of milk not to have with the coffee I shouldn't be drinking.

Finding Meaning in Each Mouthful | Culture