Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

What Facts Do We Know About Food?

A summary of a recent talk by Michael Pollan about what we know about food.

We are ignoring the elephant in the room when we only talk nutrients — this way of eating is killing us.

For example by demonising fat in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we ended up with margarine and a whole lot of low fat processed goods on the supermarket shelves (which are still there, by the way). It gave a ‘free pass’ to eat and drink as much as you want because it was low fat.

But instead we became fat.

It’s really hard to study food – it’s extremely complex. It’s not like studying pharmaceuticals. “There’s no placebo for broccoli.” Many food studies rely on surveying people (epidemiological surveillance type studies). There are no tight controls and it’s easy for people to forget what they eat or even lie on the survey. So the data has problems.

Nutritional ‘science’ is a young science “it’s where surgery was in the 1650s.”

So what facts do we know about food?

  • Every time we remove a nutrient — so that we can just consume the nutrient — it doesn’t work like it should, as it does in the whole food.
  • Populations that eat a Western diet (that is, processed foods) have a high prevalence of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. (These are diseases of the West.)
  • Populations that eat traditional diets, rarely get chronic diseases.
  • People who get off the Western diet revert the markers of chronic diseases — which means they get better or totally heal themselves.

In the next 10 years, 1 in 3 kids will develop type 2 diabetes — unless we change the way we eat.

The best way to take control of our food — away from corporations — is to cook at home.


Still curious? If you haven’t read Pollan’s books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you’re missing out on a lot of wisdom.