In his previous best-sellers such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules, Michael Pollan examined America’s diet and summed up a very complicated issue in seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
In his latest work, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan turns the focus from what we’re eating to how it’s prepared and concludes that cooking at home may be the most important part of our diet...and potentially a solution to America’s obesity epidemic.
“The most important thing about your diet is not any particular nutrient but that activity,” he says of cooking.
And, yes, this is very much an economic story when you consider rising health care costs are the number one driver of America’s long-term deficit -- and rising obesity rates are the biggest contributor to the overall increase in health care spending.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, Pollan notes that more Americans are cooking at home, bulk food sales are up and obesity rates have started to level off; the author and Berkeley professor does not believe that’s a coincidence.
“Cook at home [and] get soda out of your house and obesity is taken care of,” he declares. “The most important thing you can do for your kids’ long-term health is to teach them to cook.”
While that may sound like a gross oversimplification and the book describes his personal cooking experiences, Pollan cites scientific studies that show poor women who cook at home have better diets than wealthy women who don’t.
“The best diet is: eat anything you want as long as you cook it yourself,” he says.
Again, turning this to the realm of economics and public policy, Pollan argues that cooking is a “political act” with the potential to change America’s agriculture policy, which currently favors agri-businesses over small farmers.
“If you’re going to pay someone to process your food, you’re going to pay a premium for that," he says. “Of your food, 90% is going to someone other than the farmer. If we cook more you care about the quality of ingredients…that’s why I do think it’s a political act. It connects you to the farmer and the land [and] you take back control of the diet.”
Of course, the flip side of this argument is that it’s more expensive to buy fresh produce – particularly from local farmers or organic markets– and that Americans don’t have time to cook, especially in families with two working parents.
As you’ll see in the accompanying video, Pollan addresses these issues head on, arguing that so-called convenience foods save neither time nor money. And while sensitive to the “no time to cook” argument, he notes Americans spent thousands of hours per week watching other people cook on TV and says cooking is “so important and pleasurable we need to make time for it.”
- Michael Pollan