The science journalist and author of ‘‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’’ and ‘‘Food Rules,’’ will be speaking later this month at the Boston Speakers Series at Symphony Hall. (Tickets are sold out.)
Q. What’s wrong with the American diet?
A. Over the last 40-50 years we’ve changed our diet radically and moved to a diet with lots of processed foods, lots of refined grains and fats, lots of meat - lots of everything except fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. We know this diet is linked to chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer and heart disease. The challenge of eating well is getting off [this diet] to the extent that you can.
Q. If we know what’s healthy, why is there so much conflicting advice about what to eat?
A. We’ve been told other things. We’ve been told get the fat out and you’ll be healthy, eat more fiber and you’ll be healthy. There’s a lot of bad and confusing information out there. Nobody wants to talk about the whole diet, they’d rather just sell profitable processed food products and put health claims on them.
Q. Why is it so hard for most of us to eat well?
A. We exist in a very challenging food landscape. What’s on offer as you walk through an airport or a mall or a food court - temptations to eat unhealthy foods. Food is more profitable the more it’s processed. Yet the more it’s processed the less healthy it is. There’s that basic contradiction between capitalism and biology. The other problem is that we’re hard-wired to respond to foods that have high levels of sugar, fat, and salt - responses that made sense once, when those things were very rare in nature. But we live in a very different world, where those three ingredients are very cheap and are used in combination to make foods incredibly attractive.
Q. Food quality seems to be improving now, with more attention to the kinds of healthy foods you’re suggesting, no?
A. There’s some very positive things happening. Our access to higher quality food is improving, however it tends to be more expensive. The least healthy food in the supermarket is the cheapest on a per calorie basis. But if people are willing to cook, to put either more time [by cooking] or more money [by buying organic] into their eating, they can fix the problem.
Q. Do you recommend eating organic?
A. You don’t have to eat organic to eat healthily. Eating real food, whether it’s organic or not, is going to do a lot for your health. Any apple is good for you. The pesticides are probably a problem, but the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables outweigh them as far as we know. And there are ways to minimize pesticide exposure by washing and peeling.
Q. You argue in the new, illustrated edition of your book “Food Rules,’’ that eating healthy can be a positive experience, instead of an exercise in denial.
A. Eating well and pleasure are not at odds with one another. Eating real food, eating meals together with family and friends, cooking, paying attention to where your food comes from, all these things are not burdens, they’re great pleasures. We’ve overcomplicated the question of eating. I’m trying to simplify it and put pleasure back into it.
‘You don’t have to eat organic to eat healthily. Eating real food, whether it’s organic or not, is going to do a lot for your health.’
Q. Do you always follow your own rules?
A. I think the important thing is “most of the time.’’ When I travel, it’s a challenge to eat well. Eating in airports is really hazardous. We all kind of get it wrong sometimes.This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.