1. Good to Eat, Good to Think. Pollan notes that, for a human, being an omnivore is both a blessing and a curse. People can eat many things in nature, but “when it comes to figuring out which of those things are safe to eat,” humans are pretty much on their own. This problem—the omnivore’s dilemma—was first diagnosed by Paul Rozin in his study of the eating habits of rats. Like humans, omnivorous rats have to balance the potential risks of food that could hurt or kill them with their desire to try new things.
In making dietary choices, humans have to make a compromise between their desire to try new things (which is a result of their omnivorousness) and the potential risks such foods might pose to their health. Every time humans eat, they are at some level making this calculation.
According to Pollan, humans are also making this calculation every time they decide between, say, boxes in the cereal aisle, or between organic and conventional strawberries. The omnivore’s dilemma explains the psychological as well as physiological dimensions of eating. As the philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss put it, humans want food that is “not only good to eat, but also good to think”—which is to say, they need to justify eating their food in intellectual terms as well as simply eating it.
The omnivore’s dilemma explains why eating is so psychologically taxing for many people. For thousands of years, humans have been contending with the evolutionary problem of too much choice in dining, which raises a host of emotional and psychological problems—social issues with a biological basis in nature.
2. Homo Omnivorous. Pollan notes that, for humans, variety in what we eat is a “biological necessity.” Human bodies have evolved specifically to be able to consume and digest the nutrients found in both plants and animals. There is a tradeoff between “big brains” and “big guts”—animals like koalas have sophisticated digestive systems that can extract all the nutrients they need from a single plant, but consequently, their brains are small, and they’re particularly vulnerable to drought and diseases that compromise their food sources. Humans, on the other hand, have sophisticated brain circuitry to allow for a varied diet, and can live almost anywhere on earth.
Humans are remarkably efficient at eating a broad array of foods, since their bodies have evolved to be able to digest many food sources and transform them into energy. But consequently, their brains devote a great deal of time and energy towards making strategic decisions about what to eat—an efficient use of brainpower, but one that can make for some difficult decisions in the modern world.
Humans use several tools in order to make choices about food selection. The first is sense of taste, which predisposes us to desire sweet foods (a valuable source of carbohydrates) and dislike bitter foods (protecting us from defensive toxins found in plants). Another is disgust, which prevents humans from ingesting hazardous bits of animal matter like feces and rotting flesh. But bitterness and disgust aren’t always effective, since some of the bitterest plants, for instance, contain useful medicines. In these cases, humans overcome their innate aversion with their powers of memory and recognition.
The human brain has reward and pleasure centers that are connected to particular types of food, such as sweet foods. These pleasurable impulses are not accidental, since humans have in fact evolved to desire food higher in nutrients. In this sense, pleasure offers a window into the human evolutionary past and the brain’s attempt to solve the omnivore’s dilemma.
Finally, cooking allowed us to overcome plant defenses by removing toxins and making foods more digestible. Cooking vastly increased the amount of energy available to humans, which many evolutionary biologists believe accounts for the large size of the human brain. For anthropologists, cooking is an example of the “cognitive niche” humans made for themselves in the world’s ecosystem, using their big brains to overcome the evolutionary defenses of other animals and plants.
Cooking is one example of the ways that humans intervene in natural processes—by, for example, making meat and plants more digestible. Without these interventions in the natural order of the food chain, humans would not have developed such large brains and come to dominate the planet in the way they do today.
3. The Anxiety of Eating. Pollan asserts that being an omnivore can be a source of pleasure. For example, humans’ sophisticated sense of taste allows for very specific and idiosyncratic food preferences, a cultural phenomenon that provides “social glue” and brings communities together. At the same time, however, the abundance of food humans can eat also fosters anxiety in making dietary choices. Humans decide which foods they want to eat through an “elaborate structure” of social rituals and cultures around dining. Regional cuisines, for instance, reduce anxiety around eating by rendering food familiar to the diner and legible in a wider cultural context. Human omnivorousness is a particular cause of anxiety because there seem to be very few restrictions on what humans can eat—they might even, for example, consume other human omnivores.
Omnivorousness is a source of pleasure for humans because it allows for a rich and varied array of social and culinary experiences. The flip side of such pleasurable variety, however, is anxiety about what to eat. Humans create elaborate social rituals around eating because humans could potentially eat nearly anything—which is a disturbing thought, in extreme cases like cannibalism. Since there is potentially no limit to human appetites, human culture has stepped in to regulate desire for food and bring it under the control of various social taboos and rituals.
4. America’s National Eating Disorder. Pollan thinks that part of the problem with American eating habits is that there has never been a stable national cuisine; instead, the culture is constantly reinventing new habits of eating, which makes Americans easy targets for fads and diets. Rather than eating in response to the dictates of pleasure and tradition, Americans are constantly looking for a “scientific” rationale for what they eat. They are then shocked to learn that other, more traditional food cultures in fact produce healthier people. For example, in French culture, people eat supposedly “unhealthy” foods like cheese, but eat smaller portions and share their meals communally. In this way, the French can enjoy their meals “without ruining their health.”
In some cultures, such as France, established culinary traditions and social rituals around food offer pleasure to the eater and provide relief from the anxiety of the omnivore’s dilemma. But in the United States, Pollan argues, there is a lack of a stable consensus around how, what, or when to eat. Human culture has in this case not fulfilled its normal role of resolving the omnivore’s dilemma; instead, it’s exacerbated the problem of too much choice.
Americans lack a “lasting consensus about what and how and where and when to eat,” Pollan argues. The problem is exacerbated by food companies, which exploit “dietary instability” by developing processed foods designed to create new eating experiences. The result is a cultural vulnerable to constantly shifting eating patterns and nutritional fads. This instability undermines traditional social structures around eating—like group family meals, for instance. Instead of relying on culinary traditions and common sense, people turn to various and conflicting opinions from governments, doctors, and advertising campaigns to tell them what to eat.
Pollan thinks there are productive and unproductive ways of using human culture to regulate dietary choices. On the one hand, social institutions like the family meal promote stability and continuity in how people eat. On the other hand, the influence of advertising, fad diets, and public health advisories create a confusing avalanche of information that makes it much harder for people to deal with the omnivore’s dilemma.