The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

by Michael Pollan

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What is the Omnivore's Dilemma?

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The Omnivore's Dilemma is the question posed at the beginning of Michael Pollan's book:

What should we have for dinner?

Pollan goes on to explain that this question is much more complicated than it appears. He not only tries to answer the question, but also to explain why it is so complex and has vast ramifications for the world.

An omnivore, by definition, can eat "just about anything nature has to offer." In this situation, it is only to be expected that we start to worry about what we should eat. The vast number of potential choices is matched by the equally huge range of advice proffered by experts, many of them self-appointed. Following the latest fashionable advice leads to strange fads such as the banishment of bread, a staple food since time immemorial, by the Atkins Diet.

Having defined the Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan attempts to suggest solutions not by offering a prescriptive diet, but by looking at the "food chains that sustain us today: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer." These chains connect us to the origins of our food and also provide what is usually our deepest engagement with the natural world. He quotes Wendell Berry's observation that eating is an agricultural act and says that it is an ecological and political act, too, having enormous consequences not just for our own health but also for "the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it."

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We humans are omnivores, adapted to eat almost anything: fish, meat, grains, grass, fruit, vegetables, seaweed, even pine cones. This has been a great survival mechanism, but now, in a world of industrialized and organic food abundance, how do we decide what is best to eat? We can eat almost anything we want, all the time, but how do we know what is the best—or better—choice?

Pollan tries to find a way out of this dilemma of too much choice by exploring different kinds of foods. He moves from industrial food (produced as efficiently and cheaply as possible) to organic food (produced, at least in theory, with as little possible chemical or industrial interference). He also tries to hunt and forage for food. All three methods come up far short for Pollan, who lands instead on what he calls locavorism, or buying from local small farms.

Pollan also advocates for cooking as much as possible in the home. He understands the limitations to this but nevertheless argues that it gets us closer to real food and healthy eating.

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The omnivore's dilemma is the problem of having access to wide varieties of food accompanied by the lack of guidance on how to make wise consumption choices.

In the chapter "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Pollan contends that eating is made more difficult by our tendency to rely on "expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books." Instead of relying on our senses to guide our consumption choices, we resort to fashionable theories and ideologies. These in turn lead to what Pollan calls "the anxiety of eating." Omnivores are, on the whole, natural food enthusiasts; they let neophilia (the pleasure of variety) and neophobia (the comfort of the familiar) guide their gastronomic choices. 

However, in the presence of unmitigated variety, problems may arise. If humans can eat anything, what is to prevent them from becoming cannibals? Experts contend that there must be rules that govern appetite (in order to keep human nature in check, of course). However, these rules often contribute to the "anxiety of eating." Suddenly, omnivores find that they must count calories and try out the latest food fads (from the Atkins diet to the Paleo diet). 

Taste and culinary traditions take a back seat to debates about the pros and cons of carbohydrates, the vegetarian diet, or organic food. Such a scenario contributes to deep anxieties about our diets and bodies. Today, eating disorders afflict vast swaths of American society, and consumers find themselves inundated by marketing campaigns that further exacerbate the omnivore's dilemma.

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Basically, the omnivore's dilemma is "what should we have for dinner."  Since human beings are omnivores, they can eat whatever they want.  However, all the things that people might eat have implications both for the human beings themselves and for the planet on which we live.  Having to take into account all these implications of what we eat creates the omnivore's dilemma.

The point of this book is to explore some of the implications of our food choices.  Pollan uses the book to look at what we eat (for example, the fact that we eat so many things that are dependent on corn) and to discuss the ramifications of those choices.  He looks at ways in which these choices affect our own health and he looks at the way they affect global trends such dependence on oil.

In short, then, the omnivore's dilemma is that omnivores must face that their food choices have major consequences.

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