Abstinence, we are usually told around this time of year, makes the heart grow stronger. It’s why Dry January, which started in the green and pleasantly alcoholic land of Britain a few years ago before reaching the U.S., is increasingly being touted as a good and worthy thing to do, and why so many people are currently making plans to remove whole food groups from their diet: carbs, fat, Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. The key to health, books and websites and dietitians and former presidents reveal, is a process of elimination. It’s going without. It’s getting through the darkest, coldest month of the year without so much as a snifter of antioxidant-rich Cabernet.
The problem with giving things up, though, is that inevitably it creates a void in one’s diet that only Reese’s pieces and a family-sized wheel of brie can fill. Then there’s the fact that so many abstinence-espousing programs require spending money on things; on Whole 30 cookbooks and Weight Watchers memberships and $10 bottles of bone broth. For a process that supposedly involves cutting things out, there seems to be an awful lot to take in.
This, Michael Pollan posits, is the problem with food: It’s gotten extraordinarily complicated. The writer and sustainable-eating advocate has written several books on how the simple business of eating has become a minefield in which earnest Westerners try to tiptoe around gooey, genetically engineered sugar bombs without setting off an explosion of calories, corn sugar, and cancer. In Defense of Food, published in 2008, offers a “manifesto” for eaters (i.e. humans) that’s breathtaking in its seven-word simplicity: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. This mantra is repeated once more in a documentary based on the book that airs Wednesday night on PBS, and it’s felt in the January issue of Bon Appetit, which is based almost entirely around the concept of “healthy-ish” eating: “delicious, comforting home cooking that just happens to be kinda good for you.”