Michael Pollan’s Fuzzy Math

Food writer Michael Pollan’s culinary dogma holds that the science is sketchy when it comes to food and nutrition. He typically counsels readers to make their food decisions based on politics—not on what their bodies need. But math, unlike science, is more black-and-white. We’d assume someone who’s so adept at counting “food miles” would have a better grasp on numbers. Color us disappointed.
In a New York Times op-ed today, Pollan engages in some addition trickery as part of his attack on the way we eat.  He claims obesity costs the American economy $147 billion each year. Plus $116 billion for diabetes. Plus “hundreds of billions more” on heart disease and cancer. Pollan uses these numbers to bash a food system that is allegedly at the root of a health apocalypse.
Jacob Sullum at Reason magazine offers a quick debunk of Pollan’s number-crunching jumble:

Pollan does a lot of double counting when he totes up the medical expenses attributable to overeating … [T]o the extent that the latter three conditions are associated with obesity, the first number already accounts for them. Pollan uses the additional numbers to reinforce his claim that "the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained…by our being fatter." But in this context they are big fat red herrings.
According to the study that generated the $147 billion estimate, obesity accounts for about 10 percent of health care spending, which hardly makes it "the elephant in the room" of health care reform, as Pollan claims. But even this figure is misleading …

Perhaps Pollan is just auditioning to be “food czar.”

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