In Defense of Food

I’ve been wanting to read In Defense of Food for a while now, but it wasn’t until I saw Michael Pollan’s recent appearance on Oprah that I finally picked up the book. His premise sounds simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” When I first heard that, all I could think was “well, duh.” But where his argument starts to get interesting is Pollan’s claim that most of the heavily processed food in the supermarket is not food at all, but “edible foodlike substances.” I think we’ve all heard the warning that processed food probably isn’t good for us, but it’s the kind of thing that goes in one ear and out the other. Not anymore. In Defense of Food presents the most thoroughly researched, compelling argument against processed food and the Western diet (lots of sugar, refined grains, and meat) that I’ve ever read. Pollan also gives common sense advice about eating (example: “don’t eat food incapable of rotting”) that will help you navigate the aisles of the grocery store.

In the first part of the book, Pollan lays out his argument against the culture of nutritionism, or the practice of reducing food down to it’s nutrient components (protein, carbs, fat). I am so guilty of this; I pour over nutritional labels, painstakingly comparing calories, fat, and sugar between brands of food. So his argument that maybe foods aren’t “the sum of their nutrient parts” made me defensive. That didn’t last long, though, because the man has a point. Scientists have yet to figure out all of Mother Nature’s secrets and there’s probably a lot more going on in food than we know. Plus, if you only look at certain nutrients, processed food can appear to be as healthy as whole foods, which is exactly what the food industry wants us to think.

Pollan methodically presents his argument against the Western diet, complete with evidence to backup his claims, but the book never gets dull. It’s chockfull of things I hadn’t heard before, like that low fat milk has all sorts of potentially unhealthy food additives in it to make it creamy and that 75% of the vegetable oil in our diet comes from soybeans. Pollan also keeps things interesting with his biting sarcasm and great sense of humor. That’s really evident in my favorite piece of advice from the book: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” It’s funny, but also great, common sense advice.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” sounds doable for the average person, but I still came away from the book feeling extremely overwhelmed. Pollan paints a picture of food in America that is very bleak: from a government that subsidizes corn and is manipulated by food industry lobbyists, to a billion dollar industry that survives on removing nutrients from food and adding them back in (and puts high fructose corn syrup in everything), to a culture that demands cheap, fast food. How are we possibly going to overcome all this? It’s going to be a lot more complicated than simply “eating food,” but at least Pollan is starting a national dialogue regarding our eating habits.

Reading In Defense of Food was a truly eye opening experience and I highly recommend the book to everyone. I will warn you that after reading it, grocery shopping will never be the same. While I’m not ready to surrender my beloved Coke Zero, since reading this book I am more mindful about what I’m eating. I also plan to add Pollan’s other books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, to my reading list.

Quotes from In Defense of Food:

Early in the twentieth century, an intrepid group of doctors and medical workers stationed overseas observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditionally way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. “[If] foods are understood only in terms of the various quantities of nutrients they contain,” Gyorgy Scrinis wrote, then “even processed foods may be considered to be `healthier’ for you than whole foods if they contain the appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”

How convenient.

A century ago, the typical Iowa farm raised more than a dozen different plant and animal species: cattle, chickens, corn, hogs, apples, hay, oats, potatoes, cherries, wheat, plums, grapes, and pears. Now it raises only two: corn and soybeans. This simplification of the agricultural landscape leads directly to the simplification of the diet, which is now to a remarkable extent dominated by-big surprise-corn and soybeans.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars | Publisher: Penguin | Pages: 256 | Source: Purchased | Buy on Amazon

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