In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan
This book’s been out for a couple years now but I only just got around to reading it. And actually I didn’t read it; I listened to the audio book.
First a note on that: I don’t highly recommend the audio version. The reader, Scott Brick, had kind of a nasally, annoying voice. It wasn’t enough to diminish the importance of the material for me, but still something to note.
This is the book that launched the phrase, which I’m sure many of you have heard by now:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The book is broken down into three sections: The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet, and Getting Over Nutritionism.
Nutritionism is the term Pollan uses (he did not coin it, however) to describe how we came to focus on the building blocks of foods (vitamins, minerals, nutrients, etc.) instead of foods themselves, and why that is problematic. Margarine is such a perfect example of this phenomenon. Because margarine is such a highly processed product, the food industry can change enough of its ingredients to make it appealing no matter what the current nutrition fad is. So while a few years ago margarine was all about being low in cholesterol, now it’s all about being trans-fat free.
Pollan talks a lot about food processing and labelling, and blasts holes in a lot of sacred cows such as the lipid hypothesis (which is what connects a high cholesterol diet with coronary heart disease), and the idea that soy is good for you (his take: that depends on how it’s prepared). Much of this information was also presented in Nourishing Traditions (by Sally Fallon), for which I still have to write up a review.
To be completely honest, part of me really wanted to dismiss Sally Fallon and Dr. Weston A Price’s ideas because they seemed so radical. But to hear those same ideas coming out of someone as mainstream as Michael Pollan was kinda shocking in its own way. When Pollan talked about Price’s research in this book, my first reaction was “Oh wow, this all might actually be true. SHIT!”
Actually, Pollan himself has had a pretty big impact on my life. It was the Omnivore’s Dilemma that convinced me to bring meat back into my life after spending 8 years as a vegetarian. (Well, it didn’t help that I was pregnant with twins and having major steak cravings.)
If you are new to this stuff, I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the movie Food, Inc. as a jumping-off point. In Defense of Food, along with Nourishing Traditions, takes things to the next level. I feel like I’m now in the sophomore year of my New Home Economics major. I’m still a long ways from graduating though.
Pollan breaks his seven word manifesto down into what he calls “eating algorithms” to help us try to eat healthier without feeling so much anxiety about invisible nutrients and keeping track of which one is now good for us and which one is now bad for us.
As you might suspect, each part of his catch-phrase is slightly more complicated than it first appears to be. Example: Eat Food. He expands on that to help you understand that much of what you see at the supermarket isn’t necessarily real food. A good example is something like plain, whole milk yogurt. It’s been around for eons. But to say that a product like “Go-gurt” (squeezable low-fat yogurt pouches flavored with high-fructose corn syrup, among other things) is the nutritional equivalent of the original yogurt? Well, that’s questionable at this point.
Then he talks about the “Mostly Plants” part and breaks down the difference between eating mostly seeds (as we do now), and eating mostly leaves (as we did for all of human history until the last 100 or so years). Hint: leaves are better.
Finally, the part that hit me right in the heart and gut: “Not too much.” This is clearly one of my biggest hurdles (in addition to a good old fashioned sugar addiction). For a long time, I’ve been telling myself, it’s organic! It’s homemade! It’s all-natural! It’s OK for me to have seconds and thirds because that just means more good-for-you stuff! Well calories are still calories, unfortunately, and it would do me a lot of good to learn a little self-control.
I thought there were a lot of really great take-aways from this book, and even though I’ve read many of them before it never hurts to be reminded. This will be going on the “highly recommended” list.