In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is Michael Pollan’s follow up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His goal this time out is to answer the question of how to eat in an increasingly hostile landscape, one in which food is becoming more and more processed, and thus less and less healthy, all while nutritionists and food scientists try to make it more healthful.

You don’t need to read the entire book to figure out the answer of how to eat. Look at the cover. It says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The rest of the book goes on to describe why this is the best way to go, with the majority being spent on ‘eat food’. Pollan goes on to describe food to us, vs. the ‘food-like’ substances that line our supermarket shelves. He advises that we not purchase or eat anything that our great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and even then, be careful. Because your great-great grandmother would probably recognize a loaf of bread, but the majority of the bread in our grocery stores is over-processed and filled with unhealthy ingredients, like high-fructose corn syrup. So, he says, keep it simple. If your product contains more than 5 ingredients, don’t buy it. He also mentions yogurt…think all yogurts are made alike? Think again. I peeked at the labels of a few different brands the other day, and some of them had 10 – 15 ingredients, most of which I couldn’t pronounce, and had no idea what they might add to the mix. A few had simple ingredients…milk, cultures, sugar, vanilla, something like that. If you’re willing to eat plain yogurt with fresh fruit and/or honey, you can get even healthier.

He spends quite a bit of time talking about food science, and how it has confused the hell out of us, so that we no longer know what’s good for us. No matter where our ancestors came from, they had a traditional way of feeding themselves that was healthy enough that they thrived, passed on their genes and diets, and survived. They didn’t worry about the anti-oxidants in berries or the fat content of their milk. They didn’t try to find ways to get more omega-3s into their diets. They just ate what was available to them, and made it a part of their culture. Today, food scientists and the food industry are focused on figuring out which nutrients are the magic ones that will help us to thrive. He goes on to argue that quite often you cannot take the nutrient out of the food and isolate it, and expect it to be as healthy as it was in its original form. So if you try to take the nutrients that one would find in a plate full of broccoli and transfer them to a vitamin, it doesn’t work. There’s something about that whole food that synthesizes with our system, and delivers the nutrients in a much more efficient and effective manner. He also says to beware of claims of nutrition in suspect places. Clearly, you shouldn’t trust that just because Lucky Charms claims to be whole grain, it’s going to mean that they’re actually good for you.

OK, eat food. Not fake food, not fast food, real food. Got it. What about his suggestion of “Not too much”? In that one, he discusses how most traditional cultures sit down and eat meals together, don’t have seconds, don’t snack. He suggests that if we were to do this, if we were all to sit down to meals together as a family (I don’t know what you’re supposed to do if you live alone, like so many people do), if we take the time and effort to cook our own food, rather than stopping at KFC or making a casserole with Cream of Mushroom Soup, if we don’t go back for 2nds and 3rds, if we stop the snacking in front of the computer or TV (my personal favorite times to snack), we would do less mindless eating, and we wouldn’t end up eating so many empty calories, or so much junk. He’s probably right on that one. He comes back several times in his book to the “French Paradox”, where the French famously eat a lot of high fat foods, drink wine with their meals, and stay comparatively thin. They don’t snack, he says, nor do they take seconds. They generally don’t eat fast food. Instead, they take the time to buy really good ingredients, cook them in a way that they will enjoy, and then sit down and enjoy their food. Is eating this way expensive? Surely, yes. Pollan argues that this is actually a good thing, and that American spending on food has gone from about 15% of our budget to just over 9%, and a large part of that savings is in highly processed food, because it is cheaper. So, he says, spend a bit more, eat a bit less, and we’ll get much better quality. Better quality means being more satisfied, and that means we need to eat less to be happy.

Now, “Mostly plants”. He doesn’t really push this one so much. He concedes that traditional cultures with populations subsisting almost entirely on meat, milk, and the blood of the animals that became the meat and produced the milk, are as free of cancer, stroke, and heart disease as those people who subsist on the famous “Mediterranean diet.” But he does say that the highly industrialized food chain we participate in doesn’t produce healthy meat. If we ate wild meat, meat that came from animals that had a great variety of foods themselves, that got plenty of sunshine and exercise, that didn’t require antibiotics and so on to be healthy enough to eat, we might be OK. But given the meat that we can reasonably find and afford, it’s best to limit the consumption of it. So, eat some meat if you wish, and then buy the best quality you can reasonably afford. And when it comes to plants, aim for leafy plants rather than seeds, and you’ll be getting better nutrients, and live a healthier life.

He also talks about how the plants we eat today aren’t as healthy as the plant our grandparents, or even our parents, ate in their youth. In the interest of producing large quantities of food, we have bred out some nutrients. Also, some of the properties that are useful in fighting pests turn out to be healthy for plant eaters, so if we help our plants along in that regard, giving them pesticides to fight that battle for them, they lose those nutrients, and in turn, we lose those nutrients. So, what’s a person to do? Well, if you have the time and energy, you can have your own garden. The next best thing is to go to the farmers’ market, because small farms, the types that can make a living at a farmers’ market, usually grow many different crops, and thus the soil is healthier, and they need fewer pesticides, so the food not only tastes better, it’s healthier.

Perhaps the most interesting advice he gives, aside from trying to eat whole foods?  “Be the kind of person who takes supplements.”  Huh?  Don’t you mean, take supplements?  No, actually, he doesn’t.  Pollan states that no real proof has come that taking vitamins helps anyone.  This probably comes back to the fact that we haven’t yet found a way to make a pill as healthy as a serving of broccoli.  Or spinach.  Or beef.  Or salmon.   We can try, but we can’t do it.  The biggest proof is in breast milk.   For decades, scientists have been trying to make formulas as healthy as breast milk, and though what they come up with is pretty darned good, and kids on formula do indeed thrive, they haven’t been able to reproduce the same exact benefits.  So what does he mean, then?  He means that people who take the time and effort, and spend the money, to buy vitamins, are usually the type who exercise and eat well and do things the way they should.   So, even though there’s no real proof that vitamins help, people who take vitamins are generally healthier.  So, he says, eat well, move your body, be strong, but save your money and don’t bother with the vitamins.  Wow, interesting.

My only problem with this book was the undercurrent of consuming fewer calories, losing weight. I think Americans are too obsessed already with our weight and calories. I would have preferred the book if it had stuck with its themes of how our food chain is broken, and how we can fix it, and kept the whole weight issue out of it.

(p.s….to my more gossipy type friends, did you know that Michael Pollan is Tracy Pollan’s brother? You know, Tracy Pollan, who played Alex’s girlfriend, Ellen, on Family Ties (and I always wanted him to end up with her…sorry, Courtney Cox!), and ended up marrying Michael J. Fox? Cool, huh?)

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Food

  1. I’ve looked at this book and even have it in my shopping cart, but haven’t quite committed to wanting to read it (yet). It looks good and fascinating, but I’m wary about reading books that are going to make me more frightened about what I find in the grocery store. It’s scary enough already!

  2. My love-hate relationship with food continues. I think the undercurrent of eating fewer calories would have annoyed me too. Funny about his relationship to Tracy, I always liked her better as well. Glad she married the real thing.

    A new dilemma in our household is to eat better, healthier but making sure one of our kids consumes more because he has an incredibly high metabolism! Need to find a good balance.

  3. Omnivore’s Dilemna was such a thought-provoking book. Thanks for such a detailed review of In Defense of Food. Now I definitely want to read next one too.

  4. Great review!

    But one thing kind of raised my eyebrows: Pollan’s view on meat eating oddly intersects with Ted Nugent — which is scary ’cause Nugent is insane .

  5. I’ve read both In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Very thought provoking and I can see where he is coming from. If we stop to think about it, a lot of food in our society now is processed and has so much junk added into it. Living on a farm on an island that is 2 hrs away from the nearest “big” city, it’s not hard to eat lots of veggies and wholesome, unprocessed food. The beef part??? Well, my husband will argue with trying not to eat beef. He’s a beef farmer!

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