If the number of page points sticking out of the edges of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is any indication, I really liked the book. I wish I could go into all the details, but then I’d just be re-writing the book. If you’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma, this book is not the same. A relief really, since I worried a little that Pollan was just writing the same book again.
Instead of focusing on how food is produced, in In Defense of Food Pollan looks at the typical Western Diet, what it is, how it got to be what it is, and how, particularly Americans, have been taught to view food.
Basically, the problem with the Western Diet is that the average eater eats too much food, too much meat, and too much highly processed food products. Sometime during the late 1970s we changed (the change began in the 50s), with the help of our government, from eating food to eating nutrients. Food science and the food industry took over and instead of being told by the “experts” to eat carrots because they are good for you, or eating lot of meat is bad for you, we are told eat more beta carotene and eat less saturated fat. A couple of decades of eating nutrients has not made us any healthier. In fact, it has made us fatter and increased the number of chronic illnesses. Pollan reveals some terrifying information about heart disease and type II diabetes that took my breath away. All I can say is, it is no wonder health care costs are skyrocketing.
The problem with eating nutrients (low fat, low carb, high protein, now with omega-3s!) is that food scientists don’t really know what they are doing. It’s not that they don’t know what certain nutrients do, but they only know what they do in isolation. When we eat, we do not eat nutrients in isolation. There are thousands of nutrients that are not even known and chemical reactions that happen in the food and in us when we eat that are not understood. Eating according to nutrients also means that we are susceptible to every new diet that comes along. This does not do us, our bodies or our health any good. But the food and diet industry have gotten rich off of it.
Pollan looks at an array of studies that have been done on the French, the Italian, Greek and other traditional food cultures. Some are high in fat some low in fat some high carb some low carb some with lots of tofu. The conclusion is that those who eat a traditional diet are healthier and live longer than those who eat a Western diet. But, there is no one thing in any of the traditional diets that is a magic bullet that Americans can grasp onto to fix the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
One particularly interesting study was done in Australia with Aborigines who had moved to the city and were eating a Western diet. Their incidence of heart disease was up as was their cholesterol and blood pressure and a good portion of the group had developed diabetes. The group was asked to return to the bush for a month and eat and live how they did before they moved to the city. Within that month’s time all of the health problems the group had developed had begun to go away. Some of the people who were diabetic were no longer so. Blood pressure dropped and so did cholesterol levels. The important finding in this study is that the effects of the Western diet are reversible.
With that in mind, Pollan spends the last third of the book making suggestions on how to eat. The band around the lettuce on the cover of the book reveals the “secret” in a nutshell: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By food Pollan means real food. But figuring out what real food is isn’t necessarily all that easy. So Pollan has some rules of thumb to follow like “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” and “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup.” He also suggests avoiding food that makes health claims and shopping someplace other than the supermarket whenever possible.
Judging by the bibliography, the book is thoroughly researched. Pollan also writes with his usual easy-going style that does not put down the reader. In fact, I always feel like he includes himself as among the people who had no idea. And I don’t feel like he has an agenda other than to help readers steer our way through all of the confusing information so we can make better choices. Seems like a good thing to me.
I recommend the book to anyone who eats.