Review: In Defense of Food

The next time you’re watching TV, watch how many commercials are for weight-loss products, prescription drugs intended to cure almost anything, and fancy cookware intended to reduce the amount of something-or-other in your diet. Not to mention all of the antibiotic this and good-for-you that.

The next time you’re in your local bookstore, go check out the health and diet section. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the pure volume of books and then stop and look at the titles. In my experience, there is certainly no shortage of “help” on the diet front — much of it contradictory. Eat more of this, less of that, and don’t forget about your nutrients!

In some stores though, hiding in and among all of the fad-diet books, you will be able to find a significantly different book: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (256p., Penguin Press 2008). Why this one often gets shelved with the diet books, I’m not exactly sure, since a lot of pages are spent discussing the detriments of our nutrient-obsessed society. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What’s It About

Pollan gives the whole book away even before the first chapter hits: the first paragraph of the introduction simply reads:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Those same words even grace the cover of the book — a simple “manifesto” for how we ought to be eating. I don’t think anyone would find that proclamation particularly revolutionary, or really all that interesting. Given that those seven words pretty much sum up the entirety of the book’s content, you might almost be forgiven for thinking that the book was a little … well … boring.

Far from it.

In fact, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” only really shows up in the latter third of the book; oh, to be sure, the general idea persists throughout, but in order for Pollan’s simple message to make sense, he first has to combat all of the ideas found in those other diet books on the shelf.

As a result, it’s perhaps better to discuss In Defense of Food in terms of its internal subdivisions; the book itself is roughly divided into three equal sections:

  • The Age of Nutritionism
  • The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
  • Getting Over Nutritionism

The Age of Nutritionism

 (A.K.A. How did we get into such a confused mess about what to eat, and what not to eat? And how on earth did Potato Chips and Cookies get health-food claims stickered on them?!?)

I don’t think a simple overview can nearly do justice to all of the fascinating information Pollan has collected in The Age of Nutritionism. Providing a carefully researched (and referenced!) history of the swirling mess that is “nutritional guidance” is one thing — and Pollan provides masterfully — but delving into the murky political mess that has become food lobbies and nutrition science is quite another.

Fortunately for the reader, Pollan bridges the two with a fantastic conversational approach which not only makes the dry details interesting, but makes the whole matter entirely disgusting — and that’s a good thing.

In many ways, reading the history of nutritionism (that is, being concern with the health impacts of parts of foods rather than the whole foods themselves) is like a car wreck — you can’t believe what you’re reading, it feels just absolutely wrong on so many levels, you’ve been duped into believing lies because someone else was profiting and … you just can’t turn away. It’s that fascinating.

The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

 (A.K.A. Are our health foods actually making us sicker?)

If The Age of Nutritionism is where Pollan uncovers the political agenda behind what we eat, The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization is where he takes on the scientific and research community.

From medical doctors to academics, and yes, even to nutritionists, Pollan’s investigation leads him next to the startling conclusion that all of our best intentions to eat healthier may actually be making us less well.

This section of the book begins with one of the most interesting bits of the whole book: the retelling of a 1982 study in which a group of Australian Aborigines with a host of health problems (including type 2 diabetes, obesity, etc.) spent 7 weeks living in the bush eating nothing but their culturally traditional cuisine. The result of the study was astonishing: in just 7 weeks, the health problems associated with type 2 diabetes had either disappeared completely or were greatly reduced.

Pollan uses this account as his jumping off point, from which he investigates the way in which the “Western Diet” (what most of us eat every day) has surely but slowly moved away from traditional diets — which, by the way, had us overall pretty healthy for many thousands of years.

Getting over Nutritionism

(A.K.A. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.)

Ah, finally we get to it: the part of the book which can really be summed up simply by the “eater’s manifesto.” If the message hadn’t gotten through sufficiently in the first two sections of the book, this is where Pollan really spells it all out: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Of course, it’s not nearly so simple as that — and so the reader is presented with a list of “rules of thumb” for determining what we actually should eat. In some ways, this section reads quite differently from the first two. It seems a lot lighter on facts and research, and heavier on calls to “culture” and “tradition” — not bad things, by any means, but just a different approach than the rest of the book.

If you’re looking for a quick guide to “what to eat”, then you could do a lot worse than the Getting over Nutritionism section — and it’s probably this section that sees the book most often show up in the diet section of the bookstore. The tips are great and easy to follow; my only wish is that the “what” was a little more integrated with the  “how” from the first two sections.

Overall Thoughts and My Verdict

Does In Defense of Food have a touch of polemicism in it? Yes.  Is it a condemnation of modern science and a hearkening back to “better days”? Sure. But is it worth reading?

Yes. Yes. A million times, yes. And then lend it to anyone and everyone you know.

If you’re afraid by the publisher’s stated length of the book (256 pages), don’t be. Pollan’s experience as a journalist shows itself here, and the writing is light and fluid; he is passionate about his topic, and it shows. On top of that, a good 20% of the book is citations of reference materials, which can be a bit disappointing until you realize that it just demonstrates how thoroughly Pollan researched this book.

From what I understand, In Defense of Food is also a nice tie-in to Pollan’s other well-known food book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I haven’t read it, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that aspect of things; however, any concerns about the book not being able to stand on its own would certainly not be well-founded.

Personally, I found the first two sections of the book far more interesting and engaging, but the last section is certainly valuable insofar as it gives you practical “to-do” steps to take in your own life. If the first two sections are the “why”, then the third is the “how” — it wouldn’t make sense removed from the rest of the book, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to fit.

But the best thing I can say for this book would be simply this: it changed the way I eat. After reading In Defense of Food, I spent much of my next umpteen trips to the grocery store marvelling at exactly how much of the things on the shelves just aren’t food. And while I still do enjoy a few non-food items now and then, I’m finding it actually is really rewarding to eat food, mostly plants, and not too much.

It’s just too bad that we need to be told something that should be so obvious.

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