I was very excited when I finally found Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto recently in my local secondhand bookstore. This book has been high on my list of ‘things to read’ for years as a few friends have highly recommended it. I also have seen Michael Pollan on TED.com and on youtube and am very interested in his viewpoints on food, nutrition and agricultural practices.
Pollan’s Eater’s Manifesto states:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
I know this sounds deceptively simple and maybe even boring at first glance for those looking for the next diet craze, but Pollan spends the next 201 pages patiently and clearly pointing out how much of the food that we eat today just isn’t ‘real food’ (as in fresh as possible with very little processing, or in other words, something that our great grandparents would recognize as food). Instead for many of us, our diets consist mainly of food ‘products’, edible substances that have been engineered in a science lab. In his book, Pollan deconstructs the typical North American diet and how we also tend to eat far more than we need to thrive, and how very little of our diets contain the readily available foods that best meet our dietary needs: fresh fruits and vegetables.
Pollan begins his book by defining the phenomenon he calls, The Age of Nutritionism. He points out how food, or what passes as ‘food’ has evolved dramatically since the Industrial Age. In the days of our grandparents and great grandparents, what one ate was largely dictated by our culture, and according to Pollan: “Culture is just a fancy work for you mother.” However, over the last several decades, “…mom has lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers… and the government with its ever-shifting dietary guidelines, food labeling rules and perplexing pyramids.”
As eaters, we find ourselves increasingly in the grip of a Nutritional Industrial Complex- comprised of well-meaning, if error-prone, scientists and food marketers only too eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus. Together, and with some crucial help from the government, they have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the “nutrient”; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health. Because food in this view is foremost a matter of biology, it follows that we must try and eat “scientifically”- by the nutrient and the number and under the guidance of experts.~Pollan
We seem to have given up our power, our cultural knowledge about food, and our relationship with our food and where it comes from. Instead, we have come to rely heavily on scientists to tell us what to eat and how to eat it in order to be healthier. The glaring problem with this is the current epidemic of food-related illnesses, such as diabetes, various cancers, cardiovascular diseases and obesity, that are rampant in North America. We are following the recommended dietary guidelines and yet statistics show that we are still getting sicker and fatter.
A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap and easy. Americans spend less than ten percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and little more than an hour enjoying them. For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life. ~Pollan
Pollan points out the problem with the scientific method in studying nutrition, which is the tendency to focus on one nutrient at a time, isolating it and observing its individual function and effects. This fragmentation reduces wonderful, glorious miraculous food to mere nutrients and completely misses the complex interrelationships between the many nutrients as well as between different food combinations. What we end up with is research and recommendations that are incomplete, constantly changing and even harmful for us. A good example of this is how it was ‘discovered’ in the 1970s that fats were bad for us and we were all urged to consume less fats and replace fats with carbohydrates (preferable healthy whole grains). However, we know today that a diet that is high in carbohydrates, especially wheat and wheat products, are actually harmful to the human body and contribute to chronic illnesses and obesity.
Pollan’s book is very interesting and rich in detail. He compares the Western diet to traditional Indigenous diets around the world and addresses current agricultural and farming practices that drastically reduce the actual nutritional content in today’s foods. Although his book spends quite a bit of time focusing on the danger in our current attitudes and beliefs about food, Pollan ends the book with an offering of hope and an invitation to reject nutritionism and instead, embrace a healthy relationship with food. He encourages each of us to increase our awareness of where our food comes from and cultivate an enjoyment of preparing and eating food.
Pollan ends with some helpful recommendations when we consider our own diet. Here is a sampling:
- Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
- Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number or that include high fructose corn syrup.
- Avoid food products that make health claims.
- Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
- Get out of the super market wherever possible. (i.e. shop at your farmers market).
- Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
- You are what you eat eats too (soil quality, animal quality)
- If you have space, buy a freezer (then buy and store produce when it is in season; also cheaper to buy local, hormone-fee meat in bulk, i.e. a whole hog or half a cow)
- Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
- Eat wild foods when you can.
- Have a glass of wine with dinner.
- Pay more for quality foods and eat less.
- Eat real meals and stop snacking.
- Do all of your eating at a table (not in front of the television or computer).
- Eat slowly.
- Cook and eat your own food.
- If you can, plant a garden and grow your own produce.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto suggests that we need a whole new way of thinking about food. The book also provides direction as to where to start. This was a very interesting and enjoyable read! It has raised my awareness of my own attitudes regarding food, the kinds of foods are truly best for my body and how the quality of my food is directly impacted by the quality of the environment it was grown or raised in.
An epicurean at heart, I am also grateful to Pollan for encouraging us to stop looking at food as a ‘product’, but seeing it as something this is alive and delicious. Pollan’s best recommendation is to simply take the time to gather, prepare and enjoy real food as the center of a well-lived life. I highly recommend this book to all!
Pollan, M. (2008). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.New York: Penguin Group Inc.
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