In Defense of Food
Michael Pollan’s New York Times bestseller In Defense of Food belongs on the modern-day shortlist of most eye-opening nutrition books, along with Forks Over Knives, The Third Plate, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (also by Michael Pollan). All four books contribute a vast amount of information to the conversation on health and diet, with three out of the four written by unapologetic carnivores.
What differentiates In Defense of Food from Pollan’s earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the emphasis on nutrition, and particularly nutritionism (the study of nutrition). The Omnivore’s Dilemma is more concerned with the ecological and ethical dimensions of the food industry and our eating choices whereas In Defense of Food looks at the industry telling us what to eat (which always seems to be changing).
Pollan sums it up in a few words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s not something that we don’t already know but certainly advice that most people ignore because we’re surrounded by thousands of processed food products that are easily accessible and quickly satisfying. But, more importantly, Pollan points out that we are allowing someone else to think for us – a responsibility we should not easily surrender. When 2 out of 3 people in the US are overweight and 1 out of 3 are obese (which contributes to higher heart disease, strokes, blood pressure problems, diabetes, and cancer rates), we need to ask more questions.
Enter the nutritionists whose numbers are so vast (Pollan asks: why do we need all these people to tell us what to eat?) and whose recommendations change based on the newest health claim (which works to the advantage of both the food and the healthcare industries). As Pollan points out, the problem with nutritionism is the telescopic focus on components within food (vitamins, minerals, etc) which is what they have been trained to look at. Not big picture, but little picture which makes for the newest trend (hey, Omega 3’s) the favored child of the food industry that continues to fortify “food” with every new vitamin, mineral, or supplement with the newest health claim, no doubt determined by a study sponsored in whole or part by you guessed it, the food industry.
Pollan asks the reader to step back and abandon the western diet. He isn’t advocating to stop eating meat (and in probably one of the few areas I disagree with the author who says “I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet,” I say read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell published in 2006 or admittedly the more recent Forks Over Knives by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, MD and T. Colin Campbell or watch the documentary Plant Pure Nation, available on Netflix that shows what happens when a low-oil, plant-based diet is adopted. Basically, weight drops, cholesterol plummets, sodium lowers, and sugar drops). Certainly the knowledge we have of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, and fats is important but we still don’t have a full understanding of the vast interrelationships between the components. So instead of isolating the parts, focus on the whole.
Common sense recommendations include eating whole food – not processed food – that tends to be on the perimeter of grocery stores and not in the aisles. Avoid products with unfamiliar ingredients or that number more than five total and processed foods that make health claims, read labels, stay out of the supermarket and instead frequent farmer’s markets or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), eat mostly plants, buy food in season and freeze it, and don’t look for the magic bullet in supplements or dietary claims. You are what you eat eats. And, that’s important to remember.