Book Review: In Defense of Food

>> Monday, May 25, 2009

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

Rating: ****


In his previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan took a detailed look at the American diet, revealing that most of what we eat has its root in corn and oil, and that the organic label is not all it's purported to be. His book has been called a wake up call for the hungry and left many people asking, "Now what am I supposed to eat?"

In Defense of Food is Pollan's answer to that question, and the first three sentences of this book sum it up: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Those sentences describe Pollan's philosophy so concisely, you could almost get away with not reading the rest of the book. Almost.

The problem is that those statements need some explaining, so Pollan spends the next 200 pages fleshing out what he means when he says, "Eat food" (real food, not the processed food that makes up most of our diet), "Not too much" (focus on quality rather than quantity), "Mostly plants" (more leaves than seeds).

Pollan begins by ripping apart food science, or what he calls "nutritionism." He asserts that the method we use to analyze food (categorizing its parts into fats and carbohydrates, nutrients and micronutrients) is flawed, and as we as a culture have succumbed to the ideas of nutritionism, we've actually become less healthy, replacing much of the traditional foods our ancestors ate with food-like substances fortified with the supposedly essential nutrients.

Pollan suggests that rather than dividing foods into their various parts, we should focus on the whole food, eating more plant-based foods, eschewing processed foods, and enjoying food as a social and cultural action.

My Opinion:

Pollan's ideas here are very similar to Nina Planck's Real Food, and both books could be summarized with the suggestion to eat more traditional foods. Pollan's book also had similar flaws to Planck's, particularly cherry-picking research to support ideas and overlooking lack of exercise as a huge factor in the Western diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease).

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Pollan's book more than Planck's because she focused so heavily on meat-eating. Pollan does not advocate a vegetarian diet (although he doesn't discount it), but instead he supports eating meat from pastured, healthy, well-treated animals.

Still, I thought a lot of this book was overly-wordy and repetitive, as if Pollan really didn't have much to say on the subject. And because of that, I think most people could skip the first two sections of the book and only read the last, where Pollan details his eating philosophy.

In fact, for those too busy to read this book, I'm going to go ahead and give you the Clif's Notes version. Here's what/how you should be eating:

  • Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronouncable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) 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 supermarket whenever possible.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • You are what you eat eats too.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer.
  • Eat like an omnivore.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
  • Eat wild foods when you can.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements.
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
  • Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner.
  • Pay more, eat less.
  • Eat meals.
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Don't get your fuel from th same place your car does.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Consult your gut.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
This was another book where I felt like I already knew too much about the subject for it to grab me. I need some suggestions for a really thought-provoking, pushing-the-limits-of-new-ideas kind of book...

Next up on my reading list...Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough


more_cheese_please May 26, 2009 at 5:40 PM  

Nice synopsis! I agree with Pollan in the fact that we have been trained to by "nutrients" as opposed to "food," and that most people would probably find that pretty thought provoking.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper May 26, 2009 at 5:59 PM  

More Cheese Please - You're right that Pollan's ideas push the limits of normal thoughts on nutrition, and his conclusions are logical and easy to accept. I shouldn't have read it back to back with Nina Planck's Real Food, though. By the time I finished this book, I was worn out on the subject of nutrition.

Maren Hansen May 26, 2009 at 10:28 PM  

I too appreciate the comment about buying for nutrition as opposed to food. It's the same rationalization that allows me to let my kids eat cold cereal for dinner occasionally (it's vitamin/mineral fortified, right?)... ;) I have made a greater effort for my family to eat seasonally. I think that helps round out some of the other "sins" of healthy eating we collect...

Peter Evans,  May 27, 2009 at 2:54 AM  

"Be the kind of person who takes supplements." Surely a misprint.

I would add, Enjoy Food, but do not rely on food to deal with stress or anxiety.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper May 27, 2009 at 12:24 PM  

Maren - That's how I justify eating ice cream. Good source of calcium, right?

Peter - Pollan explains that people who take supplements are generally healthier, though it's probably less due to their taking supplements and more due to other healthy habits. People who take supplements are more likely to eat whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables. So he suggests that you should be the type of person who takes supplements, but not necessarily take the supplements.

Maren Hansen May 28, 2009 at 12:36 PM  

Erin, I found another blog that was kind of fun. You probably already know about it, but if not, enjoy!:

Erin aka Conscious Shopper May 28, 2009 at 1:28 PM  

Maren - Wow, they have some yummy looking recipes!

'Becca April 27, 2010 at 4:43 PM  

Thanks for the review! I've read some of Pollan's other books and articles but not this one.

For something new to read, check out my list of books that blew my mind--some fiction and some nonfiction. The Way We Never Were or In the Country of the Young might be particularly interesting to you.

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