In Defense of Food

Author: Michael Pollan
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2008
Price: $26.50 hardcover

Michael Pollan  is a longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine and a  professor of journalism at Berkeley. As a follow-up to his widely  acclaimed book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan offers readers  his guidelines on what to eat. The basic premise of this book  is revealed on the first page: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly  Plants. Pollan takes the reader through a well-crafted journey  of what he means in this eater’s manifesto. The book seems  to be targeted at people who have the means to implement his advice.

Pros

In Defense of Food is incredibly well-written and well-researched.  Pollan’s overarching message is to go back to authentic food  and one’s family roots, rather than eating the manufactured  “Western diet”. In other words, we should nourish ourselves  with foods steeped in tradition. Pollan’s definition of “food”  creates much food for thought. He suggests that food is what our  grandmothers would recognize, or we what we would find at a farmers’  market. He believes that most of what we eat in the west today  is not food, but “edible foodlike substances.”

Pollan has  a talent for translating complicated scientific information. For  example, his explanation of omega-3 versus omega-6 fats is brilliant  and showcases his talent for writing; “…think of omega-3s  as fleet and flexible, omega-6s as sturdy and slow.” Furthermore,  when explaining why it’s better to eat a bagel with peanut  butter “..the fiber, fat and protein of peanut butter cushion  the insulin response, thereby blunting the impact of the carbohydrates.”  This book brings to life that nutrition communication is an art;  Pollan’s use of colourful language is a pleasure to read.  For instance, he states that vegetables are as silent as stroke  victims when it comes to being promoted at the grocery store.  Furthermore, he argues that nutrition professionals (as well as  journalists) need to be educated on communicating about food rather  than just nutrients as often trumpeted by the latest studies.

Pollan generates  excitement around the seasonality of food and the need to pay  more attention to portion size. His advice on how to eat “not  too much” is grounded in common sense and sound research.  It really is the must-read section of the book.

Cons

Despite loving this book, there were a few things we took issue  with. First, Pollan paints all nutrition professionals with the  same brush, and portrays them as labcoat-wearing individuals not  connected with food. He may be interested to know that our book  club agreed with most of his main points. We too believe that  we eat food for many reasons other than fueling our bodies. We  also promote whole, unprocessed foods rather than just nutrients.  And we agree that people should slow down and cultivate a real  relationship and understanding of where their food comes from.

Pollan’s tone trivializes nutrition and early science. He doesn’t  give credit to early fortification efforts, such as vitamin D  in milk or folic acid in flour, in helping to curb rickets and  neural tube defects, respectively. It is interesting to note that  while he questions how nutrition research is conducted, he admits  that these are the best tools that we have.

Pollan tends to simplify reality. Readers are repeatedly encouraged to eat  like their great-grandmothers to be healthy. We assume then we  would also have to do the physical chores of yesteryear. And would  this mean we should expect the shorter life expectancy of our  past generations? The answer isn’t so simple. Pollan also  holds the American food guide pyramid responsible for chronic  diseases. This is somewhat myopic and misses the big picture.  It is the Western lifestyle rather than just the Western diet  that is contributing to the dismal state of our health.

Although the  book is well-researched, there are some inaccuracies in the book.  For example, Pollan uses the varying iron content in apples to  highlight the notion of healthy soils creating healthy foods.  Had he consulted a nutritionist he would know that apples are  not a major source of iron and he should have chosen another nutrient  or food to make his point.

Bottom Line

In Defense of Food is a compelling read. Pollan is tough  on nutrition professionals and challenges nutrition science. Nevertheless,  we can all rally around the seven words of his basic message Eat  Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. This book is an eye-opener  for people who think eating food is merely to fuel oneself. The  challenge lies in convincing people that what they eat matters  and that nourishing themselves with whole foods should be a priority  i.e. carve out more time and money to do so. We would highly recommend  the book to both consumers and health professionals.

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