In Defense of Food

Michael Pollan
2008, Non Fiction
Penguin, $21.95, 256 pages, Amazon ASIN 1594201455

Grade: B
Sensuality: N/A

My husband does most of the cooking in our house. He loves to cook, to invent, and to nurture his family through the meals he creates. He's also keenly aware of the role nutrition plays in health, which dovetails quite nicely since he is of the "everything in moderation" school. We use real butter in our house as opposed to margarine - just not much of it - and try to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits. After borrowing In Defense of Food from him, I realize why a month or so ago we received a shipment of meat from animals that are grass (and not grain) fed and free of hormones and antibiotics.

Pollan's treatise is this: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." That sounds simple, and it is, but it's not as easy to do that as you'd think. Food in the U.S. is big business, and Pollan argues that much of what you find today on your grocer's shelves isn't actually food...it's processed, chemically-created foodstuffs. Not only that, much actual food isn't as nutritious as it once was; modern farming techniques and quantity-over-quality breeding of plants and animals means that today's apple isn't as good for you as it was in our grandparents' time.

Okay, so that's the "eat food" portion of his guidelines to good eating. The next is "not too much," which is something we've all heard before. But again, modern agribusiness works against this; the goal of today's food companies is to provide as much as possible as cheaply as possible. Pollan points out that when you add to that the bugaboo we've all been sold over the last thirty years about low-fat, low-carb, diet this and diet that, as well as better food through science chemical food creations, you end up with an obese population.

The final part of Pollan's treatise is "eat mostly plants." I hadn't realized until reading this book that it was none other than Thomas Jefferson who advised eating meat "as a condiment" to vegetables. Yes, I'd heard that advice for years, and it wasn't for nothing that our mothers told us to eat all our vegetables. But Pollan doesn't suggest eating Vegetable X for this nutrient or Fruit Y for that mineral - eating is something to be enjoyed, not something we do simply to ingest enough Vitamin D or iron or Omega-3. It's all in the balance; to do otherwise would be to become a nutritionist, and he believes that nutritionism has led us down a dangerous path because it disconnects us from the food chain.

Also addressed in the book are the various cultural diets scientists have tried to dissect; why is it that the French are healthier when they eat so much fat? Is it just the olive oil that makes the Mediterranean diet a better one than ours? Well...no. Pollan points out that if you ask a European why he stops eating, he'll say it's because he's full. Ask an American and he'll say he stops when his plate is empty. And furthermore, that same European will have enjoyed his meal more than his American counterpart because it was a more social event.

The author explains the fallacy in a lot of what we've accepted as healthy eating. It does sort of boil down to everything in moderation, but Pollan makes strong arguments for eating organic, real food because it provides the sort of satiety that's hard to achieve with much of the fake stuff. Not only does it maximize the actual nutrition a body needs, our bodies, at this point in our evolution, crave what's fresh, wholesome, and natural.

Among the lesser postulates that inform Pollan's treatise are these: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," "Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unpronounceable or more than five in number," and "Avoid food products that make health claims." Now, I don't ever plan to give up my non-fat milk (according to the author, most non-fat milks feature the addition of powdered milk, which contains a particularly bad type of cholesterol, and as a result, chemical antioxidants to compensate) lattes with sugar-free hazelnut syrup (comprised, in part, of "artificial flavors," maltodextrin, cellulose gum, sucralose, preservative, and sodium benzoate), but I'm happy my husband cooks In Defense of Food, and I'm glad there are people out there like Michael Pollan with a common-sense and reasonable approach to eating. My guess is that if more of us followed his advice, we'd enjoy food more, and would be satisfied eating less of it.

-- Laurie Likes Books

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