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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pollan exposes the inadequacy of Western nutrition science and the detrimental effects of industrial food on our health. He argues that nutritionists have tried reducing diets to their component foods, and reducing foods to their component chemicals. But diets and foods are greater than the sum of their parts. Pollan proposes a return to the traditional, holistic view of food and its ecological and cultural elements. I didn’t agree with everything Pollan recommends, but he presents thought-provoking data and advice regarding Western eating habits.

Pollan decries “nutritionism”, the scientific paradigm that has promoted industrial food and the Western diet. He shows that nutrition science is a very immature field with a limited understanding of nutrition, which has led it to change its recommendations every few years (avoid fats! avoid carbs! etc.). Despite its supposedly scientific basis, the Western diet has caused increases in the “Western diseases” such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Plants and animals have been bred to produce greater quantities of food at the expense of their quality; modern industrial foods have lower nutritional value than their traditionally produced counterparts. Leaves have been replaced with seeds and grains (such as corn, soy, and wheat), and are usually heavily processed. The food industry pushes refined and processed foods because they’re more profitable, regardless of their nutritional value.

Pollan explains that humans can, and have for thousands of years, lived healthy lives on a wide range of traditional diets without nutritionism. Nutritionists try to extract the magic food from traditional diets (wine, olive oil, fish, etc.) and the magic nutrients from foods (resveratrol, omega-3, etc.). What they fail to realize is that the foods in diets are synergistic, as are the nutrients within foods. They also ignore the social and cultural components of diets.

Consider the French Paradox. Although their diet contains a lot of saturated fat, the French have relatively low rates of obesity and heart disease. Pollan argues that this isn’t likely due to any particular food or nutrient, but a combination of the synergies between the foods they eat and their lifestyle: smaller portions, slower eating, and more exercise than Americans.

As an alternative to industrial food, Pollan suggests a return to “slow food”, where people are conscious of the ecological and social frameworks behind their food. He says people should prepare and eat food slowly and deliberately, savoring it rather than viewing it as fuel to be scarfed down.

I guess I’ve been indoctrinated by “nutritionism”, because I love reading books and articles about dietary science, and tweaking my diet to make sure I have the right proportions of the so-called food groups and nutrients. So, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I would have if it had contained more prescriptive dietary advice. It’s difficult for me to live by Pollan’s advice to eat a variety of whole, real, unprocessed foods and mostly ignore nutritionists.

Pollan says people should cook and grow their own food as much as possible. I do cook at home a lot (as much for my budget as for my health), but I don’t grow my own food at all. I believe that society functions most efficiently when people are specialized, so I’d rather focus on improving my technical and business skills and pay someone else to grow my food. This is fine in theory, but as this book shows, it’s led to the unhealthy industrialization of food. I’ll continue to get my food from both local gardeners and supermarkets, but I’ll try to be more conscious about selecting whole, real foods and not falling for the health claims on industrial foods.

The book ends with Pollan’s food rules. I wrote about these in my review of Pollan’s Food Rules. The three main rules are 1) Eat food, 2) Not too much, and 3) Mostly plants. They're presented in expanded form in this book.

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