I recently finished reading In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan.  I found his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, even more interesting, but this book is a relatively brief, eye-opening volume that focuses on the modern “Western Diet”, it’s deleterious effects on our health, and some suggestions for how to “escape” from the Western diet and its ill effects to regain a more enjoyable and healthful relationship with food and eating.  I found it very interesting and valuable, and wanted to summarize the book and recommend that you check it out.

This is not a diet book.  In fact, I would call it an anti-diet book, since its primary theme is a renunciation of our modern conventional wisdom about how we should eat and the confusion and diet fads that come along with it.  The first part of the book discusses the political, economic, and cultural history of our modern American approach to food and nutrition.  This is characterized by what Pollan calls “nutritionism”, a deconstructionist, “scientific” approach to nutrition which views food in terms of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and other micronutrients, as opposed to carrots, apples and fish.  This reductionist, nutrient-based view of food has largely supplanted the accumulated wisdom of food culture and tradition as our primary guide to the question of what to eat and how to eat. Judging from the soaring rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases, the results have been disastrous. 

Contrast this with other parts of the world where people eat a wide variety traditional cuisines (and lifestyles) and experience markedly lower incidences of these chronic diseases.  The argument here is that since our scientific understanding of nutrition is incomplete and can at best try to understand after-the-fact why certain cuisines and foods seem to be healthful, we should be best advised to stick to natural, traditional foods and cuisines, i.e. real food.  If instead we trust in food science to manufacture “edible food-like substances” out of highly processed corn and soy (think margarine, many breakfast cereals, GoGurt, etc) that are supposed to deliver the nutrients that food science thinks we need, our health is bound to suffer for the lack of nutrients provided by real food that we haven’t yet identified as essential.

The second part of the book describes the various ways in which our modern Western diet has departed from traditional diets, and details the damaging effects these changes have had on our health.  Ironically, this part of the books relies on the same nutritional science that he decries in the rest of the book, but I found this section very interesting.  I should put in my own caveat here that I think it would be wrong to think of nutritional science as the enemy.  The work that is done to try to understand nutrition and health is certainly important and valuable.  But we should recognize the incompleteness of our understanding of nutrition, and that whenever we’ve have tried to boil nutrition down to what we think are the essential, fundamental nutrients, it has made us sick (think scurvy, etc).

The final section is where things get practical, and Pollan offers some rules of thumb on the question of what should we be eating after all.  The cleverly succinct summary of this advice adorns the cover of the book:

“EAT FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH, MOSTLY PLANTS”

Simple, right?  Pollan elaborates on each of these points with several more specific rules of thumb for choosing and eating food (his latest book, Food Rules, consists entirely of such catchy rules of thumb).

EAT FOOD: FOOD DEFINED

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food: By concentrating on pre-modern foods, you avoid overprocessed products. Another way of putting it: Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting (e.g. Twinkies)
  • Avoid products containing ingredients that are (a) unfamiliar (b) unpronounceable (c) more than five in number, or that include (d) high-fructose corn syrup: Ethoxylated monoglycerides? Enough said.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims: The creations of food science make louder claims than the produce department does, though the added benefits may not be clear. The American Heart Association (for a fee) awards its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puff, Trix, Yoo-hoo, and Healthy Choice’s Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle: Most grocery stores are arranged with produce, dairy, meat and fish lining the walls, with the processed, nonperishable foods in the middle.  If you stick to the edges of the store, you’ll more likely end up with real food in your cart.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible: You can’t go wrong buying your food from a farmer’s market.

MOSTLY PLANTS: WHAT TO EAT

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves: If researchers agree on anything, it’s that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduces health risks. Leafy vegetables are filling, low in calories, and high in antioxidants and fibre.
  • You are what you eat eats to:  Industrially-raised cattle are fed grain, rather than the grass that they are supposed to eat, which (along with living in cramped quarters, ankle-deep in their own waste) makes them sick, and makes their meat substantially less nutritious than grass-fed beef.  Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and richer in omega-3s, beta-carotene, and other nutrients.  The same is true for the meat and eggs of pigs and chickens fed on grass, even though they tolerate grain diets better than cattle.  Eat grass-fed, pastured animal products if you can find and afford them.
  • Eat wild foods when you can: Wild greens have higher levels of useful phytochemicals and omega-3 fatty acids. Wild fish have higher omega-3 levels than grain-fed farmed fish.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism: Chinese tofu recipes may be healthy, but the soy isoflavones used in processed foods appear to have negative health effects.

NOT TOO MUCH: HOW TO EAT

  • Pay more, eat less: Good food (in both taste and nutritional value) costs more, but this makes you eat more discerningly.
  • Eat meals: Avoid between-meal snacks, TV treats, or in-car munching. And family dinners should be just that-one meal for everyone, not personalized microwave entrées.
  • Do all your eating at a table: Desks and couches don’t count.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Consult your gut: Studies have shown that we tend to clear our plates no matter how supersized the portion is. Take modest portions, eat slowly and enjoy your meal.  Pay attention to your sense of satiety, and stop eating when you’re 80% full.
Advertisements