Thursday, November 19, 2009

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

Summary: Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it? Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it--in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone--is not really eating. Instead of food, we're consuming "edible foodlike substances"--no longer the products of nature but of food science. Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion. The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.

But if real food--the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food--stands in need of a defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question that for most of the human history people have been able to answer without expert help. Yet the professionalization of eating has failed to make Americans healthier. Thirty years of official nutritional advice has only made us sicker and fatter while ruining countless numbers of meals.

By urging us once again to eat food, he challenges the prevailing nutrient-by-nutrient approach--what he calls nutritionism--and proposes an alternative way of eating that is informed by the traditions and ecology of real, well-grown, and unprocessed food. Our personal health, he argues, cannot be divorced form the health of the food chains of which we are part.

In Defense of Food shows us how, despite the daunting dietary landscape Americans confront in the modern supermarket, we can escape the Western diet and, by doing so, most of the chronic diseases that diet causes. We can relearn which foods are healthy, develop simple ways to moderate our appetites, and return eating to it's proper context--out of the car and back to the table. Michael Pollan's bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we can start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives, enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy, and bring pleasure back to eating. (Summary from book - Image from

Mindy's Review: "In Defense of Food" is a highly informative, controversial novel that strives to dispel myths and eliminate much of the nutritional disinformation that has been created by the food and food science industry, while urging us to make healthier real-food choices. It is pretty much exactly what the above summary claims, and so I won't bother awkwardly reiterating what is so eloquently stated there (go on, read it, I'll wait).

Michael Pollan's advice to us? Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Sounds simple right? Yes and no.

Pollan's arguments in defense of natural whole foods, comprising nearly two-thirds of the book, are logically sound, well-supported, and utterly shocking. However, his solutions might be a disappointment to those looking for an easy fix to health woes. Not all of his advice is financially or geographically feasible. When possible, he advises buying organically from a farmer's market or CSA (aka weekly veggie deliveries) and making sure that all meat consumed is 100% grass fed. This advice is smart and wonderful--if you can afford it, but much of America doesn't know their way around a kitchen, let alone an extremely expensive rutabaga. Pollan's solutions require commitment, effort, and in some cases, money--they are not for the faint of heart or thin of wallet.

Despite a few harder to implement steps, In Defense of Food is peppered with common-sense ideas for squeezing more nutrients into our food supply and our bodies. Pollan does specify important ingredients to avoid (like trans fats and high fructose corn syrup) and offers sound-bite grocery shopping advice like "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," "Shop the outer limits of the grocery store," "Don't eat anything that is incapable of rotting" (yes TWINKIES, he means YOU), and much more. He also lists changes we can make in how we eat--like actually cooking our own food (gasp), planting a garden, eating home-cooked family meals, and only eating at a table.

On the whole, I found his book to be a thorough, fascinating expose of the political meddling and financial motivations of the food industry, it's sketchy marketing ploys and rampant nutritionism, and an eye-opening look at how the Western diet is slowly killing us. So, you might not be able to successfully follow all of Pollan's advice -- I don't expect that many people can. Change as much as you can and I expect you'll be monumentally healthier for it.

Her rating: 4 Stars (would be higher if it wasn't so dry)

Sum it up: Some amazingly sound food for thought.

Heather’s Review: Michael Pollan knows how to make a point and defend it well. In this book he has shown that we, as Americans, are currently consuming more calories than ever before, yet getting less nutrition. It is because of these deficiencies in vitamins and minerals that we have so many health problems. This book is full of intriguing studies that support these statements and others like them.

My husband is a dietitian, as well as a type 1 diabetic. We carefully monitor what we eat. Yet this book has left me feeling mocked by food marketers and the FDA. I have always avoided hydrogenated oils and corn syrup in the grocery store. We have also stuck to a fairly low fat, high fiber diet. What I have failed to really stop and think about is how food functions as a whole and not as a “sum of its nutritional parts,” as Pollan puts it. We need the fat in milk and cheese to absorb those fat-soluble vitamins. Adding grains back into refined flour does not make the food function as naturally whole grain food functions. These are just a couple of the valuable insights that came from reading this book.

The one topic that this book fails to address in relation to food is Western laziness. I’m not speaking for only physical laziness here, though there is little doubt that our nation’s lack of exercise and demand for quick, low-mess meals contributes greatly to various health problems. I’m also speaking about our intellectual apathy. As a nation we are quick to trust in the newest study without questioning methods and controls. Many of us choose to let the media do our thinking, allowing food marketers to easily trick us. It makes me ponder what our nation’s prognosis would be if the time and money recently devoted to reforming healthcare went instead towards prevention with a focus on nutrition.

I found this book to be incredibly thought provoking. It is full of food marketing schemes and food regulations that you will be astonished to know even exist. I’m thrilled that this was a book club pick as there is so much I’m longing to discuss with others. I’m buying a copy. Everyone I know must read this!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars, HIGHLY recommend but I can’t say that I adored this book and it did get wordy and slightly redundant in spots.

Sum it up: Your health and the health of your family rely upon on the food you eat. Read this book and you will never buy Pop-Tarts again.

Average Rating: 4.25 Stars


Sweet Em said...

List to Michael Pollan on NPRs's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" here -

I love the idea of eating healthier and making my own food (the IDEA I practice). I also like the opinion that it is what you do MOST of the time that matters - that allow for some Oreos every once in awhile!

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I'm reading Omnivore's Dilemma right now...a facsinating look at the "process" of food and where it comes from. It's our book club choice this month, but I'm not finished. I hope I don't quit, just because our meeting is over.

MindySue said...

I have Omnivore's Dilemma on my next to read list...but I found out there is a YA edition of it and so I'm going for that. I imagine it's an easier read but with the same ideas.

This one (In Defense) was really good, but hard to get into sometimes. If it weren't for the great ideas and info he was putting forth, I don't know if I would have made it through.

Matthew said...

Why must you ladies discriminate against men. When are guys going to get a guys take on books? Such sexism. I read a 20 page excerpt from this book. That alone was enough to inspire me to want to change my life. Fast forward two months later. I buy only deli meat and cheese. Hooray for me.

MindySue said...

Matthew, dear brother, you are welcome to guest review on this blog at any time. What book will you be reviewing for us?

PS. I'm impressed (and a little surprised) that you actually visit this blog.

Matthew said...

don't be impressed. this was my first time.

Melissa Paul said...

No Pop Tarts? Oh dear, my kids and spouse might starve!


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