Book Review: Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. 201 pages (plus Acknowledgments, Sources, Resources and Index).

Review: “Wow” is the first word that came to mind when I finished reading this book. Absolutely brilliant and very well written! There is plenty of supporting evidence for the facts detailed in the book without overwhelming the book with scientific jargon. The book is simple, organic, and direct, practical, relational, easy to read and enjoyable. It makes one think, laugh, learn, and love food and farmers, and the culture that unites them. I highly recommend this book.

Overview: The first line of the book is the sum essence of the entire novel: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan delineates the evolution of culture in regards to food and how industrialization has led to an unhealthy fascination with “nutritionism” instead of health; “nutritionism” is defined as “the belief that food is foremost about nutrition and nutrition is so complex that only experts and industry can possibly supply it” (200). America has adopted fad diet after fad diet, pyramid after pyramid of what they think they should eat and to in what quantities, all to the neglect of eating balanced, whole foods. We have reduced eating to a formula: the “right amount” of carbohydrates to protein to fat plus a vitamin supplement to make sure our bases are covered. However, there is a good amount of research that suggests “a whole food might be more than the sum of its nutrient parts” (111). We eat more and more meals on the run, in our cars, or in front of our television or computer screens. We’ve neglected the value of home-cooked meals shared around a table with gratitude and positive social interactions. “Though fast food may be good business for the health care industry, the cost to society–an estimated $250 billion a year / in diet-related health care costs and rising rapidly–cannot be sustained indefinitely” (135-6).

Our culture has the mentality that as long as I take a supplement, I can eat what I want and as much as I want and when I get too unhealthy, I’ll take a pill and keep doing what I want because, after, isn’t it “all about me” anyway? “Thirty years of nutritional advice [from the government] have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished. Which is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do: in need of a whole new way to think about eating” (81). Weston Price traveled all over the world to find the healthiest people groups and study their diets. He found that “the common denominator of good health…was to eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients” as well as “the high value people placed on seafood” (98). The results of his studies: “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them” (100).

“In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance, to dust off a word, than most of us to today”; “For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life. Traditionally people have allocated a far greater proportion of their income to food–as they still do in several of the countries where people eat better than we do and as a consequence are healthier than we are” (145).

Tips from the Author:

  1. Eat Food: Food Defined
    1. Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize As Food.
    2. Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That Are
      1. Unfamiliar
      2. Unpronounceable
      3. More than Five in Number, or that Include
      4. High-fructose Corn Syrup.
    3. Avoid Food Products that Make Health Claims–“little masterpieces[s] of pseudoscientific bureaucratese” (156).
    4. Shop the Peripheries of the Supermarket and Stay Out of the Middle.
    5. Get Out of the Supermarket Whenever Possible (and closer to the farms and farmers’ markets).
  2. Mostly Plants: What To Eat
    1. Eat Mostly Plants, Especially Leaves.
    2. You Are What What You Eat Eats Too.
    3. If You Have the Space, Buy a Freezer.
    4. Eat Like an Omnivore–“The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases” (169).
    5. Eat Well-Grown Food from Healthy Soils.
    6. Eat Wild Foods When You Can (wild greens and game meat).
    7. Be the Kind of Person Who Takes Supplements…”and then save your money”–not saying that you must take supplements, but rather noting that most persons who take supplements are “more health conscious” and “better educated” (172).
    8. Eat More Like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks. “Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet” (173).
    9. Regard Nontraditional Foods with Skepticism.
    10. Don’t Look for the Magic Bullet in the Traditional Diet.
    11. Have a Glass of Wine with Dinner.
  3. Not Too Much: How To Eat–“The French eat very differently than we do. They seldom snack, and they eat most of their food at meals shared with other people. They eat small portions and don’t come back for seconds. And they spend considerably more time eating than we do. Taken together, these habits contribute to a food culture in which / the French consume fewer calories than we do, yet manage to enjoy them far more” (182-3).
    1. Pay More, Eat Less–“While it is true that many people simply can’t afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, just in the last decade or two we’ve somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on Internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority” (187).
      1. “Put simply: Overeating promotes cell division, and promotes it most dramatically in cancer cells; cutting back on calories slows cell division. It also stifles the production of free radicals, curbs inflammation, and reduces the risk of most of the Western diseases” (184).
      2. “Is it just a coincidence that as a portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care. Since then, / those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income. I have to think that by spending a little more on healthier food we can reduce the amount we have to spend on health care” (187-8).
    2. Eat Meals.
      1. “We are snacking more and eating fewer meals together” (188).
      2. “One study found that among eighteen- to / fifty-year-old Americans, roughly a fifth of all eating now takes place in the car” (188-9).
      3. “It is at the dinner table that we socialize and civilize our children, teaching them manners and the art of conversation. At the dinner table parents can determine portion sizes, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed and gluttony and waste. Shared meals are about much more than fueling bodies; they are uniquely human institutions where our species developed language and this thing we call culture” (189).
    3. Do All Your Eating At a Table.
    4. Don’t Get Your Fuel From the Same Place Your Car Does.
    5. Try Not To Eat Alone.
    6. Consult Your Gut (aka, stop when you feel full instead of when you run out of food on your plate).
    7. Eat Slowly–“Eat deliberately” (196).
    8. Cook And, If You Can, Plant A Garden
“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and ‘value’ or they can nourish a food chain organized around values–values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote–a vote for health in the largest sense–food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize” (161).
“The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains [aka, as local and organic as possible] has a great many things to worry about, but ‘health’ is simply not one of them, because it is given” (201).
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2 responses to “Book Review: Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”

  1. Pingback: Q & A with Melissa…and a great tip for helping kids eat their fruits & veggies! | My Journey to Lean

  2. Pingback: 2013 Journey to Lean Begins: The Year of the “Vegivore” | My Journey to Lean

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