The Hungry Engineer

In Defense of Food

27 Aug 2009

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. These seven simple words are the first paragraph of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. By elaborating on those words, he aims to “help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters.”

I should start by admitting that I’ve not yet read Mr. Pollan’s seminal work, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (though it’s definitely on my list), so I may lack some of the background that other readers possess. Also, I’ve never been terribly politically-minded about the food I eat (for shame, for shame). I love to cook, I love to eat, I love to try new foods. I generally try to consider our health when preparing meals (i.e. bacon is not a vegetable), and often purchase local and organic food because it tastes better. The political and ecological impact of my choices hasn’t really been on my mind.

However, as new information comes to light – salmonella poisoning, the disgusting conditions animals are often raised in, greenhouse gases produced by beef production – it becomes tougher to leave my head buried in the sand. Unfortunately, now that I’ve finally started to pay attention, working out which answer is the right one has been difficult. I contend though that focusing on your own and your family’s food choices is a good way to start. This is where In Defense of Food excels. Yes, there’s supporting information about “big agriculture” and the benefits of organic farming. Yes, he delves into how our awful Western diet came to be and the dangerous impact it has on the health of the populace. But at the core of the text, Pollan is trying to help us each understand how to eat.

In Defense of Food is organized into three sections: The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet and Diseases of Civilization, and Getting over Nutritionism. The first section explains what our detailed analysis of food and and nutrition has gotten us. The next explains that the Western Diet shouldn’t necessarily be remedied but completely undone. And the final section offers advice on how to go about eating more healthily by fleshing out Pollan’s seven-word diet plan.

One of the facets of this text that I found most interesting was the notion that we’ve stopped eating food (carrots, tomatoes, beef) and started eating nutrients (beta carotene, lycopene, protein). We are a scientific lot, and we like to understand the things that make us healthy – noble goals to be sure. However, Pollan posits that reductionist reasoning (lycopene is good because of this, saturated fat is bad because of that) is arguably what gets us into trouble. Food science has undertaken an overwhelming task. It’s difficult to study a food without breaking it down into its parts (at least the parts we know about), and it’s even more difficult to fully comprehend the interdependencies between various nutrients that seem to render the whole food more nutritious than its individual parts.

Here’s something that caught me off guard (despite a healthy skepticism toward our government) – dietary recommendations and the food pyramid have been significantly influenced by large agriculture. For whatever reason, I had always taken it to be the product of impartial (if perhaps flawed) scientific study of nutritional data. I was wrong. For instance, as Pollan points out, what started in 1977 as a recommendation to consume less red meat and fewer dairy products, after attack from the beef and dairy industries, became “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” The sugar allowance in the food pyramid appears to be the result of similar pressures.

The Western Diet (what Pollan refers to as “the elephant in the room”) appears to have resulted in higher rates of a bevy of chronic diseases than in other more traditional (read: less scientific, less nutritionally savvy) diets. Rather than pick apart why specifically the Mediterranean diet (or any other traditional diet, for that matter) might be better so that we can apply the appropriate nutritional patch to the processed foods lining our grocery store shelves, why not simply choose to abandon the western diet instead?

As mentioned, in his last segment, Pollan offers up some rules / guidelines for following his seven-word diet plan. Here are some of my favorites. “Avoid food products that make health claims.” “You are what you eat eats too.” “Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.” (Our way of eating needs an overhaul, not a bandage.) “Pay more, eat less.” (Which is to say, buy quality, not quantity. My husband learned this years ago – that ounce of good dark chocolate is much more satisfying than the candy bar he would’ve wanted otherwise.) “Do all your eating at a table.” (Be mindful of the food you’re consuming – particularly how much.)

Pollan’s work is compelling. I don’t know if shifting back to all-organic, free-roaming, grass-fed, unmodified agriculture is the right answer for feeding our ever-growing world population. But for the individual eater, his advice rings true and is easy to follow. Eat food (whole, un- or minimally processed foods). Not too much (eat consciously, as a social activity, and stop when you’re full). Mostly plants (generally better for you and the environment). And that is all.

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