Friday, May 14, 2010

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

By Michael Pollan
New York, Penguin Books, 2008

Week 20 Non-Fiction

I am a cook, a reader of recipes, an off-and-on dieter, a lover of food, and I learned a tremendous amount by reading this book. Anyone who is any of these things will learn a lot as well.

Pollan divides the book into three sections: The Age of Nutritionism; The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization; and Getting over Nutritionism. The first two sections discuss how our food and our diet got into its current state, and the last section considers what we should do about it.

I was especially intrigued with the history lessons. It appears that at some point, we eaters became victims of food science, which has tried to separate out the nutritional values of perfectly good food and decide why that particular item of our diet is of nutritional use to humans. When food became chemistry, the food industry attempted to isolate the valuable chemicals and import them into items that were not of value, i.e. Vitamin C in Kool-Aid. The main example he uses is margarine, a product of the corn industry. When margarine was discovered to be bad for our hearts and cholesterol, all the industry had to do was to change its chemical composition, and voila it was restored. Pollan outlines all the bad science that has gone into ruining our diets, and how the food industry has capitalized on it. It has become a revolving door of low fat, low cholesterol, low carbohydrate, and on and on. The more processed food becomes, the less it resembles real food. He says that if the product has to make a claim of its nutritional value on the packaging, don’t eat it.

The section on the history and corruption of the western diet was fascinating. He tells of a researcher who convinced some aboriginal men living in an Australian city to return to their native lands and eat like their ancestors did for a time. These men had been suffering from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol eating a western diet, but when they began eating like their grandparents, all those diseases disappeared from their bodies within three months. The western diet is particularly bad; he suggests we look at what the people of Asia and the Mediterranean region (France and Italy, particularly) eat and modify our diets accordingly. It’s for sure they aren’t eating Twinkies.
His advice in the last section is strong, but it is what many of us already know rather intuitively. He suggests we eat whole food, cooked at home, grown locally, and that we eat that food in meals at the table, with family and friends. He suggests a diet rich in vegetables (mostly green) with small portions. Of course he is an advocate of farm markets, freezers, gardening and cooking.
The book is full of pithy commentary, such as “the silence of the yams,” and “don’t get your fuel from the same place that your car does” i.e. the gas station. He suggests that you not eat anything that is incapable of rotting or anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

I suggest that this is a valuable read for everyone who is concerned about what is going in their mouths, or in the mouths of their children; anyone who is trying to change their approach to eating; anyone who loves food and cooking and eating. And…I’ll see you at the farmer’s market.

Michael Pollan is a journalist who specializes in foods and nutrition. His first book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals was a best seller. In Defense of Food came from an article he wrote for the New York Times magazine. It has a companion book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a pocket sized book, which expands on the third section of In Defense of Food and lays out a plan for implementing a diet of “eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.”

Here is a review of the book in the New York Times
A whole hour of Michael Pollan on Bill Moyer’s Journal.

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