In Defense of Food

As a health counselor, I do my best to keep up with the latest in health and nutrition fields. This month, Michael Pollan published In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which was hailed as “a lively, invaluable book” by The New York Times. A follow-up to his critically acclaimed and bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma , it is one of the best nutrition books I have read in the past year—insightful, thought-provoking, and extremely practical. This is the first of a series of reviews in which I recommend specific books that can help you redefine your relationship with food and achieve optimal health.

In Defense of Food
Whereas in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan suggested that, as a country, we have lost our connection to the food, in In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto he warns that American society has become obsessed with eating healthy food and we’ve turned into a nation of chronic dieters. He claims that by always looking for a new source to tell us what to eat (such as his previous book), we have turned the simple act of eating into a futile and dangerous quest for self-perfection.

By now, everyone knows that in order to be healthy one must eat healthfully. Pollan identifies the reasons why this is harder than it should be in today’s diet-saturated culture. He writes that it’s increasingly difficult (and indeed a luxury for those who can afford it) to find fresh, local, unadulterated foods. In an effort to reduce costs and produce foods that can stay fresh for months—if not years—on supermarket shelves, our food industry has created a deluge of products that have been so manipulated, so refined that they no longer contain many of their nutritious, beneficial qualities. By introducing additives, preservatives, grains stripped of their beneficial protective layers, and cheaply produced (though, as we know now, artery clogging) trans-fats into our products, we have discovered the most economical way to produce the most calorie-dense foods and ship them across the country without them spoiling. What might otherwise have been a feat of human history has instead ushered in an era of obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

A new nutritional science industry has arisen to combat these new threats to our health. Each year, teams of scientists spend millions of dollars testing foods to discover which nutrients are beneficial and which are adding our health woes. Each decade has its villain nutrient ( e.g. fat, carbs, trans-fats) and each has its favorite nutrient du décennie (e.g. wheat bran, pomegranates, omega-3 fatty acids), which are respectively demonized and prized by the industry. After decades of hearing about various nutrients and having certain foods come in and out of vogue, Pollan argues, we no longer recognize food as food. Instead, we see food as a sum of its components, a conglomeration of fat, carbs, nutrients, and vitamins. He calls this phenomenon “nutritionism”.

Our biggest problem, claims Pollan, is that we have lost our ability to truly enjoy a meal, worrying instead about which nutrients and vitamins we are or are not getting. Instead of enjoying a plate of pasta primavera, we instead automatically reduce it to carbs from the pasta, fat from the olive oil, and (hopefully!) some beneficial vitamins from the vegetables. As a result, we have lost the ability to determine what it is we’re hungry for and instead religiously follow what the experts tell us to eat. Many of have fallen into the habit of excluding entire macronutrients (most recently, carbohydrates) from our diets because we think they’re “bad”.

So what do we do? Pollan argues that no matter the science behind it, it is the Western Diet that is making us sick. He offers a set of guidelines to help the reader escape the Western, industrialized diet. Many of the suggestions have been said before: don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; don’t eat any product that advertises a health claim; and don’t eat any product that has more than five ingredients or has ingredients you can’t pronounce. The rationale behind these guidelines is that if you stay away from these sorts of products, the chances are the whole foods—or at least less processed foods—in your diet will increase.

He also offers suggestions to change our culture of eating. Americans no longer respect the meal time, instead eating on-the-go, in between meals, and at our desks. To counter this trend, he suggests that we eat with others when possible, eat slowly and thoughtfully, focus on the quality of the food and not the quantity, and re-establish the importance of three proper meals each day.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is a wonderful introduction to the state of our health today and what we can do about it on an individual level. Unlike many authors, his suggestions are practical and can be implemented in some way by most people.

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