So I read this book called In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. I though it was interesting, and useful, and worth talking about. So I decided to talk about it, but then I got busy with work and vacations and so here we are, much later.
I'm not really sure where to start or where this will end up, since I read the book
a week or so ago about three weeks ago now and don't have it in front of me, so I'm working off some rudimentary notes I made as I was reading.
First, show of hands, anybody read Pollan's first book, The Omnivore's Delemma? It was good. I don't accept as gospel everything he says (hardly!), but his first book opened my eyes to several things, not the least of which is how ubiquitous corn has become in our food supply, We eat it as a vegetable and as ground cornmeal, of course, but it's also force-fed to most of the animals destined for our tables (animals which are by and large are not naturally grain-eaters) and then, of course, corn syrup is in almost every processed food you eat.
In Defense of Food revolves around Pollan's simple answer for the question, "What should I eat?": Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
He urges us to ignore all the "nutrition advice" and just eat good food. Ignore the latest government studies telling us to eat more of this food or that vitamin -- He makes convincing arguments that most of these studies and edicts are driven more by special interests and lobbiests than genuine concern for our nation's health (a big surprise, I know). Ignore health claims on boxes of breakfast cereal -- "It's easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot." Ignore fad diets. Just eat food. Real food.
For most of human history, humans have navigated the question [of what to eat] without expert advice. To guide us instead we had Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother.
Eat food. Pollan asserts, quite rightly, I believe, that most of what is available to us to eat is not actually food. Take bread: you can make bread at home with three or four ingredients: flour, yeast, and water -- even salt and fat (butter, say, or oil) is optional. A loaf of store-bought bread will have an ingredient list a mile long, most of them unrecognizable and unpronounceable. Considering that the main ingredient, flour, will almost certainly be processed to death and rendered almost nutrition-less -- what makes that loaf the equivalent of one made with three or four pure ingredients?
I should note here that I still love Wonder Bread, though. It's a treat because all I got growing up was homemade ... how boring! I think Wonder Break makes fabulous toast. You can throw things at me now.
Pollan says that if you eat real food, you almost don't have to worry about getting enough of any one thing, be it protein or vitamin D or anything else. He cites studies of the diets of many indigenous tribes who have never been exposed to the western diet - African tribes that eat meat and blood products almost exclusively, South American tribes that eat almost exclusively plants. Each group of people were uniformly healthy, but as soon as any of them are exposed to the western diet, they develop diabetes, heart disease, and a myriad of other medical issues. It's not too much meat/too little fat/not enough vitamin B that's killing us, it's the over-processed modern diet.
Not too much. This is pretty clear. Eat what you need, don't eat out of boredom or for emotional reasons. Eat good food that you enjoy, and you'll find yourself satisfied with less.
Mostly plants. Pollan's not a vegetarian, but he does eat less meat now than he did before he started researching. I don't have anything against meat eating (one of my top favorite foods is bacon), but it's true that the western diet is much heavier on meat than it needs to be. If you follow Pollan's lead and try to only eat organic, well-fed (not grain-stuffed), and humainly-killed animals, you'd almost have to eat less meat just for cost reasons.
He also talks a lot about nutritionism - the assumption that food is just made up of chemical parts and if we get the right blend it's okay, even if we've added in nutrients to replace that which our processing took out. There is very little science so far about how all the nutrients that make up an apple, say, or a slice of bread, work together. An example he gives is baby formula: there are some very, very good ones out there now that provide quite well for a child's needs, but even the best formula doesn't quite replicate the perfect nutritional balance found in breast milk.
Our culture is falling in love with nutritionism right now: every week a new study comes out touting the new big discovery - it's antioxidents that's the key. No, wait, it's omega-3s. Saturated fats are the worst thing. Nope, caffeine is even is worse. Break out the wheaties: it's more dietary fiber that you need.
You'll see a lot of examples of nutrients being added back into processed foods. They bleached the flour for the bread, which leached all the nutrients out. Soon they realized that people were suffering from vitamin D deficiencies, so they added vitamin D to bread. But that bread will never be as good for you as a loaf made from a non-bleached flour that never had the vitamin D removed in the first place.
Here is an article Michael Pollan wrote that sums up In Defense of Food much better than I can.
And as for what this all means for me? It doesn't mean I want to switch to an all-organic, all whole-food diet, but it does make me want to take more care about what I'm putting in my body. It takes a great level of dedication to fully adopt all Pollan's suggestions, and it's not all that practical for me even if I did have the dedication (seeing as I share kitchen space and some meals with the rest of my family, and we do eat fairly well to start with since we have a large garden and eat fresh and canned foods from it all year.) But this book has raised my level of awareness and made me more conscious of the processed foods that I do eat. I won't be following the latest food trends or worrying excessively about the nutritional qualities of what I eat ... I'll just be, to the best of my little abilities, eating food.
Worrying so much about food can't be good for your health. (Paul Rozin)
What nutritionism sees when it looks at the French paradox is a lot of slender French people eating gobs of saturated fat washed down with wine. What it fails to see is a people with a completely different relationship to food than we have.