In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

Penguin, 2008, 244 pages, C$26.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-59420-145-5

“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly Plants.”

There.  In seven words, that’s a summary of Michael Pollan’s wisdom.  Helpfully, the cover of the book even sports those words.  If you’re not yet satisfied, you can always read Pollan’s New York Times article “Unhappy Meals” in which he laid out most of his book’s central message.

Otherwise, well, what can I say?  It’s tough to review great books.  Once I have urged you to go and get the book, everything else is an anticlimax.

Oh, OK, a few more contextual details may be useful: For instance, you really should read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma before tackling In Defense of Food.  While both can be read independently, Polaln’s previous book provides a theoretical framework over which his latest book elaborates.  In fact, Pollan is up-front about the fact that reader reaction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma led him to write In Defense of Food: After spending four hundred pages explaining all about the unsustainable and unhealthy process through which our food comes from, Pollan found himself deluged with questions about what to do about it.  In Defense of Food is an answer: not a rigid system, but a set of ideas and guidelines meant to help us navigate through supermarkets booby-trapped with false nutritional claims and processed variants of mostly-corn.

The first few chapters of In Defense of Food tackle the industry of nutrition.  With brief historical overviews of how Americans have been seduced over and over again by dubious claims about what they should be eating, Pollan comes to the conclusion that trying to add explicitly-nutritive ingredients to synthetic food is a losing proposition.  Humans, he reasonably reminds us, have co-evolved with their natural food sources for thousands of years: The interaction between human nutritive systems and natural food means that it’s difficult to isolate the building blocks of what food does to the body.  A reductionist approach (add this much fat, that many carbohydrates, a little bit of protein…) is actually harming us: it’s better to stick as closely to naturally-grown whole food as possible.

That’s not exactly a new or revolutionary message, although Pollan’s catch-phrases are memorable: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” is one of the best.  But as a reminder of what we should strive to do in-between the convenience of food-court lunches, it’s an entertaining and convincing discourse.

Along the way, though, we learn a bit more about government intervention in the mechanics of the food pyramid (both the one that hangs on walls, and the real one that favours certain industries over others in bringing you sustenance) and reflect on the meaning of a healthy food culture.  Passing nutrition manias such as the “Atkins Diet” (which seems to have disappeared from the mainstream as quickly as it entered it) are symptoms of a bigger problem, which is to say the appalling lack of knowledge that most (North-)Americans have about how and what to eat.

If nothing else, In Defense of Food will make you feel a lot better about how much you know about food.  In the last section of the book, Pollan suggests ways to best shop at the supermarket: Avoid food with unpronounceable ingredients, avoid food that make health claims, go to a farmer’s market whenever possible, cook, eat slowly, plant a garden… the trouble with a lot of those recommendations are that they’re very familiar: It’s what your mom told you, and most of it can be deduced from “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly Plants.”  Culinary wisdom is simple:  it’s sticking to it despite inconvenience that’s hard.
There’s also the suspicion that In Defense of Food will mostly be read like people who intend well and already do most of what it recommends: At a time where market forces are what really changes supermarkets (and in turn, what’s easily available to us), the real issue here will be to get people who aren’t concerned about their diet to start paying attention.

So: “Read Pollan.  Eat better food.  Discuss issues.”

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