“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much” (p. 1*). This is Michael Pollan’s philosophy of food and eating. In the opening chapter of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and his other works, Pollan realizes that it’s more than a little absurd that he writes entire books when his argument can be summarized so concisely. And yet, in America, the instruction to “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much” needs to be said because our way of eating is not healthy.
In Defense of Food is a quick takedown of the food industrial complex, nutritionism, and how we got to where where we are. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, nutrition scientists began to study how food works. They began to isolate nutrients and vitamins, etc. and linked them to benefits and illnesses. They changed the way we think about food. Now, we think about food as fuel, for the most part. If we find the right things to eat, we can become healthier. And yet, we seem to grow sicker and fatter as we eat supposedly healthy foods: low-fat, high-fiber, packed with anti-oxidants.
Food and eating are more complex than science can account for. As currently practiced, science isolates variables. It tries to find correlations between A and B. But vitamins, nutrients, minerals, amino acids, etc. are more effective when they’re delivered by whole foods. When we eat more slowly, as the French and Italians do, we don’t need to eat as much to feel full. When we eat more varieties of food, as Australian aborigines do, we get more of the micronutrients we need to be healthy.
Pollan puts a lot of stock in traditional foodways and his argument is very appealing. In the last third of the book, Pollan explains how we can eat better. By eating food, Pollan means that we need to avoid processed food because it’s just not healthy for us. Pollan steers us towards plants because they contain more of the micronutrients we need, especially the leafy green ones. When Pollan advises us to not eat too much, he offers ways to change our habits so that we can not only be more healthy, but enjoy food more.
In Defense of Food relies on common sense arguments to make its points, for the most part. He cites anthropological, medical, and other scientific papers when he needs to and shows the flaws in the nutritionist science literature. (At one point, Pollan cites a study that shows that industry-funded studies often conclude than an industry’s product is healthy—or at least not harmful.)
Pollan urges us to look back to how our ancestors ate and what they ate. It’s a tempting argument. But it’s a hard path to follow because so many things are stacked against us. Organic food is hard to come by and very expensive. Growing your own is nearly impossible for urban-dwellers. Pollan acknowledges that this will be hard for poorer people, but then goes back to his thesis. Not that there are a lot of options for people who can’t afford to buy the expensive whole foods that we should be eating. Systemic change, after all, is the hardest kind of change to effect.
It’s a little unusual for me to read nonfiction, especially something related to health. I’m reading this book because it’s the monthly selection for a book group that’s invited me to join. We’re not meeting until Friday, so I don’t know what the discussion will bring up.
* From the 2008 Penguin Press hardcover edition.