In Defense of Food

Yes, food needs defending.

In Defense of Food

Last week I read Ed Levine’s (somewhat snarky) comments on what he called Michael Pollan’s Twelve Commandments. I knew I wasn’t getting the full story, so I ran out and bought Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”, devouring it over the weekend. Turns out, Michael Pollan doesn’t call his guidelines commandments, there are more than 12, and there is a lot more to it than sound bites. Knowing that I wanted to write about the book here, I flagrantly ignored my (poor single mom) upbringing and liberally highlighted oh, 96.9 percent of the book. I think a few “the’s” and “it’s” escaped my fluorescent pink adornment.

Pollan, (such an apt last name) has eloquently coalesced much of my philosophies on food, culture, cooking, health and tradition. His writing is witty, engaging and so entertaining, it was difficult to put it down. I specifically read it out loud to my husband, knowing we’d discuss so many of Pollan’s points as we got deeper and deeper into this thoughtful work. It is an exquisitely articulated book, he refers to as “An Eater’s Manifesto”, which he cleverly sums up in these seven words from the cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”

Pretty strait forward, common sense, huh? Actually to some, it will be incredibly subversive and threatening. Through studies, personal philosophy, reference to traditional cultures and a hard look at the pervasive convenience-is-king, fast food, “pile it high, sell it cheap” attitudes Americans have toward their food, Pollan unpacks those three little sentences for us.

He covers so much ground, I want to talk about it all. But, I suppose that’s rather impractical since it took him 200 pages, and you really just need to read it, as a service to you and your family. He addresses so much of what modern Western food is, and all of it’s ramifications on health, relationships, science, culture, the environment, well-being, the health care industry, and the formerly simple act of choosing what to eat, that I am truly overwhelmed at the idea of succinctly putting my thoughts together on it. I never professed to be a book reviewer, but I am so passionate about “In Defense of Food”, that I’m giving it my best shot.

The first section of the book he calls, “The Age of Nutritionism”. Nutritionism being a term coined by Australian sociologist of science, Gyorgy Scrinis. With all the perky bright packages screaming Low Fat! No Cholesterol! Heart Healthy! there is a subliminal message the food industry wants us to buy into, “namely, that we should understand and engage with food and our bodies in terms of their nutritional and chemical constituents and requirements – the assumption being that this is all we need to understand.” As Pollan puts it, nutritionism is a reductionist ideology, and, “Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form, this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.”

This “expert help” translates to decades of confusing, contradictory, pseudoscience resulting in more and more chronic diseases, (heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and type 2 diabetes which used to be called adult onset, but is beginning to show up in children as young as 9) with more and more evidence showing these are diseases with direct correlation to a Western diet. But as Pollan states over and over in the book, it’s not about taking out this or that “bad” nutrient, so much as looking at the whole diet, through the lens of culture and tradition. When we sit at the dining table with loved ones for a meal, (“Eat Meals” and “Do All Your Eating at a Table”, are two headings in the last section of the book) we draw on millennia of the pleasures of eating together, and teach the next generation gratitude for where our food comes from, “proper portion sizes”, “social norms about greed and gluttony and waste,” and stopping when you are full (rather than when the TV show is over or the package is empty).

Citrus Bowl
One of the insidiously invisible problems with nutritionism is that in order for a package of processed food product to screech it’s supposed nutrient-packed benefits at you, it has to have…a package. Big industry’s money is backing the research, processing, and marketing of these so-called foods, when the ACTUAL foods (with generations of relationship and experience in growing and cooking them) in the bulk bins and produce aisle are far less profitable and therefore…quiet. Pollan calls it “the silence of the yams.” (One of my favorite quotes in the book.) He goes on to say, “The cook does not need to know, as the scientists have recently informed us, that cooking the tomatoes with olive oil makes the lycopene in them more readily available to our bodies. No, the cook already knew that olive oil with tomatoes is a really good idea.”

In the second section “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization” Pollan cites numerous studies worldwide showing just how destructive the proliferation of Franken-foods like high fructose corn syrup, soy isoflavones, and any number of additives in the Western diet have been to our bodies. Pollan makes a very salient point when he states, “Health depends heavily on knowing how to read these biological signals: this looks ripe; this smells spoiled; that’s one slick-looking cow. This is much easier to do when you have long experience of a food and much harder when a food has been expressly designed to deceive your senses with, say, artificial flavors or synthetic sweeteners. Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet.”

To put it bluntly, we have become a society that is obese as a direct result of being overfed and undernourished. With all the perishable vital nutrients stripped out of processed foods, and without a context with which to prepare and enjoy our foods, we are getting less and less of what we need from our food. Unsatiated, we fill up on even more empty “foods”. Pollan goes on to make the very disturbing yet right-on observation, “Is it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.”

As the naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” So, it should come as no surprise that food is part of a vast ecosystem and obviously (or maybe not) so are you. Knowing that the very nature of science is to reduce everything to it’s isolated parts, even the best science has to offer, is an incomplete understanding. If you are just looking at the parts, you are only going to see…parts. Not the whole. So, backed by (far from neutral parties) special interest lobbying, government bureaucracy, and advertisers (with 32 billion dollars a year), food science keeps looking for some nutrient panacea to save us from ourselves; Antioxidants are the answer! More fiber! Saturated fat will kill your family, news at 11!

Margarine is the perfect example. With dubious evidence to back it up, they decided saturated fat (in a whole food like butter) was so bad for you, that hydrogenating vegetable oils to make what should be a liquid, into a solid, was the answer. Oops! Now scientists say hydrogenated oils (trans fats) are far more dangerous than saturated fat ever was, so they are re-engineering margarine in some newfangled way that, this time…really…I swear…I wouldn’t lie to ya…is THE healthiest fat. Until…we find out whatever they are doing to it now is also less than ideal.

What happened to sensibly moderating what we eat? It’s okay to have a little pat of butter on your morning toast (made with whole grain flour, water, yeast and salt) so long as you don’t eat an entire pound of it. A scoop of ice cream (made of whole cream, eggs, sugar, and real fruit or vanilla or chocolate, say) now and again, is so much more pleasurable and far less dangerous than something filled with a litany of unpronounceable additives. Where has listening to supposed food experts for the last 50 years gotten us? Decades of rising rates of chronic diseases, polluted water and air from industrial pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and a society that no longer values quality: in time spent at the table together, and in the food we produce and eat.

One of the most interesting statements Pollan makes is based on Westin Price’s research, identifying no single ideal traditional diet. Throughout human evolution and history, our species has thrived on many kinds of diets. According to Pollan, Price found that, “The Masai of Africa consumed virtually no plant foods at all, subsisting on meat, blood, and milk. Seafaring groups in the Hebrides consumed no dairy at all, subsisting on a diet consisting largely of seafood and oats made into porridges and cakes. The Eskimos he interviewed lived on raw fish, game meat, fish roe, and blubber, seldom eating anything remotely green.” Pollan continues, “Price found groups that ate diets of wild animal flesh to be generally healthier than the agriculturists who relied on cereals and other plant foods.” “But the common denominator of good health, he concluded, was to eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients.” Therefore, our health depends on the health of the soil our food is grown in. The most striking point Pollan makes about traditional diets is, “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.”


In the final section, “Getting Over Nutritionism”, Pollan gives real life, day to day suggestions of how to truly nourish yourself and your family with traditional, whole food. Again, so much of it is common sense, but there are multi-billion dollar a year industries directly profiting from keeping you hooked on highly processed, overly sweetened, food-like substances. I love his suggestion to steer clear of “foods” your (or someone else’s) great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Okay, so YOUR ancestor may not know what calamari or tofu or tzatziki is, but someone’s grandmother in a little town was using it in her meals 100 years ago. But, I’m sure she’d never heard of maltodextrin, ethoxylated mono- and diglicerides or azodicarbonamide, let alone think they were supposed to be ingested. Pollan also urges us to stick to the edges of the grocery store where they generally shelve the real food: produce, dairy, meats, dry grains and legumes. All of which play a part in a healthy omnivorous diet.

A rainbow of whole foods

Clockwise from top: Farro (a whole wheat), Red Lentils, Wehani Rice, Green Split Peas…all of which cook up in less than an hour and are so tasty

I don’t personally eat meat, but I would be the first to agree that a traditional diet including small amounts of humanely raised, pasture-fed animals is far better for everyone than a diet chock full of supposedly “healthy” highly processed fad foods. But better than the peripheries of the grocery store, he strongly suggests we support local farms through farmers markets, or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where you pay a fee in winter and receive a weekly box of seasonal fresh produce throughout the year. If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that local produce is very close to my heart, so I’m thrilled to see that tip so adamantly expressed in Pollan’s book.

Tonight I am beside myself with excitement to attend a talk that Pollan is giving at the Book Passage in Corte Madera. Honestly, I could discuss “In Defense of Food” and the issues Michael Pollan brings up, for hours…days…weeks even, but I have to wrap this up. I just can’t stress enough how revolutionary and critically important this book is. Anyone who’s ever picked up a box of crackers and tried to make sense of the dozens of ingredients on the label should read this book. If you’ve ever just thrown up your hands in exasperation as the newest health study contradicted all the ones before it, read this book. And lastly, if you really want solid direction on what you as one person, or as a member of a family, can do to actually BE healthier and have a healthier impact on this planet we call home, read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”.

14 thoughts on “In Defense of Food”

  1. I got a copy of this book for christmas and I can’t wait to tear into it. (Unfortunately, I have three library books in the queue ahead of it, and they have to come first, as I waited months for 2 of them, and they’re so popular I won’t be able to renew.)

    It took me 2 years to read Omnivore’s Dilemma. I had a hard time getting into it, and every time I found time to crack it (again) it was time to take it back to the library. I suppose there’s reasons for everything, because in those 2 years, we’d already gotten wise to many of the issues Pollan raised. I think if I had read the book when it first came out, it might have overwhelmed me to the point of inaction — even though we were already buying at least half of our food from the farmers market and hadn’t touched fast food in years.

    Of course, there’s always room for improvement, so now we’re focusing more on learning to acclimate our palates to grass-fed beef, and to sucking it up to quadruple our egg budget to get the pastured farmstead eggs, rather than the pseudo-free-range ones.

  2. What a well written and thought provoking article. Whenever we go to Costco, our cart is mostly laden with nuts, fruits, eggs, milk, yogurt, veggies and fruit, and harly 1 or 2 items of processed foos, if any. But many carts have the opposite.

    we are trying to eat more healthier each year. hope it continues. Thanks for the article

  3. I’m reading Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dillema” now and am quite enjoying it. When he discusses corn in its historical, social, and economic context I start to get a better view of my food overall. I’m very glad to read your glowing review of “In Defense…” and will definitely pick it up next at the local used book store.

    I’ve been making a concerted effort in the past few years to eat closer to the earth, and this past August I stopped eating meat. I received Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” for Christmas which has also been instrumental in my becoming a more conscious person, about what I put in my body and where it comes from.

    And as vimmi said, I notice the same thing at the market as well. I have mostly fresh foods while other carts I see are sorely lacking in that department. I also see so many obese children it breaks my heart – they do not have power over that situation. I recently read a study that reported many parents of obese children do not recognize the problem at all, and that is very frightening.

    The difficulty is in getting these messages out there, when the marketing is on the other side.

  4. Thanks for the great book recommendation and summary! I often write about books too and find it hard not to put the whole darn book in my commentary. I just finished Omnivore’s Dilemma but didn’t realize there was a new Pollan book out, so I’m looking forward to reading it. I am in the middle of “What to Eat” by Marion Nestle. Its a technically dense yet very informative account of which foods are the best choices from produce to seafood, meat, dairy and eggs. Organic, local or “natural”? It has good information for those of us “mindful eaters” out there!

  5. I’m still nodding. It is surprising to know how moderation doesn’t have nearly as many supporters as it should.

  6. And you say you’re not a book reviewer, Bri… shame on you for lying! 😉

    I am definitely looking forward to reading this, even though it sounds like it covers some of the same ground as “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “What to Eat.” But then, every time I pick up a book like this and get inspired, I find new ways to lessen the amount of processed food that comes into my home… and to enjoy cooking from scratch some of the basic things I would ordinarily buy. I especially like how Pollan emphasizes the pleasure of food, because after years and decades of being told the “should”s and “shouldn’t”s it’s refreshing to have someone say, well, just eat already and enjoy it!

    I’m jealous that you get to hear him speak in person, too… a friend of mine saw/heard/met him last week, and she raved about his “megawatt smile” and engaging personality, on top of his message. Swoon! 🙂

  7. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful perspectives on food philosophy and Michael Pollan’s books.

    Anita – I have read most of Botany of Desire, but didn’t get Omnivore yet. It’s so true that sometimes people say such seemingly shocking things that we can’t hear it, let alone make changes based on it. And then those things start to become accepted and part of our thinking, and before we know it, we’re adopting those once terrifying suggestions. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Vimmi – Thank you for sharing your experience. I do so much shopping at the farmer’s market and local health food store these days, that I sometimes forget how most of America eats. Then I’m in the grocery store, and have to keep from staring at all the processed stuff people have been manipulated into thinking is food. Hmm.

    Misty – Hooray for supporting your local used bookstore! I heard an interview of Mark Bittman talking about his “…Vegetarian” book and thought about checking it out. He’s an interesting fellow as well. I know, it’s one thing if adults eat this way, but another with kids, since they don’t have a choice, and it sets in these awful patterns. Thanks for your comment.

    Becky – Pollan refers to Nestle’s work a few times in “In Defense of Food”. It made me curious to pick it up. Maybe I can get it from the library. There is so much conflicting information out there, that I really appreciate Pollan’s dedication to “pre-digesting” (so to speak) some of for us in order to simplify things and help us prioritize. Thanks for commenting!

    JEP – Thanks! I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of the book. It’s quite an eye-opener and a way to start some important conversations with family and friends as well. Great to see you!

    Shvetha – Thanks. It’s so true about moderation. Pollan points out in the book that the people of Okinawa have a practice of eating until you are 80% full. I’m sure that’s a wild concept to most Americans. It requires much closer communication with our bodies to do that. Thanks for your comment.

    Jennifer – Thanks! I wasn’t sure I could reign in all my thoughts cohesively enough, but it appears I have 🙂
    I find that even when I’ve heard the same point or perspective (on anything in life) multiple times, I come away with slightly more each time. Or I’ll have some big epiphany, or the person will say it from just the right angle to be totally new. Life is so interesting that way.
    It’s so true about the pleasures of eating. The Chinese have long held that the stomach begins at the mouth, and that we need to really enjoy what we put in it.
    I’ll do a little write-up of his talk, but it really was quite a treat, and a lively event. Thanks so much for dropping by.

  8. Thanks for your review, beautifully written and now I can’t wait to dive into the book! I’ve added you to my blogroll 🙂

  9. wow bri, what a post.

    this book sounds absolutely fascinating and also accessible enough so that every reader will be able to absorb the content and hopefully apply it to their daily lives. people will have quite a high mountain to climb to overcome the bad learned habits of an entire culture, but it sounds like Pollan inspires us to action. and it isn’t impossible to achieve, right?

    i am going to buy this book right away – thanks for the post!

  10. Gigi – Thanks so much! It really is fascinating and totally accessible. It really is a must read, and great fodder for conversation. It is a huge mountain to climb, but just think, farmers markets and affordable whole foods are popping up all over the country, so it’s getting easier to find good foods than it has in the last 20 years. I would love to know what you think of the book too. I haven’t talked with anyone else who’s read it yet. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

  11. Yes! I just started to listen to this book on CD (I commute daily) and am only 1 hour into it, but I can’t stop talking about it! This book confirms so many of the beliefs I have about food and what we’re putting into our bodies. It really is revolutionary and essential to our society.

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