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Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

Posted July 28, 2008 6:00 AM by julie

Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto is the author's follow-up work to The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you read The Omnivore's Dilemma you might have been left with questions like I was, namely, "OK now I know all this about food what should I eat?" A lot of people asked the author the same question and his answer was this book, In Defense of Food. The Omnivore's Dilemma was reviewed here earlier this year and you can read the reviews here: Part I and Part II.

The author starts off with the bold statement that most of what we Westerner's are consuming isn't actually food. Starting with the refining of flour in the 1870's, we've moved as a society from eating foods to eating nutrients. Foods have been broken down into their nutrient components, and nutritionism at its heart ascribes to the tenant that foods are the sum of their nutrient parts; and some nutrients are good for us and others are bad. Pollan questions the validity of this position as dietary guidelines are framed in terms of nutrients and we are eating according to these guidelines, but we're getting fatter and sicker. We're told to eat less of the bad nutrients but more of good nutrients, and we do! But we're eating more than we are giving up, and according to Pollan, "a whole lot more, at least 300 more calories a day than we consumed in 1985."

In the second part of his book Pollan takes a hard look at the Western diet and questions the idea that dietary fat leads to chronic illness. In the 1970s when saturated fats were pointed to as the primary evil behind heart disease, Americans shifted the balance in their diets from fats to carbohydrates. But, while fat as a percentage of total calories declined, we never cut down on our total consumption of fat, we just ate more of other things. This led to an increase in the incidence of both obesity and diabetes in America. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight and a third of us are on the road to type 2 diabetes.

Nutritionism supports a convergence of interests among manufacturers of processed foods, marketers and nutritional scientists. Nutritionism gives food scientists a job, it allows manufacturers to ever further refine their products to include the latest in fashion nutrient (just look at Omega-3 fatty acid, it's everywhere!) and it allows marketers to then slap health claims on just about everything (Is that sugary cereal REALLY 'heart healthy?'). According to Pollan, a staggering thirty-two billion dollars a year is spent advertising the various "food" products that line the grocery store shelves. It's no wonder we don't know what to eat or how to eat it!

So again, what should we eat and how should we eat it? Pollan's answer is: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. And he has a few tips on how to do so. I won't list them all here, but give you a few of the choice ones that resonated with me.

  • Avoid products containing ingredients that are A) Unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More than 5 in number or that include D) High-Fructose Corn Syrup.
  • Avoid products that make health claims
  • You are what you eat eats too
  • Eat well grown foods from healthy soils
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Eat meals, at a table, with other people

I really enjoyed this book. I found it a well researched and thoughtful follow-up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. It provided an in depth analysis of what Pollan sees as wrong with our current Western diet. It gives many tips on how to alter this diet, some easy, some of medium difficulty and some very difficult, but all ultimately achievable. Even if you can adopt a just few of these lifestyle changes, which I am trying to do, it will take you off the path of poor health that the Western diet has set us on.

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#1

Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 11:53 AM

Great summary, Julie. Pollan also wrote a book called "Unhappy Meals" that shines a harsh light upon the science of nutritionism. I referenced it (briefly) in a blog entry from a few years ago, but I'm reminded of it whenever I see advertisements for products such as "Joint Juice" or "Vitamin Water".

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#2

Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 4:20 PM

One of my buddies (who is an absolute physical specimen) sees eating simply as adding fuel to the tank. He has changed his eating style to reflect the fact that the body has not changed, from an evolutionist's point of view, very much since the Paleolithic era. We have, however, quickly developed (by comparison) all of the processing techniques and thereby changed both the makeup of our food and how our body can break it down, greatly.

He has been embarking on something known as the Paleolithic diet, with the ideology that the body can best process what it was designed to originally process: that which you can hunt or gather. That doesn't mean you have to eat squirrel from your front yard or berries from a wild bush. If you can hunt it (and it is in a grocery store - beef, pork, chicken, fish, etc.) or gather it (fruits, nuts, vegetables...and road kill, I guess) then it is fair game.

When one of my athletes ask if she could have Cheerios™, he asked her, "Can you hunt Cheerios™ or pick 'em off a tree? No? Then no."

Seems like Polan's book lends some additional credence to this movement that is gaining popularity.

I have been "Goin Paleo" for most days for lunch during the work week. Even though I keep it simple (fruit, salad, etc.), I could see where adding eggs and meat (primarily protein) could help my afternoon appetite.

By contrast, I have felt great eating that simply. No stomach aches or indigestion (and keep in mind that lunch is surrounded by about a quart of coffee before and after). No headaches or sugar rushes (granted with the caffeine, it might be hard to notice. No afternoon lull.

Thanks for the review. I think I might pick this up.

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 4:42 PM

The only problem with the hunting and gathering idea is that it is becoming increasingly harder to obtain such foods due to hormone additives. I agree that our food should consist of the basics - but it is somewhat unrealistic. Like you said, you eat well during work-week lunch. By the time the weekend rolls around, I find that I just want to eat the quickest thing possible. Unfortunately, highly processed foods in pre-packaging are the best choices for that.

We, as Americans, have a great opportunity to turn around our misfortune (obesity, diabetes, coronary problems, etc.), but with the hustle and bustle, it is becoming increasingly difficult.

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 4:53 PM

Jaxy,

With the economy dragging and healthy food suffering from great price increases, I think we will continue to see obesity become a major problem, particularly for the lower classes, but also for the middle class as members struggle to make money, spending more time at work and less exercising or preparing quality meals. When I am really, really busy, the number of "meals" I have from Stewart's (gas station) increases - that's not good!

I know that after 10 or 11 hours in the office today, and after my 45 minute commute home, the quick pizza sounds a lot more doable than taking an hour to cook a quality meal. But I am trying to avoid making permanent obesity a destiny, so I will cook - whatever is in the fridge, that is. And since I spend most of that 10 or 11 hours planted at my desk, that is going to be an epic battle.

It seems like people are working more hours than ever before and that will only compound of national health epidemic: the unstaunchable rise in obesity and Type II diabetes.

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#5
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Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 5:07 PM

>.>

<.<

I was agreeing with you silly! I was merely stating that with the onslaught of nutrition taking hold of today's Americans, we are more informed (unfortunately the bad comes with the good in the form of misinformation) than we were. We know not to eat pre-packaged meals because they are bad for you, but like you said, the increasing time spent working is less time for cooking/preparing quality meals!

As bad as things are, we have all the chances in the world to change it - but like you noted, the likelihood of change to that magnitude is nearly impossible with the foibles of humanity (in particular junky snacks!).

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#6
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Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 5:11 PM

A double silly at you then!

I was agreeing with your agreement; what you were saying made me think about further.

I think I just killed a fleet of brain cells.

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#7
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Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 5:24 PM

I keep reading the previous reviews about the 'Omnivore's Dilemma' and I have decided that the only way to be healthy is to have an intense 'victory garden' and cows, chickens and pigs on the side. Someone should formulate a list on local farms that do things right. I am being increasingly compelled to get these books!

Well, when you titled your post 'Jaxy', it sounded like we were going to have to have a 'disco throw-down'! I knew you were replying to me without introducing your post as 'Jaxy'.

A fleet of brain cells?! Perhaps you should take the time off to prepare a meal that is mindless :D

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Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/28/2008 5:31 PM

Ha! Agreed.

I also wonder if communal farming might have some pull. I know that mention commune in this country is enough to get me hauled off to the extremist bin, but I am thinking more of a community (neighborhood) community garden/pasture).

That being said, I know jack about raising cows and chickens. I bet there is blog about it somewhere, though!

Disco throw-down. Classic.

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#9
In reply to #7

Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/29/2008 8:58 AM

Jaxy,

"Someone should formulate a list on local farms that do things right"...Try shopping at your local farmer's market. Click this link to see the farmer's market closest to you: Local Harvest. Most often the foods that are offered there are pesticide and hormone free, and there are a variety of choices from meats and cheeses, to fruits, vegetables and baked goods. Now is the best time of year to go to as things are in season. And while farmer's market fare is traditionally more expensive than shopping at your local Price Chopper or what-have-you, with rising fuel and production costs associated with industrial agriculture the prices at farmer's markets are becoming more competitive. And the food tastes that much better!

Thanks!

Julie

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#10
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Re: Book Review: In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto

07/29/2008 9:17 AM

Perfect! This is exactly what I was looking for! I find that price competition is good. Thumbs up to a great and informative blog!

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