Posted by: hoppybottoms | July 25, 2011

Book Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

The speed at which I am going through my summer reading wish list is disappointing. It has been slow for a few reasons: 1) I have 3 jobs that take up my time 2) I read books that weren’t on the list 3) I was reading In Defense of Food, and it took me forever. Below is my review which will hopefully give you a better understanding of why it slowed me down so much. Now that I have finished the book and review is complete, I can continue on with my summer reading list; hopefully a little more quickly.

 

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

 

I chose to read this book because I wanted to educate myself about food. Attempting this vegan lifestyle can be challenging, not just for me but for the people in my life; They want to understand where I am coming from and how what I am doing can possibly make sense.

I had heard of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, also by Michael Pollan, but was warned by my friend Marisa (who you met here) that it was incredibly dense, packed with information, and kind of turned the reader off from food altogether. She did not recommend it. Then, I came across this other book that seemed shorter and maybe not so intense. I thought it would be a good way to educate myself because it isn’t about being vegan, it is about being a conscientious consumer of food products.

 

Here we go…

 

For starters this book is also PACKED with information. I honestly thought my head might explode.  It starts off by reviewing what he is calling “The Age of Nutritionism:” The idea that as a country we feel that the determination of what is good for us should be left to the scientists and nutritionists. However, he further explains that ever since we as a culture have been obsessed with this “healthy eating” idea (or Orthorexia: people with an unhealthy obsession of healthy eating. Google it.) and since we handed the food reins over from mom to nutritionists we have indeed gotten  fatter and sicker. He gives lots of scientific research examples and also discusses how the government has had the ability to control what we eat, many times risking our health for economic stabilization. This is a topic that is very hot (and very true) right now, and I believe that there is a museum exhibit at the Smithsonian that focuses on the same topic.

 

“The low-fat campaign coincided with a dramatic increase in the incidence of obesity and diabetes in America.” (pg. 58)

 

His reflection on the idea that we have managed to take the cultural and sociological need for food out of our thinking is indeed enlightening. After reading this, I realized I too am guilty of such a thing and am glad it has been brought to my attention. Family dinners at the table are few and far between and many times are not so much family dinners as a bunch of different meals, thrown together by different people, many of whom are sitting in front of a television or computer while eating. And why should I feel guilty when I want cake on my birthday? Cake is meant for celebration! The problem is we are so obsessed with the latest trend that the food industry has brainwashed us with, that we forget that there is a way to live and enjoy food.

The following comments from the book refer to a study he discusses throughout the book: “a third of us believe that a diet absolutely free of fat-a nutrient, lest you forget, essential to our survival-would be better for us than a diet containing just “a pinch” of it. In one experiment he showed the words “chocolate cake” to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response on the French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”

 The French eat fattier foods, and yet are thinner and HEALHTIER (less prone to things like Diabetes and Heart disease) than we are…

 The next section of the book goes on to describe “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization.”

 A group of Aborigines who had settled and adapted to a western way of living had as a group developed type two diabetes after changing to a western diet. A nutrition researcher had them return to their home “in the bush,” and return to the way they lived and ate before. In seven weeks, the diabetes had either greatly improved or completely disappeared from the members of this tribe. The point being this: we have to stop focusing on picking apart what is wrong with the diet one nutrient at a time, and consider in the context of life.

 “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.” (pg. 100)

 This section goes on to discuss the idea of being overfed and undernourished:

 “The Overwhelming majority of calories Americans have added to their diet since 1985-the 93% of them in the forms of sugars, fats, and mostly refined grains- supply lots of energy but very little of anything else.” (pg. 122)

 Our diet moving from leaves to seeds (kale to soy, for example) is also an important piece of information that is reviewed. Mostly because leaves provide us with vitamins, nutrients, and all the other stuff we keep buying a million different products to make sure we have. Eat greens daily, eat seeds less, and there will be less vitamin deficiencies and nutritional issues.

 “Gyorgy Scrinis, who coined the term “nutritionism,” suggests that the most important fact about any food is not its nutrient content but its degree of processing. He writes that “whole foods and industrial foods are the only two food groups I’d consider including in any useful food ‘pyramid.’” In other words, instead of worrying about nutrients, we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more a product of industry than of nature.” (Pg. 143)

 The final part of the book, which was the most interesting and applicable to life, “Getting Over Nutritionism,was that point at which the author revealed the rules by which he lives by when it comes to food. Below were my favorites items from his list but it is not all inclusive (read the book if you want the whole scoop).

 

1)      Eat mostly plants – see he isn’t a vegan (or vegetarian) but he recognizes that eating plants is the easiest way to stay healthy.

  1. Vegetarians are less susceptible to most of Western diseases and less likely to die from Western diseases
  2. We can live without meat but we can’t live without plants. Every nutrient in meat with the exception of B12 can be found in plants.
  3. “…Eating meat in the tremendous quantities we do (each American consumes an average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.” (Pg. 166)

2)      You are What You Eat Eats Too– another words what the chicken who laid your egg ate or the cow from which your burger came from ate, has a complete effect on your body.

  1. Eat grass-fed. Animals who eat a diet based mostly on seed (which unfortunately most do) get sick, which effects the products that they produce (dairy, meat). Most farms now use seeds because there are so many animals, and such high demand and soy beans and corn are cheap. Read labels. It is for your own good, not just some strange hippie idea about what we should eat.
  2. “Free Range”: doesn’t necessarily mean anything. “Pastured” and “Grass finished” or “100% grass fed” are what you are looking for on labels. “Grass fed” can be misleading, make sure it says 100%.

3)      Eat Like an Omnivore– introduce new species to your diet. This doesn’t mean “eat meat.” It means that vegetarians shouldn’t just eat broccoli and spinach. Introduce different “plant species into your diet as well. Eating different plants (and yes, even different animals), can open you open to lots of new nutritional options for your body.

4)      Eat Well Grown Food from Healthy Soils– Usually this means organic. But the author points out that there are healthy soils that have not been certified organic for whatever reason. This is why it is important to know where your food is coming from.

  1. Also, “organic” doesn’t automatically mean healthy. As he so cleverly points out: “Organic Oreos are not a health food.”

5)      Eat Wild Food When you Can– Everything is better straight from nature. This means wild animals and wild plants. But remember many species (plant and animal) are endangered, so be careful we don’t want to completely deplete them. This is particularly true of fish. Yes eating wild as opposed to farm raised fish is better, but our fish population is quickly diminishing.

6)      Regard Non-Traditional Foods with Skepticism- Natural is better than processed, most food innovations are processed.

7)      Pay More Eat Less–  I am true believer in spending money on good food. My husband not so much. I would rather spend extra money on food I know is better for me, is grown somewhere that I can support (and possibly even find), and that has been raised properly. Michael Pollan points out that the more nutritious the food, the less you will eat so it will somehow balance itself out.

8)      Eat Meals- Eat at the table. Eat with your family. Stop snacking. Eat vegetables with dinner (and breakfast and lunch, too!). You get the idea.

9)      Eat Slowly- Food should be an enjoyable experience. Also, the slower you eat the less you eat.

10)  Cook and if You Can Plant a Garden- I don’t think this needs an explanation.

 

 

I would recommend this book. But if you are someone who easily gets turned off by facts and figures you may want to skip to the last section when he discusses the items from the list I just gave.

 

The take away from this book: Stop buying junk. If it comes in a box, it has probably been processed beyond recognition. Stay on the outskirts of the grocery store. Read labels. Remember, food is about culture, and family, it shouldn’t be associated with guilt and unhappiness. If we stick to eating “food” like plants, whole grains, and fruits, rather than the junk that comes in packages we will be healthier, happier people.

 

4 out 5 Stars

 

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