In Defense of Food

Just before I left for Spain, a friend gave me a copy of Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto.  I wasn’t sure what to make of the title (let alone the sub-title!) but figured I’d give it a look during that first part of the plane flight (to Spain) when you are required to shut off all your electronics.  So, I opened the book during the “taxi-before-take-off” and didn’t stop until I finished it.

Pollan kicks right off with three simple “sentences”:  “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

He explains, “That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”

Pollan observes that up until the mid-20th century, Americans tended to eat food… whole foods.  Then we got all scientific and became obsessed with breaking these foods down into nutrients and vitamins.  Pollan argues that Baby-Boomers are the products of “Nutritionism,” a mindset that rests on the fallacy “that for every good nutrient, there must be a bad nutrient to serve as its foil, the latter a focus for our food fears and the former for our enthusiasms.”

Or, to put it another way, “… at all times there must be an evil nutrient for adherents to excoriate and a savior nutrient for them to sanctify. At the moment, trans fats are performing admirably in the former role, omega-3 fatty acids in the latter.”  Most of us can probably think of some food stuffs that have switched back and forth between “good“ and “bad” during our lifetimes.

Not only does Pollan believe that we Americans win the prize for the world’s worst diet, he indicts capitalist and political forces for conspiring to exert undue influence on our leaders (e.g., farm lobby groups) and then turning the resulting problems into business opportunities (e.g., insulin pumps, diet pills, by-pass surgeries, etc.).  The result is a “complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets.”

So, what can we do?  In a chapter titled “Escape from the Western Diet,” Pollan suggests:

1) Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.  (Along with that, don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.)

2) Avoid food products containing ingredients that are: a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.

3) Avoid food products that make health claims.

4) Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

5) Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. (“You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market.”)

In short, Pollan states, “Instead of worrying about nutrients, we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature.”

Talk about “food for thought!”  Onward,  Malcolm Gauld