June 27, 2009

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan
Nonfiction - Cultural Studies
2008 Penguin Books
Winner of the James Beard Award
Finished on 6/11/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.
~ Wendell Berry

Publisher's Blurb:

Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it?

Because in the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion—most of what we're consuming today is no longer the product of nature but of food science. The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American Paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become. With In Defense of Food, Pollan proposes a new (and very old) answer to the question of what we should eat that comes down to seven simple but liberating words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pollan's bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we can start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives, enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy, and bring pleasure back to eating.

While I'm not a vegan or even a vegetarian, I have always been a bit of a health food nut. I eat lots of vegetables and fruit. Not too much red meat. Fish at least once or twice a week. I gave up margarine and squishy white bread years ago. I prefer dark chocolate and red wine over milk chocolate and sodas. Unless we've decided to watch a DVD while eating, my husband and I eat all our meals (including breakfast and lunch on the weekends) together at the dining room table. I can't remember the last time I ate in a car.

But don't get me wrong. I love Lays potato chips, Dove Bars, peanut M&Ms, and an ice cold beer as much as the next person. I love New York strip steaks medium rare and baked potatoes loaded with butter, sour cream, bacon and cheese. I love hash browns and cheeseburgers and nachos (with real cheese, not that fake orange stuff they glop all over the tortilla chips at a baseball game). I love donuts and Bunny Tracks ice cream and Hershey Bars with Almonds.

To me, it's all about moderation. I don't deny myself those insanely fattening items, but I also know that I have absolutely no will power, so I don't stock them in my house. I treat myself when I know I've been eating well for an extended period of time. This works for me and I don't feel deprived. Of course, now I'm craving everything, and tonight's meal is more along the lines of healthy rather than decadent. Sigh. So, back to the book...

I thoroughly enjoyed Pollan's journalistic style (informative without getting too bogged down in the science) and plan to read The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, and The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. I'm also quite interested in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, as well as Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall. Oh, and, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.

And then, of course, there are the movies, Food, Inc. and King Corn.

So, just how much did I like this book? Well, there are 201 pages of text. I highlighted 73 pages (36% of the book). I think that's a record! And just what did I come away with after reading this book? Well, I'm so glad you asked. :)

  • Eating a little meat isn’t going to kill you, though it might be better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products.
  • If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
  • Part of what drove my grandparents’ food culture from the American table was official scientific opinion, which, beginning in the 1960s, decided that animal fat was a deadly substance.
  • Sooner or later, everything solid we’ve been told about the links between our diet and our health seems to get blown away in the gust of the most recent study.
  • Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity.
  • No people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans do—and no people suffer from as many diet-related health problems.
  • All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy.
  • ...many date the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes to the late 1970s, when Americans began bingeing on carbohydrates, ostensibly as a way to avoid the evils of fat.
  • ...the sheer abundance of food in America has bred “a vague indifference to food, manifested in a tendency to eat and run, rather than to dine and savor.”
  • In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance, to dust off a word, than most of us do today. A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap, and easy. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and little more than an hour enjoying them.
  • HOW a culture eats may have just as much of a bearing on health as WHAT a culture eats.
  • ...the French eat very differently than we do. They seldom snack, and they eat most of their food at meals shared with other people. They eat small portions and don’t come back for seconds. And they spend considerably more time eating than we do. Taken together, these habits contribute to a food culture in which the French consume fewer calories than we do, yet manage to enjoy them far more.
  1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  2. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.
  3. 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
  4. Avoid food products that make health claims. For a food to make a health claim on it’s package it must first HAVE a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.
  5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  6. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. When you eat from the farmers’ market, you automatically eat food that is in season, which is usually when it is most nutritious.
  7. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  8. You are what what you eat eats too.
  9. If you have the space, buy a freezer. Freezing (unlike canning) does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce.
  10. Eat like an omnivore.
  11. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
  12. Eat wild foods when you can.
  13. Be the kind of person who takes supplements. We know that people who take supplements are generally healthier than the rest of us, and we also know that, in controlled studies, most of the supplements they take don’t appear to work. Probably the supplement takers are healthier for reasons having nothing to do with the pills: They’re typically more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent. So to the extent you can, be the KIND of person who would take supplements, and then save your money.
  14. Eat more like the French or the Italians or the Japanese or the Indians or the Greeks.
  15. Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism. Innovation is interesting, but when it comes to something like food, it pays to approach novelties with caution.
  16. Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.
  17. Have a glass of wine with dinner.
  18. Pay more, eat less.
  19. Eat meals.
  20. Do all your eating at a table.
  21. Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  22. Try not to eat alone.
  23. Consult your gut.
  24. Eat slowly.
  25. Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.

I love to cook. And my husband isn't a picky eater. Making a slow change to eat more mindfully is going to be fairly easy for us. We're not planning any major changes, but over time, I think we'd both like to move away from the processed "foods" (i.e. non-dairy creamer, Splenda, whole wheat bread with high-fructose corn syrup, etc.) We had fun at the farmer's market this past weekend and plan to return every week. We're toying with the idea of building raised beds so we can grow our own vegetables next summer, but we may decide to admit early defeat to the huge rabbit population in our backyard and rely on the local farmers to supply us with their bounty.

In Defense of Food was my book club's selection for June. We had a record turnout for the discussion (not sure if that had more to do with the book or the fact that we knew we would wind up sitting around a swimming pool on a 90+ degree evening!). In any event, almost everyone read the book and thought it was quite good. Some members felt they already knew most of what Pollan presented, yet I thought it was more a case of a light-bulb moment rather than just affirming what I already knew. A few others mentioned that they thought the book was a bit repetitive. I have to agree, although it wasn't something that bothered me as I was reading.

It's been almost three years since I read French Women Don't Get Fat. (Click on title to read my review.) I remember feeling the same enthusiasm after finishing that book as I do now. There are definite similarities between Pollan's doctrine and that espoused in Guiliano's book
. I suppose a lot of it boils down to common sense.

Final thoughts?

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.


Moderation in all things, including moderation.

Listen to this wonderful CBC Radio interview with Pollan here. (Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page.)

For a list of more interviews, go here.


  1. There's is so much in your post that I could comment on so I'll try to concentrate on a few:
    1-I need to read this book
    2-We are NOW eating healthier
    3-I don't buy the goodies...we would definitely overindulge in them
    4-Once we bought fat-free ice cream-hated it, so I put it in the sink and forgot about it. The next morning it had not melted at all!! Scary to think what this supposed "FAT-FREE" ice cream would be doing to our arteries!!

    Excellent and informative review!

  2. Excellent review, Les. I know I don't spend as much time cooking as I did when my children were living at home. My mother always prepared well-rounded meals and we enjoyed our meals at the table. I followed that pattern until my children started leaving home and I became a full-time teacher. That period of time got me hooked on fast-food. Now that I'm retired I view cooking as a hobby more than a daily ritual. I do realize the value of that daily ritual, both the preparing food and eating at the table. Candleman and I would benefit greatly. He is not picky and even enjoys helping in the kitchen, so why don't we do it more?!

    We have grow boxes and the plants are growing healthily, but nothing is ready to eat yet. I would love to live where there were weekly farmer's markets.

    I think I'll check out this book, because I need to be inspired, motivated and kick in the seat of the pants on a regular basis. I know better, I just need to DO better. Thanks for pumping me up with your review.

  3. Great review. I loved this book, too, and was thrilled when it was assigned reading for my daughter's 10th grade health class! The Omnivore's Dilemma was a good audiobook, and I enjoyed Kingsolver's book, too.

  4. Great review. I'd also recommend "Real Food" by Nina Planck.

  5. It's so true, only a right balance of healthy fresh food makes the difference. Even red meat is important because of its high content of iron, vitally important for our body.

  6. Wow. Awesome review. I've had this on my list, but now I REALLY want to read it! LOL!!

  7. Staci - Yes, this is well-worth reading! It's very quick and easy, too. Thanks for the heads-up about fat-free ice cream. I've always felt, if I'm going to indulge in something like ice cream (or baked potatoes), I'm going to eat it without worrying about fat-free this or fat-free that. It's not like I have it on a regular basis.

    Glad you enjoyed the review.

    Booklogged - I know how easy it is to get away from cooking when it's just the two of you. I do more grilling and less "real" cooking in the summer simply because I don't like to spend that much time in the kitchen. I need to expand my summer menu so we don't get bored with grilled chicken, salmon, burgers and steak. I think we're already there!

    Our farmer's markets only run from May to October. I wish I lived somewhere in which they ran year-round!

    Hope you enjoy the book. It's a fairly quick read.

    JoAnn - Thank you! I was a little worried the review was too long.

    What a great book to read in high school. I'll bet the kids had a lot to discuss. Wonder how many of them went home and told their parents they were eating all the wrong stuff! ;)

    Glad to hear the Kingsolver book is good, too.

    Pam - Thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely take a look at it.

    Sikantis - Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your visit here.

    Holly - Thank you so much! Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

  8. Hi Les, I was trying to post a comment on this last week but the window would not open up - annoying!

    I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I did too, as well as some of the other ones you mentioned. If you liked this, I definitely recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma - amazing stuff. That is more of a why, where this newer book is more of a how-to. Your farmers' market loot looks amazing - gorgeous tomatoes. Did you go again this week?

  9. Tara - Glad you were finally able to leave a comment! Thanks for the recommendation for The Omnivore's Dilemma. I'm pretty sure my husband wants to read this one, too, so it's high on my TBR list.

    No, we didn't get to the Farmer's Market this weekend. We're heading out of town in a few days and I didn't want to buy a bunch of stuff that would wind up spoiling before we have a chance to eat it up. We'll go again later this month, though.


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!