“Eat Food” a Book Review: In Defense of Food By Michael Pollan

“Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”  —  “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”  — “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”  —

When I first opened Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and read the first three brief sentences “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.” I had to re read it three times.  There goes this book, I thought!  I was utterly disappointed at the thought of another new aged book focused on health, lacking any sort of reality of how we, especially New Yorkers, live our lives!  Based off the title I thought it was defending food and the divine thought of consuming it.  Yet, in the very first sentence of the book Pollan is telling me to eat less of it!  This was not going to work.

I was wrong.  Pollan was telling consumers to eat less of the market driven chemically induced “highly processed foodlike products” that now pose as nutritious “food” and to exchange that with….well…real food.

Pollan starts his introduction with the witty intro title An Eater’s Manifesto.  Being an avid eater myself, I was drawn to read on.   First he reminisces to where food and good cooking represented culture.  His mother grew up with traditional Jewish American food, which obtained its essence through Russian and Eastern European culture.  Alternatively Pollan grew up with the new age adventure cooking of his mother’s.  Cooking that was highly influenced by 1960s New York City, the vibrant Manhattan restaurants and the famous age of fantastic cooks such as Julia Child and Craig Claiborne.  Thorough this reminiscence, Pollan reminded me of childhood and how food, had such a strong influence on it.  It had a point, it came from somewhere, it had culture.  How could I have forgotten?  Many of us have forgotten.

But cultural food was not the bases of his book.  It was how food has progressed from food to processed unhealthy substances, and how it is influencing our lives.

Pollan does an excellent job of explaining in simple terms, the politics and manipulation of the food market.  He starts as early as 1912 when Liebig, who Pollan claims the father of modern nutritional science, discovered the existence of vitamins in food.

Moving on to the 1970s, we are told how Americans were advised to cut down on red meat, for health reasons.  Of course this suggestion was not to the liking of Senator McGovern, who had many South Dakota constituents in the business of cattle ranching.  Of course the wording of the suggestion was revised due to McGovern’s “influence”.  In response Pollan suggests “Say what you will about this or that food, you are not allowed officially to tell people to eat less of it or the industry in question will have you for lunch”.

That quote, though relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things leads to the history of food policy Pollan clearly, simply and chronologically lays out for his readers.  He goes on to explain how politics and market driven products influenced, and manipulated the food industry.  How money has led our food from being offered fresh to frozen, boxed and canned.  How the FDA essentially ignored constitutional law that was in existence to protect the health of the consumer, with the result of the law being changed in the FDA’s favor.  The reader was given a strong understanding of how vegetables left the food stands and boxed forms of nutrition added food started appearing in grocery aisles.  How the United States, becoming very vast and its citizens very demanding, need food to keep longer in order to cross the country.  Which of course leads to the adding of chemicals.

What I found particularly interesting was Pollan’s thoughts about new age nutritionisim and how he feels it is an ongoing fad.  Pollan not only claims, however backs himself up with an extensive amount of research, proving that the diet focused products, for those of us who feel we are on a health kick, is actually not as healthy as claimed.  In the 1970s “We did change our eating habits in the wake of the new guidelines, endeavoring to replace the evil fats at the top of the food pyramid with the good carbs spread out to the bottom.  The whole food industrial supply was reformulated to reflect the new nutritional wisdom, giving us low-fat pork, low- fat Snackwell’s, and all the low-fat pasta and high-fructose (yet low-fat!) corn syrup we could consume.  Which turned out to be quite a lot.  Oddly, Americans got really fat on their new low fat diet.”  Pollan claims the same is happening in the 21st century with low carb diets and nutrient filled (sugar filled) cereals.

Pollan also elegantly tackled the overly complex journey of what certain nutrients are, and what they mean to us.  He later explained how the lack of these nutrients has now led to the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases in our society.

Finally I admire Pollan for taking a different approach.  He, unlike other authors did not leave the reader in shock from all our knew found knowledge of food, in the middle of the grocery store aisle between the boxed “low fat” pastas and low cal nutrient filled cookies, dumbfounded as what to do next.  Pollan admits, considering what our grocery stores provide us, it is difficult to change our eating habits.  Thus he provides information on how to “Eat Food: Defined Food”.   The readers, after finding themselves angered about how our health is compromised by money and power, also finds easy, realistic solutions on how to change our diet to a plain and simple healthy diet.  He explains how to shop in the grocery store and what to avoid and why.  He reiterates plants are important and explained the nutritious value behind them.  Pollan gave all simple rules that I can actually remember while walking through a grocery store.   Which says a lot considering I generally have temporary lapses of compulsion and ADD at the grocery store.

Pollan’s run through the history of food, its nutrition and how it affects us was incredibly captivating. It provided me with a fusion of policy, academia, heated unforgiving gossip, and unknown truths, and did it in an eloquent, easy to understand fashion.  My only complaint about the book is that some of points do become repetitive, however oddly enough those points are the ones I recall the most.

Pollan ends the book on a positive note, allowing us to know the change to healthy food is possible, and is our choice.  “The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many things to worry about, but “health” is simply not one of them, because it is given”.

Photography from: greenbabyguide.com

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