Book review: In Defense of Food

By Philip Brewer on 29 January 2008 5 comments

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

The message of this book is simple: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Michael Pollan gives it away right at the start, so I don't feel too bad doing the same. If you already eat food, but you worry about health and nutrition, you'll find this book fascinating and important. If, on the other hand, you're the sort of person who tends to eat less food and more "edible substances" and "food products," you will instead find this book important and fascinating.

A lot has been made over the past decade or so of the so-called "French paradox"—French people eat a high-fat diet without suffering from the high rates of heart disease that often go along with a high-fat diet. (There's been a lot of research on whether drinking red wine has a protective effect.)

A good bit of research has gone into the "Mediterranean diet," with speculation that olive oil is better for you than other sources of fat.

Once you start looking, though, you find the "paradox" is not so much the exception as the rule. If you poke around in the diets of people living all over the world, you can find healthy people eating practically anything. People who live in the extreme north eat diets almost entirely of meat (because you can't grow much in the way of crops in the tundra). Ditto for people who live in the desert, for much the same reason. The Scots used to eat a diet of kale, barley, oats, with a bit of meat, cheese and butter. People who lived near the sea ate lots of fish, people who lived in the tropics ate lots of fruit. Any of those diets can be healthy.

There is one diet that has turned out to be crappy, though—the so-called Western diet that is eaten by most people in North America, Europe, and Australia. Why you can eat practically any other diet and be healthy—and how to shift from the Western diet to a healthy one—is the topic of the book.

The first part is about food—what it is, and especially what it isn't. (One short-hand way to guess: if your great-grandmother would recognize it as food, it probably is.) As I mentioned above, it seems that people can eat pretty much any diet and be healthy, as long as they eat food.

Why would people eat anything other than food? Well, one reason is because very clever people go to great lengths to create food-like substances that taste great. People have always added sugar and fat and salt to their food, because they taste good. Another reason is that food-like products can be cheaper than food. In recent decades, sugar and fat (especially in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) have become so incredibly cheap (largely due to government subsidies), that it has been possible to make food products that taste great and that are cheap. Taste and cost aren't the only reasons. Food products are often easier to store than food (which tends to be best when it is fresh). Food products make plausible claims to be "healthy," in order to attract people who worry about their health.

This section of the book does a great job of showing why those claims are mostly false. In fact, Pollan suggests a second rule-of-thumb for identifying food: if it makes a health claim, it probably isn't food.

The second part of the book suggests eating mostly plants. This, of course, arouses both the ire vegetarians (who find that to be the same as advocating meat-eating) and the disdain of meat-eaters (who are all-too-used to being attacked for their diet on ethical, environmental, health, and nutrition grounds). You can make a reasonable case for all these points, and Pollan doesn't really try to argue one side or the other, he just provides a bunch of useful information.

For example, plants make both omega-3 fatty acids (the good kind) and omega-6 fatty acids (the kind that eating too much of seems to be implicated in heart disease). However, the plant makes them for different purposes. The omega-6s are made mostly for energy storage and go into the seeds. The omega-3s are for other purposes, and are found in the leaves. That's why fish tend to be high in omega-3 fatty acids--they eat lots of algae, which is all leaf. Even fish that eat other fish are high in omega-3s, because the fish they eat ate lots of algae. The one exception is farm-raised fish, which tend to get fed fish-food made from corn. Much the same is true of meat. Wild game is high in omega-3s, because deer and other game animals eat lots of greens. Pasture-raised beef is, too. It's just feedlot beef that's so high in omega-6s, because they're fed corn.

Most of the environmental harm that the meat industry causes comes from large-scale factory meat production. If you quit feeding corn to cattle, and if you only raised the amount of cattle that could be grass-fed on marginal lands not well-suited for growing corn, both we and the cows would be much better off.

The third part talks about how to eat "not too much." Practically every culture has rules that govern eating—that make it a social activity, that determine when meals are to be eaten, what foods go together, how they should be served, and that specify social roles for preparing food and cleaning up afterward. Pollan's point is that essentially any of these cultural norms work fine, but that the Western diet has lost most of its own. Pollan suggests a few, drawn from various cultures. Among them: Eat meals. Try not to eat alone. Cook. If you can, grow a garden.

Almost as a side issue, the book destroys the notion of "nutritionism"—the idea that you can figure out what the good and bad stuff in food is and then create food products that contain plenty of the good stuff and keep the bad stuff to a minimum—a notion that Pollan blames for much of the ills of the Western diet. Food, Pollan says, is too complicated for people to break it down into its individual nutrients and then build it back up again into food products. You can do it, but what you get isn't as healthy as food, no matter how carefully you analyze the contents of food and no matter how carefully you add good stuff and leave out bad stuff.

Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma was a sweeping look at how people get their food in the modern age. I recommend it too, but it's a large book with a vast scope. In Defense of Food is a short, compact book with a straightforward message: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. You can read it in a few hours. It's well worth every minute.


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Lynn Truong's picture

I just picked up this book the other day since I'm a fan of The Omnivore's Dilemma, too. I look forward to another well written and insightful look at how we see our food.

Guest's picture

When did we get so alienated from our most basic needs and replace simple things that fortify us with things that come from a lab kitchen in a cardboard box shipped to our supermarket from thousands of miles away? It is so important to eat real food for many different reasons; sustainability, bonding with your family/community, disease prevention, cost, etc. I bought a box of Kashi bars to carry with me when I travel and they were almost $5/bar! I can make two servings of phad thai at home for that much! Gardening and eating fresh produce satisfies your senses as well as your appetite. The beef industry not only feeds their cattle corn, but some of them have their cattle be cannibals...otherwise, we wouldn't have any mad cow disease....sick thought. I agree that people should cook and share their meals....that way they are sharing an experience and being satisfied emotionally in the process. Thanks!

Guest's picture

My mom loves this book, and I will be inheriting it after she does her second read-through to take notes!

Guest's picture

Pollen's lengthly article in the New York Times is worth reading.

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Guest Susan Allport

Thought you'd be interested in this short omega-3 video from a book that Pollan recommends: