Book Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

I have finally read this book and in some ways, I’m glad I read it, but in others, I wasn’t blown away by it.  I’m starting to read books about food culture and the ethics revolving around it because my ethics class wanted to discuss the ethics surrounding animals.  I’ve never taught that before so I thought I’d quickly do some research and learn as much as I can.  But I was also hoping to see if I could use some books for the class.

Although this is a good book, I’m not going to use it for my class.  Perhaps if the class topic was concentrated solely around food I would.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

So what’s this book about?  I can summarize the book in  seven words.  It’s the same seven words that Pollan uses:  Eat Food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants. What does he mean by these simple words?

Pollan starts off by describing the history of the food industry.  Basically, starting in the 1950’s, scientists began to look at food at a microscopic level and understood what vitamins and certain minerals are.  They understood what each vitamin does to each body and how it affects us.  This view is what Pollen calls nutritionism.  Basically, it’s a form of reductionism where the food can be broken down to its barest elements.  So are you sick?  No problem, you’re probably deficient in some sort of mineral.  All ailments can be reduced down to some vitamin or mineral.  Pollen critiques this view.  He says that we cannot eat our food based on what it has.  That’s because each of us are different, and the foods we eat react to each individual.  The scientists study bagels, tomatoes, and cottage cheese.  The problem with this is that we just don’t eat these by themselves.  Sure we eat bagels, but spread some peanut butter and our body will react totally differently.  Indeed, if you study bagel and how it reacts to the body, then study peanut butter and how it reacts to the body.  You can’t combine these two studies because the combination of bagels + peanut butter has a totally different reaction to the body.  It’s the same thing with tomatoes and cottage cheese.  In other words, the sum of the parts is less than the whole thing.  We must look at food holistically instead of reducing it down to its bare elements.

So what does this mean?  Our food science has reduced our foods into the simplest quantities, but they leave out quality.  Whenever we’re deficient in some vitamin, we can say, “No problem.  I’ll just buy some bread that’s fortified with Vitamin C.  That way, I’m getting m vitamin C.  Problem solved.”  The problem with this is that even though you’re getting your Vitamin C, you’re still missing the “stuff” that you would be getting if you ate the orange.  Indeed, Pollan goes on to say that your Sara Lee loaf of bread isn’t actually bread; it’s “bread-like substance.”  Indeed, I’ll agree with him and say that the Go-gurt isn’t really yogurt, but it’s “yogurt-like substance.”  Real yogurt is milk, whey, and cultures.  Thus, this is what Pollan means when he says Eat Food.

What does Pollan mean by Not Too Much?  There’s an interesting paradox that’s happening in France.  People have dubbed it the “French Paradox.”  The paradox is how can Americans be so concerned with being healthy, yet they’re the fattest nation in the world?  At the same time, how can the French eat all of this chocolate, eat foods filled with saturated fat, and drink gallons of wine, yet they are realy healthy?  Pollan looks at various studies and the results are remarkable.  If you went to France and asked them, “when do you stop eating?”  The French answer is, “when I’m full.”  It’s seems like common sense right?  Well, Americans give a different answer.  The answers range from “when my plate is empty,” “when there’s no more seconds,” “when the TV show is over,” “when everyone else has stopped eating.”  Pollan points out that when it comes to food, the food scientists are missing something that can never be reduced to its bare minimum, and that’s food culture.  Americans typically continue to eat in response to the environment; the French eat with internal feelings.  I admit, I’m guilty of this.  When I go to a restaurant with some friends, I order something even though I just recently ate.  When I’m at some gathering, I still eat something from the snack table even though I’m full.  We eat when there’s food around, which could explain our expanding waistlines.  Pollan suggests we must look at our food culture, (perhaps this will eventually become a subject in college?), and this is the key to eating well.

Finally, his last bit of advice: Mostly plants.  Meat, compared to vegetables, has little nutritional quality: protein, iron, and a few vitamins and minerals.  Vegetables and fruits pack in more quality, mainly antioxidents.  Also, it’s because studies show that if your diet consists of mostly red meat, your chances of getting heart disease and cancer are higher.  Thomas Jefferson noted that meat shouldn’t be the main dish of our meals; rather, it should be more like a side dish or a complement to the vegetables.  It’s the vegetables that makes us healthy, not our meats.  This isn’t to say that Pollan is defending vegetarianism, he’s saying that we shouldn’t rely so much on meat.  Finally, he says drink a glass of (red) wine with our meals.

Overall, it’s a good book.  He gives some nice advice in the end about how to shop and what to look for in grocery stores.  He also provides some links which I’ll provide on the blog roll.

CRITICISM: My only problem with this is that I can’t but help but think that Pollan has this idea of, “Wasn’t the good ol’ days the best?  We had good food back then, but now, we’re bombarded with food that really isn’t food.”  Now I’m young, so I can’t compare our foods with the food they had in the 50s, but this seems to be nostalgic.  Perhaps I’m missing something, but Pollan’s arguments seem to be saying, “The days before nutritionism were good food.  We must go back to that time period.”  Now of course, he isn’t saying we should reverse technology, but I’m willing to bet that one can still find good food in our ubiquitous market that is still healthy but what Pollan would consider nonhealthy.  Perhaps someone out there who’s reading this can shed some light onto this.

I really enjoyed his view that food just isn’t a biological thing, but it’s also a cultural thing too.  Maybe one day, our universities will teach food culture as a class.  Until then, I say that if you want to look  at how our food culture and industry has changed within the last 50 years, read this book.  3.5 stars out of 5.

Update 2/22: I’ve mentioned this book from another blog about demi-vegetarianism that relates to other books and issues if you want to check it out.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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11 Responses to Book Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

  1. thekillerj says:

    I thought the part about Americans eating in response to the environment while the French eat in response to internal feelings was interesting. I had a psych. class called Motivation and Emotion where researchers proved the strong influence environmental cues have on us, and attributed it to a primitive response in the Ventral Tegmentum Area (pleasure center)of the brain. I don’t remember the researchers claiming it to be a problem specific to Americans, but I’m pretty sure the study was done here. That’s interesting that our brains may be hard wired (nature? nurture?) differently than the French.

    As far as the meat stuff, did he say anything about poultry and fish? These are pretty lean, clean versions of meat that play a central role in keeping our metabolism moving. Veggies, by themselves, do not do much in the way of jump starting metabolism despite their enormous nutritional value. This is obviously a problem for the obese vegetarian. Also, I’m reading a book called Body Rx that talks about other causes of obesity, such as the correlation between obesity rates skyrocketing in the U.S. and the introduction of high fructose corn syrup.

    Our body has what’s called a nutrient partitioning agent that directs macronutrients to their appropriate area based on the body’s needs. Think of it like a traffic cop directing traffic; sending carbs, fats, and proteins off to their respective routes. For some reason (I forgot the mechanism of action), fructose confuses the traffic cop into sending most of the macronutrients to fat storage while the body utilizes its own muscle for energy. Just some food for thought. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.

    Finally, the guy’s “good ol’ days” attitude has some merit. Modern food processing/growing technology strips many of the vital nutrients that were inherent in food back in the old days. Our meat is packed with HgH, our veggies and grain foods are stripped of nutrients and fiber, and our fish have three eyes. I saw it on the Simpsons.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Pollan does mention something about how corn in general is part of the problem. It’s in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma which I plan on reading sometime. It’s interesting that you mention that study about motivation and emotion. Pollan doesn’t mention about the hardwiring of French vs. American brains. My guess that it’s nurture.

    As for the fish and poultry, Pollan doesn’t mention the specific kinds of meats. I think he just classifies meat in general and says that eating meat is all right, but don’t rely on it as part of a main meal. Basically, the majority of our meals should be plants instead of meats.

    There was another interesting thing that I forgot to mention. With nutritionism (the idea that we can reduce foods to their essential parts), scientists have tried to find the culprit on what’s making food unhealthy. I thought it was fascinating that through each century, scientists have had different opinions. In the 19th century, the scientists and food critics thought that protein was the problem. And so they recommended eating mostly breads and staying away from meat. Indeed, that’s when Kellogg started to make cereal like Corn Flakes. Then in the 20th century, the culprit was fat. Fat makes you fat so you should aim for low-fat or nonfat items. Now, starting in the 21st century, the culprit is carbs.

    Pollan just wants to say “stop!” The problem isn’t trying to find this isolating thing and try to get as little of it as you can, that’s actually the problem. We must look at food holistically. The reason why we’re unhealthy isn’t because of this one thing, but it’s because we’re not eating food. And by food, he means these substitutes that has more than 30 ingredients. It’s basically the same stuff that I mentioned above.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    I found a great summary of Pollan’s advice where he breaks down the Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants. I get this from this website. Here is the break down.

    Eat Food

    1. Don’t eat anything your great grand-mother wouldn’t recognize as food: 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: Shake the hand that feeds you.

    Mostly Plants

    1. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves: did you know that the average American eats 200 pound of meat per year?
    2. You are what what you eat eats too.
    3. If you have the space, buy a freezer.
    4. Eat like an omnivore.
    5. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils: “it stands to reason that a chemically simplified soil would produce chemically simplified plants.”
    6. Eat wild foods when you can: lamb’s quarters and purslane, wild game meat, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are good bets.
    7. Be the kind of person who takes supplements.
    8. Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.
    9. Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.
    10. Don’t look for the magic bullet int he traditional diet.
    11. Have a glass of wine with dinner.

    Not Too Much

    1. Pay more, eat less: Okinawan’s say hara hachi bu, eat until you are eighty percent full.
    2. Eat meals: didn’t there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between meal snack?
    4. Do all your eating at a table: your desk is not a table.
    5. Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
    6. Try not to eat alone.
    7. Consult your gut.
    8. Eat slowly.
    10. Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.

  4. thekillerj says:

    Wow, I do pretty dang good according to the guidelines you posted. I am all about balance. My typical meal this week has been 1/4 head of broccoli, handful of mini carrots, handful of cherry tomatoes, and either chicken breast or fish fillet.

  5. thekillerj says:

    Also, I’ve really started staying away from packaged meals with a million unpronounceable ingredients. Good topic man.

  6. shaunmiller says:

    Man, you eat healthier than I do. I try, but with a busy life, things must sacrifice. It’s pretty sad that what’s being sacrificed is health. Julie and I are trying to cook more often though. Hopefully, we can get away from packaged meals too.

  7. thekillerj says:

    It’s all about preplanning. I work three jobs (Mill Creek, the group home, and the halfway house), have a wife to keep happy, exercise four times a week, train mixed martial arts twice a week, working on a research project, and hang out with friends once a week. I’m busy as shit!

    What I do is cook a crap load of food Sunday evening, which takes one hour. I then store it in the fridge and pack up a lunch cooler every day with all my meals. If you have a microwave at the university, that’s all you need.

    Pin a rose on my freakin’ nose, bro. haha

  8. Pingback: Pages tagged "in defense of food"

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