Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Eat Food"

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto is Michael Pollan's new book. Its motto -- "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." Food, he insists, is distinct from "an unending stream of foodlike substitutes." Learning to identify, purchase, and consume food -- not substitutes -- is one of the main thrusts of the advice-giving part of the book. (p. 147)

In a way, I feel as if I've read much of it before, in Pollan's New York Times articles and previous books. But he makes compelling points about the problems of nutritionism: his word for the reductionist science that tells us that healthful eating requires analysis and consciousness of the composite chemicals in food. Much of the book is about the limitations of nutritionism and how it misses the big picture.

Here are a couple of major points from the book:

The "Western diet" is the way we eat in the USA today -- "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything -- except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains." This diet is associated with "a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer." Further: "...traditional diets that the new Western foods displaced were strikingly diverse: Various populations thrived on diets that were what we'd call high fat, low fat, or high carb; all meat or all plant; indeed there have been traditional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine. What this suggests is that the human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them." (p. 10-11)

About the so-called French paradox: " seems unlikely that any single food, nutrient, or mechanism will ever explain the French paradox; more likely, we will someday come to realize there never was a paradox. Dietary paradoxes are best thought of as breakdowns in nutritionist thinking, a sign of something wrong with the scientific consensus rather than the diet in question." (p. 178)

Pollan belongs to a trend that's questioning big agriculture, big science, big supermarket biz, big food processing. His approach is challenging because it's also counter to so much that we have learned is "known" by science, but that really doesn't explain many of the unhappy facts of modern life. A good book, I think.

1 comment:

Mae Travels said...

Evelyn emailed this question: "I read the blog about the book that refers to some edible stuff as
"not food." Does brie count as food or not food? What about wine and beer? Because they are all just as processed as other more modern
edible stuff, just a longer history of it."

My answer: "Pollan says you should consider something to be food if your grandmother or maybe great-grandmother would have eaten it. He dislikes modern chemistry and the idea that you can identify separate substances that are good in isolation from their original food context. As you know, he especially hates corn and soy derivatives.

"So cheese, bread, wine, beer, and even home-made cake would be fine with his "food" definition. I don't think his ideas are 100% consistent, but I think he does make a good point about the exaggerated nature of the "western" diet."