In Defense Of Food
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” That’s the subtitle of Michael Pollan’s excellent In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and, as he admits, an apt summary of it’s argument. As a statement about proper eating, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is almost trite in its simplicity. The genius of Pollan’s book […]
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
That’s the subtitle of Michael Pollan’s excellent In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and, as he admits, an apt summary of it’s argument. As a statement about proper eating, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is almost trite in its simplicity. The genius of Pollan’s book is the way he opens up each of the statements in that sentence to reveal so much of what is wrong with contemporary eating habits, industrialised food and the cult of nutritionism.
“Mostly plants” might sound like a call to some kind of semi-vegan mentality but that is not the case. What Pollan outlines is the extent to which the western/industrial approach to food is built on grains and seeds, rather than plants themselves and the extent to which the stuff of everyday fast food is grain and especially corn-based. This is a stark contrast with most traditional diets (especially the much vaunted Mediterranean ones), which feature a lot less meat and a lot more vegetables and fruits (and within those a much greater variety). Even in terms of meat, the role of plants as basic feed for animals has been pushed aside in favour of grains, with frequently devastating effects. “Mostly plants” is not just a call to have a few extra salads, but rather to rethink the whole food chain that goes from plant to plate.
“Not too much” seems obvious given the dramatic rise of obesity as a global problem. Over-consumption is such a prevalent problem that we need to redefine malnutrition not just as a lack of food per se, but a lack of the body obtaining what it needs from increasingly large quantities of food. Pollan indicates in a number of different ways how the foods we consume today are frequently less satisfying and less full of the stuff we need to live than they once were. Industrial-Supermarket fruit and veg is a wonder of modern science, selectively bred and engineered to look better, give more yield and transport further – but nutritionally it is often suspect. The typical Apple today might be brighter, shinier and less prone to bugs than in our grandparents day, but it might well be only 2/3rds as nutritious.
All too often the way food is packaged misleads or sucks us into over consumption. A big part of the reason for this is what Pollan calls nutritionism, or what I’ve started calling, the cult of nutrition. Enormous effort has gone into trying to determine what it is in food that our body needs. This has lead to a series of (at times contradictory) nutritional fashions (high-carb, low-carb, low-fat, good-fat, omega-fat, etc.).
This has two broad effects. First, it breaks the connection with our traditional knowledge and understanding of food. Second, it breeds a mindset in which food is seen as nothing but a carrier for nutrients. This makes it much easier to foist on the public a range of products that look like food, that claim to do what food does, but that really have their genesis in the laboratory and could turn out to be yet another false nutritional hope (there’s an inporta case-study of this in the recent Observer article, Fruit and veg diet ‘danger for toddlers’). As Pollan makes clear, nutritionism has given us many benefits, but has also made a number of key mistakes. Moreover, in a number of important areas we still simply don’t know what it is in a food that makes it so good for us and the evidence keeps coming in that many of the hard to capture micro-nutrients are of extreme importance.
Moreover, a lot of the health claims made my food marketers border on the ludicrous. Do lower fat corn chips really signal health when they are still obscenely high in fat? Would organic Coke really mean healthier coke? Sadly, studies have time and again shown that when people are presented with these kinds of spurious health claims they are prone to consume beyond the point of the health saving. So we take our lower fat corn chips and eat more of them, finally consuming a higher fat level than with the old product!
One of Pollan’s great suggestions for approaching industrialised food is this — imagine you are going to a supermarket with your great-grandparent. If you find a product that your ancestor does not identify as food, don’t buy it. If you have to explain the product, don’t buy it.
Typically, I find books about diet and nutrition depressing and disempowering. In Defense Of Food helped me see why that is (the paradigm of nutritionism) and affirmed the many good lessons of food preparation and selection that I learnt as a child. It’s a book about healthy eating that has inspired me to get back into the kitchen more often and to enjoy food more thoroughly. Most of all, it has made my visits to the supermarket a lot simpler and quicker.
[tags] Michael Pollan, In Defense Of Food [/tags]