Michael Pollan's newest book, In Defense of Food, is highly readable and informative. He talks about "nutritionism," a sort of religious belief in the benefits of eating food for nutritional benefits rather than for pleasure or cultural reasons. He asserts that this belief is what has led Americans astray in their eating because we regard non-food items as being healthier than food. What this means is that we think non-fat yogurt, made using about 50 different ingredients, including Pollan's nemesis, High Fructose Corn Syrup, is better for us than plain old yogurt made using milk. We eat items because they scream at us that they are healthy: "Low Cholesterol!" "Low fat!" "No Trans Fat!" "Contains Omega 3's!" while in reality these foods aren't even food. They're food-like substances.
In the book Pollan points out the pitfalls of eating this way, most notably that nutritionists aren't sure what really is good for us and what is not. They choose, seemingly haphazardly, a nutrtional element to play either devil or angel and we just jump on board. Pollan suggests instead that we ignore all this hullabaloo and go back to traditional food cultures (choose any: French, Japanese, Greek, Spanish, it doesn't matter) where food is eaten for enjoyment, not just fuel. If you buy fresh produce and make your own food at home there can be no mistaking a food substitute for real food.
Earlier in the year I read Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. While The Omnivore's Dilemma was incredibly interesting and a very in-depth look at how our food is produced and how far from traditional food cultures we have come, I felt that In Defense of Food was more readable. The Omnivore's Dilemma took me about three weeks to get through (and really, it could have been three books in their own right) and made me seriously want to change my eating habits. The only problem was there wasn't a "how-to" guide in the end. I knew I should cut out processed foods, but how far does that rule go?
Well, the solution was given in In Defense of Food, which, by the way, only took me two days to read. In the last section Pollan gives a common sense approach to helping his readers figure out what is food and how it should be eaten. Really, the information provided was so apparent, I couldn't believe it has taken me so long to figure it out, or that I needed someone to tell me how to do it. But that, Pollan would say, is the problem with our current food situation in America.
A couple of the many solutions Pollan has to choosing what to eat and how to eat it:
"Avoid food products containing inredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high fructose corn syrup."
"Do all your eating at a table. No, your desk is not a table."
He also goes into detail about many of these points and explains why they work and gives several examples of foods that should be looked at more carefully (bread is one of them). I know many people are sick of hearing about the food problem in America and about the latest diet trend, but I think Pollan takes a different tack and has something really, really important to say. As I was reading this my boyfriend looked over and said, "Not another book about food!" I know, I know.
But really, I think it's an important issue in our culture. I've lived in France twice and both times I lost considerable amounts of weight (the first time, I lost 45 pounds in only 8 months without even trying. I can't even lose A pound here). There is something fishy going on in our food system and I think it's important for us to take notice and take "subversive measures" (aka buying fresh produce from real farmers instead of big stores and stop eating processed foods) to reverse the current system. Reading books like Pollan's will help us to do that.
OK, enough of my soap box rant. If you're into food and interested in health I highly suggest reading Pollan's book. That is all.
Omnivore's Dilemma has been reviewed on:
Living to Read