Book Review: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Michael Pollan
201 pages

While I blog about many different goals on this site, the first and foremost goal is to maintain my health.  My health is the dealbreaker – without it I can’t enjoy the fruits of reaching any of my other goals.  This is why I picked up “In Defense of Food.”  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and feel that reading it has made significant improvements to my life.  However, before you decide to go and pick up the book, please note a small caveat to my recommendation:  the first half of the book is pretty boring.  Maybe this is a bias coming from someone whose last science course was nearly five years ago, but the first half of the book contains a long and mildly interesting history of food and health peppered with nutritional phrases I couldn’t possibly understand.  (Carotenoids anyone?)  I guess the other problem was that, while reading the first half, I was looking for Pollan’s nutritional advice and his official point of view when it came to the latest fads.  Is he an Atkins guy?  How does he feel about low fat diets?  While he definitely does show his cards by the end of the book, you’ll have to wait until the latter half to put all the pieces together.  Despite what I consider is just an organizational flaw, I still believe that “In Defense of Food” is an essential read for anyone wanting to improve their relationship with food.

The foundation of Pollan’s book is the concept that the nutritional value of a whole food is greater than the sum of its nutrient parts.  In more simple terms, if you took all the nutrients of a banana and put it into a large pill, it still wouldn’t be as healthy for you as eating an actual banana.  Pollan evokes a sense of humility when it comes to assessing our understanding of nutrition:  we simply don’t know that much.  Despite the myriad of studies that have been conducted, looking at different nutrients, different cultures, and different lifestyles, the exact relationship between food and health is still mostly a mystery to us, containing both exceptions and many falsehoods.

One of the most interesting food concepts that Pollan highlights is nutritional inflation or reverse evolution.  The business of agriculture, with the willing support of our government, has been increasingly promoting quality over quantity when it comes to producing our food.  From an evolutionary perspective, we are no longer prioritizing foods that have good nutritional value, but instead promoting the ones that reproduce the most quickly.  (From the perspective of natural selection, this is the exact opposite of what we’d want)  What we get is a deteriorating level of nutritional value to point where an apple today has one third of the nutritional value of an apple 50 years ago.  This type of “nutritional inflation” is not only giving us less nutrients, but it’s forcing us to eat more and become fatter.

Pollan recommends that we escape the Western diet with a series of practical tips that bring us closer to eating “real” food.  Tips such as “avoid high fructose corn syrup,” “don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does,” and “avoid food products that make health claims” are all simple enough to follow and impactful enough to make a difference in your health.  He’s not trying to sell you on the latest dietary fad or some magical bullet for your health; it’s just simple and logical advice for eating food.

Most people read nutrition books for easy nutritional tips that can change their lives immediately.  And while this book contains that material, you’ll have to trudge through a long narrative on the history of nutritionism and how we view the relationship between food and health.  If you can bear through through this initial low point, “In Defense of Food” hits its stride in the latter half and proves to be a great read.

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