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In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

By Megan Hill
June 3, 2009

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto is more than just insightful; it’s truly revolutionary. But then, would we expect anything less?

Pollan’s book sets out to defend food in a world where food products are increasingly pushing whole food out of our diet. And it’s a deadly diet at that. Scientists have attributed some of our society’s most prevalent (and deadly) chronic diseases to what Pollan calls the “Western diet,” including stroke, coronary heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Pollan blames “nutritionism,” defined as the process of “adjusting various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place.” Further, he points to a medical community that helps people to live with these diseases instead of solving the root of the problem: the Western diet.

The first part of the book details the history of the Western diet — how scientists using the faulty process of reductionism first began focusing on individual nutrients, labeling them as good or bad. This ignored the food containing those nutrients and the fact that every part of any whole food works in concert to bring healthful effects to the eater.

Beyond that, Pollan emphasizes the entire meal, in which each component works together to do important things in the body those foods can’t do independently. Olive oil, for example, helps the body absorb the antioxidant lycopene from tomatoes. Beans and corn, when eaten together, provide the eater with all the essential amino acids—something only meat can do alone.

Instead of continuing to add nutrients to food products and further processing them, Pollan says we need to overturn our entire system of eating by shopping at farmer’s markets, avoiding food products that make health claims and ignoring scientists who tell you to eat more of one particular nutrient over another. Even promoting a low-fat diet may be bad advice: Pollan points to a study that shows eating a low-fat diet may do nothing to prevent cancer or heart disease, as previously thought.

And then there’s the “French paradox”—the fact that the French diet is full of things like wine and pastries, yet the French have lower rates of heart disease than Americans.

Pollan’s long lists of studies and nutrients may be confusing to the lay reader, but he offers an easy-to-follow guide for eating better. It’s a recipe for a food revolution.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” is the tag-line of the book, suggesting a simplified formula to Pollan’s solution to the Western diet. Translated, this means spending time and money shopping for food that isn’t processed, preparing that food (which should be mostly plants) and controlling portion size.

Pollan’s book aims to unveil the paradox of a society obsessed with eating healthily while its eaters are growing unhealthier. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto isn’t the most uplifting book, but Pollan tempers the bad news by offering several pages of simple, concrete guidelines for making better food choices. His overarching framework is truly grounds for a insurgency of conscious, connected eaters. His important book will change the way you think about one of our most basic acts.

Comments (1)

Darrell Hamlin Author Profile Page:

Excellent review, Megan! I love Pollan's advice to shop around the edges of the grocery store, because most of the stuff in the middle isn't actually food. Also, eating only what your great-grandmother would have recognized as food. A book that explains a lot of complexity with very simple advice.

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