Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

February 2008

Michael Pollan summarizes his latest book, published January 2008, on the cover and in just seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He admits on the very first page that he has pretty much “given the game away” with that summary, but that he plans to complicate matters a bit in the interest of “keeping things going for a couple hundred more pages.” Since I began the book at the start of a four hour bus ride, I chose to oblige him and see what could possibly so complicated about such simple commands.

I came to realize two things by the time I got about halfway through the book - which, ironically, was about the same time that the bus stopped at a Burger King. The first was that there was much more to the book than simple recommendations; the second was that those seven words were not so simple after all.

Take, for example, the first two words of Pollan’s credo: Eat food. Not so hard, you say. False. By Pollan’s definition, much of the offerings in an average grocery story are not in fact “food” but rather “edible food-like substances.”

To understand this difference, Pollan sprinkles much of the first half of the book with discussions of the past hundred years of nutrition “science” and why it’s really not so scientific. Anyone who pays attention to the constant and conflicting admonitions about the latest nutrients that are both good for you and could possibly kill you will already be convinced of many of Pollan’s arguments here. He goes on to elaborate, however, citing the focus on individual nutrients as one major reason why these studies are so flawed. This is one area where reductionist science just seems to fail entirely. In many cases it is nearly impossible to separate the effects of a single nutrient on a person’s well being from the rest of their diet and overall lifestyle.

Studies nevertheless attempt to drill down to this level, for two reasons: the prevalence of reductionist thinking in other academic fields and the fact that, politically, it’s a lot easier to tell people to eat less or more of an individual nutrient or compound (trans fat, e.g) than it is to recommend that they eat less of a food, since the food has lobbyists on K Street in Washington. Nutrients, with the exception of sucrose, tend not to be so well represented.

Pollan then moves into his recommendations for what an average person can do to eat well without buying land and learning to farm for all of their needs. Many of these recommendations are easy to follow (I managed to resist the deep-fried mozzarella sticks at Burger King, but that wasn’t just because Pollan would classify them as “food-like substances”), but some are a bit trickier. It takes some real discipline to devote more of your day to preparing and cleaning up after meals - I can almost guarantee that I won’t be enacting this one, or doing much preparing of meals at all, as long as I am on this same project and without someone to cook with for three-four nights a week.

I will, however, be changing some choices when it comes to the meals that I do eat out - even eating out has a whole new feel to it after reading this book. My perspective now is that it’s an opportunity to seize: here are people who are willing to prepare lots of delicious options for you, many of which contain loads and loads of fresh fruits and vegetables, all in a portion that is more or less perfectly suited to your needs without having to worry about buying too many veggies and watching them go bad.

The one negative that I identified in Pollan’s recommendations was the fact that they seemed to be geared toward people who lived more or less inactive lifestyles. Many of the potential problems from diet go away if you just exercise a few times a week - if you’re really concerned about your health but are not willing to take that simple next step - it seems as though you could pour endless hours into researching, purchasing, and preparing foods and are very healthful (Pollan mentions a word to describe this situation - “orthorexia,” or an obsession with eating right, a disease still awaiting official confirmation) and only be fighting less than half of the battle.

I’m currently reading another book, which I find similar in its condemnation of the way the “system” works now and which offers advice on how to change things: “Cradle to Cradle,” by William McDonough & Michael Braungart. I’ll be posting that review (hopefully) shortly, I have about 80 pages to go.