Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

Reviewed by Christina

Complete title: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

: 2008

It's about: Michael Pollan explains the history behind the invention and acceptance of processed foods in America. He also explains the idea of Nutritionism, or the philosophy that nutrients are more important than whole foods, and how Nutritionism contributes to the Western Diet and unhealthful eating habits. Finally, he gives some advice about how to get the most possible real food onto your plate.

In short: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

I thought: I knew I would like and agree with this book from the get-go, because I had heard about Michael Pollan from so many people whose eating philosophies gel with mine. Really, I'm surprised it's taken me this long to actually get around to reading it. I thought it would be the kind of book that I would read and think to myself, "I'm so awesome because I already eat way better than everybody else in this country and that's why I'm healthy. Go me!"

Boy, was I wrong. This isn't a book about why Baconators and Gushers and Velveeta are bad for you. I mean, it is, but that's not all. It's also about our whole idea of what "healthy eating" is, about the insidiousness of ubiquitous corn and soy, about how unnatural and dangerous our Western Diet really is. I couldn't count myself out of this nastiness, and it was painful to read. I had to kiss some of my delusions goodbye; I can no longer pretend pasta and white rice are guiltless, or that regular produce is just as healthy as organic.

But, despite the discomfort of having my bad habits exposed to me, I liked this book and I'm glad I read it. I loved learning the story of how we all got into this processed food mess. And I enjoyed the comparisons between American food attitudes and those of European countries. Like the study described here:
He showed the words “chocolate cake” to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration."
It makes perfect sense to me that the food itself doesn't represent the entire problem- our attitudes and emotional baggage about food play a part in health, too.

The book is absolutely packed with information, and Mr. Pollan organizes it beautifully. His prose is expressive enough to be engaging, and yet always clear and concise. He's logical, he's done his research, and he knows how to present a point without beating the reader over the head. If you're at all interested in food, you've probably already read In Defense of Food. But if, for some reason, you're even later to the party than I am, you best get reading! You probably have lots of foodie friends who can loan you a copy.

Verdict: Excellent nonfiction writing. Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Be prepared to view food differently.
One of the reasons I liked In Defense of Food is because generally I'm a moderator, not an abstainer (read about the difference between the two here). The abstainer's equivalent of this book might be Skinny Bitch, which I really disliked.
If you're interested in health and diet, check out this NYT article about sugar.

Warnings: none

Favorite excerpts:
About the joy of real whole foods:
"When you're cooking with food as alive as this- these gorgeous and semigorgeous fruits and leaves and flesh- you're in no danger of mistaking it for a commodity, or a fuel, or a collection of chemical ingredients. No, in the eye of the cook or the gardener... this food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on each other, all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight."

What I'm reading next: Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz