Book Review: In Defense of Food. Part 1: Introduction

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

Part 1: Introduction

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, January, 2008, Penguin Press, p 244, US$21.95, ISBN: 978-1-59520-145-5

What should we eat? This common question is asked of me many times when people find out that I was a nutrition major. Michael Pollan answers this question at the beginning of the introduction:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

As a vegetarian I can hardly object to that; especially the last statement. Surely, we all eat food, just too much of it. Pollan says not. Fresh food is better than processed “edible foodlike substances”:

These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims,

He also does not like health claims. They are, Pollan claims, dangerous for your health and I have already commented on his critique of food science. Which if you had done your homework from Sunday, you would have already read.

This book cannot be discussed without introducing the concept of nutritionism as this is beaten to death throughout the book. Nutritionism is not a science but an ideology. It is the idea that we eat to obtain nutrients rather than for all the cultural and social reasons that are the reasons we really eat. Nutritionism is encouraged by the food industry as it helps sell products (all those health claims), nutritional scientists and journalists.

He does not mention that fact that most nutritionist would agree that diet plays a minor role in our health. While taking my degree, I recall being told that if gender was a risk factor of 10%, hereditary diseases, such as hyperlipidaemia, was also 10% as was smoking. If you took all the dietary factors together – high fibre, low fat, yoghurt is good – your health risk was reduced by 3%. So even assuming that nutritional science has progressed in the few [ahem, 20] years since I graduated, changing your diet will have a small effect on your wellbeing, coming in fourth place a long way behind gender, genetics and smoking.

Pollan admits that part of the problem is the American diet [he calls it the Western diet, a phrase, you will read in a later post, makes me grind my teeth] since four of the top ten causes of death; cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer are linked to diet. Actually, I dispute the links for the last two. Not all cancers are dietary related – prostate, breast and ovarian cancers are not. As for stroke and diet, I would need to do more research before I made any comments. Salt has been linked with high blood pressure which is linked with a higher incidence of stroke, but it is some time since I read the literature on that issue. One of the more serious problems is that we no longer know what food is, or what a meal should consist of, and thus we do not have a clue as to what we should be eating. Part of the problem is the shifting ground of nutrition information. Should we follow the low fat, low carb, low calorie, margarine vs. butter, omega-3 fatty acids trend?

Our food confusion is also aided by the $32 billion spent on food marketing.

The problem with the American diet can be traced back to the industrialization of food production which meant that it was next to impossible to sustain traditional ways of eating [what are these?] as food was grown with the use of synthetic chemicals and meat was grown with the use of hormones and steroids. In the sixties, in the US:

The supermarket had become the only place to buy food, and real food was rapidly disappearing from its shelves, to be replaced by the modern cornucopia of highly processed foodlike products.

The rest of the book is divided into three sections:

  1. The Age of Nutritionism
  2. The Western Diet and Diseases of Civilization
  3. Getting Over Nutritionism

I will discuss each section in turn otherwise this review will be too long.

UK cover

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: In Defense of Food. Part 1: Introduction

  1. This is interesting. I recall discussing some of this with you when you were telling me about the book. It makes me wonder though, is nothing that is processed food? If Pollan’s statements are to be taken at face value, frozen vegetables are not food, even when not too much has been done with them but to freeze them. Freezing, after all, is a process. For some folks, given both affordability and accessibility to food sources, there is very very little food (Pollan’s definition) available then, especially in winter. Hmmm, I am looking forward to more of this review.

  2. I recall that he does approve of frozen food – as long as you freeze fresh food yourself!

    Mum was also frustrated with the idea that you should not eat any processed food. She has just got away from 50 years plus of cooking by buying precooked dinners. She does not want to feel guilty about it.

    A question raised by all of this is, who does Michael Pollan’s cooking?

  3. Pingback: Book Review Part 2: In Defense of Food. Part 1: The Age of Nutritionism « Lab Cat

  4. Pingback: In Defense of Food Review Part 4: Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism « Lab Cat

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