Book Review: In Defense of Food Part 3: Part II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

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

The phrases “diseases of civilization” takes me right back to undergraduate days. For my senior thesis I investigated the diet of South Africans. The whites were dying of the same diseases as the Americans, British and other rich nations. The blacks had kwashiorkor, xerothalamia, and other nutritional diseases of very poor countries. So what are the diseases of civilization?

In this book diseases of civilization are also known as metabolic syndrome or syndrome X which are, apparently, medical terms used to describe for the complex of health problems caused by eating the Western Diet (I really hate that term (more on that in a bit)).

“Metabolic syndrome has been implicated not only in the development of type-2 diabetes, but also in obesity hypertension, heart disease, and possibly certain cancers.”

Epidemiological evidence has shown over and over again that as people emigrate to the USA and adopt the new dietary pattern, giving up their traditional diet, their dietary health indicators worsened.

“Some [researchers] noted that the Western diseases followed closely on the heels of the arrival of Western foods, particularly refined flour and sugar and other kinds of “store foods”. They observed too that when one Western disease arrived on the scene, so did most of the others, and often in the same order: obesity followed by type 2 diabetes followed by hypertensions and stroke followed by heart disease.”

Western diet. This phrase makes me gag. It really is meaningless. Pollan never explains what exactly is in the “western diet”. Even Wikipedia lets me down on this one with these sites not really telling me about what is considered to be in the western pattern diet or the standard American diet. A search of Google gives me lots of links to articles that link the WPD to disease, but even these do not really define what it contains exactly. Is the WPD the same all over the World? Somehow, I doubt it.

So we have a whole chapter discussing a pattern of eating without exactly knowing what is that pattern of eating. No wonder my teeth grate whenever I see that term.

The final half of this section, is a discussion on the five major ways in which our diet has changed for the worse in the last century or so:

1) From Whole Foods to Refined

2) From Complexity to Simplicity

3) From Quality to Quantity

4) From Leaves to Seeds

5) From Food Culture to Food Science

Seems a good list to me, but a sixth is missing:

6) From Plant Centered Eating to Meat Center Eating

As a vegetarian, it is obvious that Pollan is avoiding the vegetarian band wagon, despite telling us to “eat mostly plants“. It is almost laughable. Come on Michael, admit it, we eat a lot more meat than we used to and this is one of the MAIN reasons for our current dietary woes. Do not worry, us vegetarians will not eat you. Yeah, so the American diet is based too heavily on corn, soy and wheat and we eat a lot of processed foods containing these three ingredients. We probably should eat less food in total and food does not taste as good when it is processed compared to being made at home. It would not hurt if we ate more leafy vegetables and sitting around with friends chatting over a meal is a great thing to do but MEAT consumption Michael – it just is too high in the US. According to the USDA:

“In 2000, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) reached 195 pounds (boneless, trimmed-weight equivalent) per person, 57 pounds above average annual consumption in the 1950s. (link)”

That is 195 pounds/per person/per year! 8 ½ oz per person per day! And I do not even eat the stuff. That same USDA article mentions:

“ERS [Economic Research Service] data suggest that average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000.”

My next quibble with this section of “In Defense of Food” is with the “4) From Leaves to Seeds”, as it is a LOAD OF CRAP. Pollan has a long section on how eating seeds, corn, soy and wheat in particular, causes our diet to have an omega-3 fatty acid to omega-6 fatty acid imbalance [see omega-6 to omega-3 ratio for more information]. However, discussing omega-3 fatty acids without mentioning flaxseed (note the seed part of the name) or walnuts, both of which are some of the main terrestrial sources of omega-3 fatty acids means that you just lost the attention of every food scientist or nutritionist worth their salt as they are either gobsmacked or rofl. Pollan could easily have put a paragraph in mentioning flaxseed but he ignores it completely. That totally lost the argument for me.

This chapter was the weakest of the whole book. The science was weak and the lack of discussion on the effects of having a meat-centered diet together ignorance over flaxseed as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, lost the argument with the people he should be convincing most, which is a pity because Pollan is right. The problem with our current diet is that we do eat to much fat, sugar, refined grains, calories and not enough vegetables, fruit and whole grains. This highly refined diet is causing “Metabolic Syndrome” increasing the incidence of obesity and type-2 diabetes, which can be prevented by changing the way we eat.

That is the topic of the next and final section of “In Defense of Food”.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: In Defense of Food Part 3: Part II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

  1. Though I am not a vegetarian myself I do agree ‘western society’ does need to cut down on their meat. I’ve being trying to do so myself lately.

  2. It seems odd to me that he says eat mostly plants and does not discuss the heavy meat eating in our culture. It seems that it should be part of the discussion, and a major oversight not to include it.

  3. I think it important for everyone to think about what they eat, we are slowly becoming an obese society, with fast foods too readily available to the children we try to protect.
    When time is against us we pick the phone up and call for a pizza or whatever.
    David Byrom

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