In Defense of Food Review Part 4: Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism

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

This is the last part of my review of this book. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 review the earlier sections of the book. This section gives advice about how to go forward and relearn our relationship with food.

So what can we do to improve our diet and escape from nutritionism?

“People eating a western diet [grr] are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets.”


Stop eating the Western diet.

I would if I knew what you meant by it [see Review Part 3 for my rant on”Western Diet”]. To stop eating badly, Pollan acknowledges, requires us to change our way of thinking about food which is very challenging as the western diet is every in our food environment. Additionally, we have lost the cultural tools we need to judge what is good to eat. Even avoiding processed food by buying fresh or whole food means that we need to be aware of hidden industrialization such as beef raised in a feedlot and given antibiotics and hormones.

Pollan started his book with the advice: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. In this section of the book, he breaks down his advice under those three headings.

Eat Food.

Obvious really. Remember, however, that Pollan distinguishes between food and edible-food like substances. So to guide us he has come up with some tips, some of which discuss below:

Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food.

In other words, look back to your family traditions of past generations and try to eat that way. I do have few issues with that as my great grandmothers would not recognize many of the new fruits I love as food. I am not even sure that oranges would be familiar to some of them. Bananas and mangoes almost definitely were not in Britain at that time. I am lucky in that one side of the family come from central Europe and another from France (and Wales and England) so I have more choices of what to eat than if they were only from England.

It also means that I should be buying my food on a more regular basis. No once a week or once a month grocery shopping as storage would have been limited in the 19th Century as there were no ice boxes or refrigerators.

I should also be eating more seasonally; no green beans or strawberries in the middle of winter. In fact, I only like strawberries for about two weeks a year, which is the way I grew up eating them. For those two weeks that English strawberries, as opposed to Spanish, were available, we would feast on them, eating them almost every night with sugar and cream and make jam with the rest.

Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That are a)Unfamiliar b)Unpronounceable c)more than five in number or that include d)High Fructose Corn Syrup.

So you won’t be able to eat the cake I just made at home because it contains flour, sugar, vanilla, water, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa and vinegar. It is also iced which adds another couple of ingredients. Additionally, this bread is out.

Admittedly I did have a student who had the policy of not eating foods that had more than 10 ingredients which makes more sense than five.

Oh, yeah. High fructose corn syrup is the new ogre. It is not any worse than sucrose (table sugar) but that is an argument for another day.

Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims

Yeah, I can deal with this one. Remember Cheerios never contained much fat and some “low” fat foods are as high or even higher in calories than the full fat version. I personally prefer natural yoghurt that is full fat; I do not need so much as a low fat version.

Get Out of the Supermarket Whenever Possible

Does Trader Joe’s or Wholefoods or even my local Natural Food Coop count here? Mind you, Pollan is well known for his scorn of Wholefoods Market.

Farmers’ Markets can be great fun as can local farm stands. I was excited to see about four or five farm stands ON MY WAY to my new job. They are not open yet – it is the middle of winter here still – but I am looking forward to stopping on my way home later in the year.

Mostly Plants

I already eat mostly plants and as I commented in Part 3 this should be eat only plants. Oh yeah, eat fungi and yeast too. Just stop eating meat and fish. Perhaps limit them only once a week? Please, pretty, please.

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves

Not sure where broccoli and cauliflower and okra and eggplant and zucchini and squash and potatoes and and… and… fit in here.

Phytochemicals, fiber, and antioxidants present in plants are great for our health. These include nutrients that nutritional scientists have yet to realize that we need.

Pollan cannot find a compelling health reason to exclude meat from his diet.He does suggest limiting meat consumption by making it a side dish instead the centerpiece of the meal. Additionally, he does point out that industrial meet production, especially in the US, is brutal and unnecessarily cruel. Environmental and ethical reasons are not discussed at length in his book; if you want to know more read Peter Singer’s book. Remember, however:

You Are What What You Eat Eats Too.

If you have the space, buy a freezer

Especially good for buying food in season when there is a glut and having it available year round. Freezing vegetables and fruit is relatively easy and causes less nutritional damage than most other preservation methods.

Eat Well-Grown Good From Healthy Soils

Not necessarily organic as not all small producers are certified for organic farming. Also we have a number of fruit producers that do everything right – it seems, but the organic requirements for fruit are so stringent that it would be impossible to have decent fruit or any fruit if they were followed. Get to know your local food producer and find out what they do to produce their food.

Not Too Much

French paradox. I might write about this in another post. At least appreciate food as well as the French do: Linger over meals, savor each mouthful and use high quality ingredients.

Pay More. Eat Less.

Portion sizes – we tend to eat what we are given rather than what we need. I will eat a whole bag of chips (crisps) whatever size rather it weighs 60 g or 30 g. I know as I just did this. I knew I should only eat about half the packet of the 30 g bag as the label said there were two servings inside but the whole pack disappeared.

At a recent one day conference, they handed out 14 oz bags of chips, this is one serving, but this seemed really tiny.

There has been lots of research showing that animals on a calorie restricted diet live longer. Eating less appears to cut back on cell division and reduces the production of free radicals and other toxic chemicals in our bodies.

The tip I learnt many years ago, probably first through yoga, not that I take any notice today, is to eat until you are 70% full, Pollan suggests 80%. The question is to learn how to recognize this and not allow the 20-30% empty feeling to make you eat more.

Eat Meals

Stop snacking. Pollan raises this interesting point:

“I may be showing my age, but didn’t there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between-meal snack? Well, it is gone. Amercians today mark time all day long with nibbles of food and sips of soft drinks, which must be constantly at their sides, lest they expire during the haul between breakfast and lunch.”

Try Not to Eat Alone

This has to be his hardest piece of advice for me. As I am not meant to eat out as much, to avoid the temptations of the western diet offered by restaurants, I should prepare food at home where I live alone.

After reading this, I gathered a group of friends and we cooked a meal together. We made this pizza and had a fun evening. I must try to do this on a regular basis:Cook and eat together evenings”.

Eat Slowly

This goes with my comment about enjoying your food like the French.

Cook and, if you can, plant a garden

I do this one already and the exercise from gardening helps with the weight gain, except the fresh air makes me hungry. Even a window box full of salad would benefit your diet.

This was his final bit of advice and he concluded by reminding us that food is more than the nutrients it contains:

[…] 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 the other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight. I am thinking of the relationship between the plants and the soil, between the grower and the plants and animals he or she tends, between the cook and the growers who supply the ingredients, and between the cook and the people who will soon come to the table to enjoy the meal. It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by.

Food is a culture, your own unique culture; food is your history. In addition, if you garden you realize that food has its own history – where did the variety of tomato come from? What about that corn, or that pepper – so sweet having just come in from the garden straight to the kitchen. Food tastes so much nicer when it is less than an hour old.

While I agree with Pollan on bits of his advice, there are some bits missing:

Pollan lives in Northern California where the food supply is somewhat different to the rest of the US let alone the rest of the World. Southern California is probably the only place with a better food supply. Remember they have asparagus available in March – mine comes up in May. This makes eating locally a whole lot easier.

If you are interested in gardening especially somewhere with a less welcoming climate, read Gussow’s This Organic Life. She discusses the issues of trying to garden in suburban New York. Personally, I would ignore the double digging information – raised beds are the best way to go especially if you live on clay soil like I do.

Exercise. Totally ignored by Pollan. The equation, as I have mentioned earlier is:

Calories in – Calories out = Energy balance.

So follow Pollan’s advice as given in his book and, in addition, walk, ride a bike, jump rope or buy a mower you have to push or do something to get more exercise.

Remember as Pollan says in his introduction:

“You may well, and rightly, wonder who am I to tell you how to eat? Here I am advising you to reject the advice of scientists and industry – and blithely go on to offer my own advice. So on whose authority do I purport to speak? I speak mainly on the authority of tradition and common sense. Most of what we need to know about how to eat we already know, or once did until we allowed the nutrition experts and advertisers to shake our confidence in common sense, tradition, the testimony of out senses, and the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers.”

He does not necessarily know the answers, so start asking the questions and looking for answers yourself. Start listening to your body and learn to recognize when what you would like is a Snickers Bar, but what you need is a glass of water and an apple.

Eat well, stay in touch, and have a good life.*


with apoplogises to Garrison Keillor: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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5 thoughts on “In Defense of Food Review Part 4: Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism

  1. I appreciate your note that HFCS and sucrose are both, well, sugar. People are strange in what they choose to obsess about.

  2. Of course exercise was ignored by Pollan, this book was about food.

  3. Pingback: Here in HP, a Highland Park, New Jersey blog » Eat Food Mostly Plants

  4. “I appreciate your note that HFCS and sucrose are both, well, sugar. People are strange in what they choose to obsess about.”

    That’s a bit of reductionism, ain’t it? HFCS is fructose, cane sugar is sucrose. The body metabolizes them in different ways. And it is quite obvious to anyone who does a basic bit of empirical experimentation, that the body feels waay more sluggish when we put HFCS into it, than plain sugar (though even plain sugar is bad if consumed in large quantities). So no, they are not both, well, sugar.

    • Arjun,

      Technically, HFCS contains both glucose and fructose as does sucrose. The difference is that in table sugar, the glucose and fructose are bound together. This may make a slight difference in how they are treated by the body. However, studies have shown that the human body responds in similar ways to both HFCS and sucrose, whatever you may experience when you eat them.

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