I will say it from the beginning, I absolutely loved In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan. This is an obvious book to read, probably too obvious given the author’s success and what not, but it was one I owed myself to read. At the time of publication, I was busy finding my way into adulthood, being on my own for the first time, discovering Paris and trying to find where I wanted to go in life. So it took me an extra decade to get to read this book, but I probably get more out of it now than I would have back then.
The book is divided in three major parts, the first dedicated to nutrition science, or more precisely, to the bad kind of nutrition science (also known as nutritionsism); the second looks at the Western diet and the diseases that accompany it; and the third one gives some tools to overcome the first two.
The main point that I felt Pollan was trying to convey in the first part of the book was that we cannot look at food simply as the sum of its components (macronutrients, micronutrients). If a food is good for us, it is not so because of one component, but because of its entire complexity. Therefore, looking at individual particles in foods and food products will not answer the question “what is healthy food?”. Isolating one component, that is believed to be either good or bad, deprives it of its relationships to all the other components in the given food, making it impossible to tell why it gives a certain result.
In the second part, Pollan links our health problems today to our departure from our traditional diets. He argues that there isn’t just one healthy diet, but a multitude; all traditional diets, that had stood the test of time, were healthy for their particular circumstances (climate, flora and fauna in the region, way of human life). There is, however, one bad diet: the Western diet. The Western diet has come to life through a series of simplifications of the food itself, of the process of getting it on the table (think microwaveable food), of producing quantity rather than quality. In this way, we have come to trust science (despite its flaws) more than our tradition, and this to such an extent that we have almost lost our culinary tradition altogether.
The third part of the book details the famous Pollan quote: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” By rethinking what we mean by food, the other two precepts can be achieved, so the first one is of the utmost importance. Food is not the stuff that goes from the plate (or container) to the mouth and into the stomach. Food is something that used to be alive (so no maclavais* made up of various kinds of macro- and micronutrients assembled in a factory), that has undergone little to no transformation (cooking, yes, but no hydrogenation for instance), that has historically built a relationship between our species. It is only those foods that our bodies know what to do with. It is those foods that are good for us. What our plates should consist of is not an array of grains and oils and sugars from them, which nowadays are mostly corn and soy, but a vast number of actual plants, fruits, vegetables, leaves. They should also follow the seasons, and not present the same produce 12 months a year. And lastly, food and eating should not be just about filling up our stomachs. Food and eating are part of a culture, they connect us humans, they offer an opportunity to take a break, share something, discuss. When these become more important than the filling up of stomachs in itself, eating becomes more pleasurable, more mindful, and less out of control.
*Maclavais is a Romanian word derived from German, and it basically means a mixture. Now, in my childhood household, this had an added meaning, that of a mixture of non-descript qualities and unknown properties. This means that when dealing with a maclavais, you can’t really say anything concrete about how it looks, what it smells like, what it tastes of; you also have no idea what it will do to you, it may be nothing, it may be something good, or it might simply kill you. Try it at your own risk. This is the meaning I have in mind whenever I use the word maclavais.
I feel that this book, just as Pollan’s claim about food, is more than the sum of its parts. Whether the author had every single fact right, whether things have changed since writing the book, whether new discoveries have been made, whether you agree with every single recommendation he makes or just some, the message is just as valid. We should be eating food, natural food, food that has been grown with care for the final product as well as for the health of the environment (of which we are a part). The book does give a series of advice to follow in order to eat better, like where to shop and what food to look for, but I think the advice itself is not the most important part of the book; it is the context they create, the kind of eating culture they promote, getting people excited about food and not following a scientific recipe. This spirit matters more than following the recommendations to a t. And if the spirit is understood and adopted, the end results are very likely to be positive, much more so than by strictly following the “shop the peripheries of the supermarket” rule (which is the rule I have seen to be the most attacked by readers. This is not the point of the book, and if you get stuck and can’t see past it, you won’t understand the book at all.).
I started reading the book convinced that scientists are not the only ones who can understand food, that I don’t need to go to school in order to be able to answer the question “what should I have for dinner?”. This book embraces that spirit, that humans know deep down in their bodies and deep down in their cultures what and how much and when to eat. We just need to listen to that more carefully.
I don’t normally do this, but there have been many times when I was giggling by myself or finding I would say “Yes! Exactly!” out loud while reading In Defence of Food, that I have decided to share some of my favourite quotes from the book.
“What other animal needs professional help in deciding what to eat?” (p. 2)
“Nutritionism prefers to tinker with the Western diet, adjusting the various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place.” (p. 11)
“As a general rule it’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot.” (p. 39)
“«The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science», points out Marion Nestle, a New York University Nutritionist, «is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle»” (p. 62)
“When it comes to food, culture is another word for mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways of the group – food ways that endured, by the way, only because they tended to keep people healthy” (p. 133)
“Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to the land and outward to other people” (p. 144)
“No doubt we can look forward to a qualified health claim for high-fructose corn syrup, a tablespoon of which probably does contribute to your health – as long as it replaces a comparable amount of, say, poison in your diet and doesn’t increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” (p. 156)
“When corn oil and chips and sugary breakfast cereals can all boast being good for your heart, health claims have become hopelessly corrupt” (p. 156)
“when you cook at home, you seldom find yourself reaching for the ethoxylated diglycerides or high-fructose corn syrup” (p. 159
“Natural selection takes little interest in our health or survival after the childbearing years have passed” (p. 172)
“nutritionism: the belief that food is foremost about nutrition and nutrition is so complex that only experts and industry can possibly supply it” (p. 200)
I think the biggest downside about reading this book is realising just how difficult it is to follow a truly healthy diet. When you read that you should eat mostly plants, you can thing, “Great! That’s what I’ll buy”, and shop for more fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. But a significant point made by this book is that not all fruit and vegetables are created equal. Having access to naturally, sustainably, seasonally grown produce is easier for some, but damn hard for others. And if you are in the second category, you might rightly feel depressed the next time you sit down to eat. But I don’t adhere to “ignorance is bliss”, and I believe that a small change in the right direction is better than no change at all, and hopefully that can lead to something great.
As I said at the beginning, I really loved this book and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it. Or to those who have, because we need to be reminded of the message that food is important, that where it comes from and how it is consumed is important, and that taking an interest in it is important. This will benefit our own health, and also that of our environment, and will reinforce the links that keep us all alive.