In Defense of Food

Yesterday, I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and it rocked my world. Pollan’s more famous for his previous books on the industrial food chain, but this one focuses on the Western diet and its ailments: obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

By studying indigenous groups around the world with their own particular diets, we know that a great many diets work: Japanese diets with all that fish, Mediterranean diets with all those leaves, and French diets with all that pasta and wine.

Humans can live on a great many different diets. But not the Western one, which Pollan reveals as mostly corn and soy based and way, way too over-processed.

We’ve heard all that before. So what do we do? Grow our own vegetables? Buy a farm and slaughter our own meat? Not gonna happen.

So this book is less about the principles of healthy eating, and more about how to do it in the midst of the super-industrialized food chain of the modern West. The mantra? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The simple instruction to “eat food” is broken down in a way that truly changed how I think about food. Pollan teaches readers to differentiate between true food and “foodlike substances.” Natural plain yogurt is food. Go-gurt Berrylicious flavor is a foodlike substance, but it is not food.

Sadly? My protein bars and protein drinks? Foodlike substances. Not food. The ingredients are somewhat frightening. That sugar-free jello I mixed this morning? Not food. Splenda-sweetened anything? Not food.

I totally get where this argument comes from, and I’d love to eat more natural, whole foods. I’ll start small. I can’t give up protein bars just yet, but even as a WLS patient, I know I could get my protein from more natural sources.

Anyhow, a rundown of Pollan’s guidelines for eating healthy:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Bye, bye protein bars.
  • 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. (goodbye, any bread on the shelf)
  • Avoid food products that make health claims. (goodbye, whole grain cocoa krispies)
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. (You don’t want anything in your body that could last months on a supermarket shelf)
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. (Buy locally grown produce at farmer’s markets)
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • You are what you eat eats too. (Buy grass-fed beef. Otherwise we’re just eating MORE corn).
  • Eat like an omnivore. (Variety. Just do it.)
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. (Locally grown trumps organic. Buy local.)
  • Eat wild foods when you can. (um, never.)
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements. (They don’t work, but the KIND of person who takes them… affluent, educated, active… is generally more healthy than the average joe. Be that kind of person.)
  • Pay more, eat less.
  • Eat meals. (Snacking is the devil.)
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Don’t get full from the same place your car does. (Do not, do not, do not buy food from a convenience store).
  • Do not eat alone. (Eating is as much about culture and tradition as nutrition. Eat with people).
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.

That’s a lot of rules. But they make sense, right? To me, they represent an entirely different paradigm of eating. Pollan differentiates too between eating whole foods and eating “nutrients.” We’re taught to eat this for calcium, that for iron, something else for protein. His philosophy? Modern science knows SO little about food, you can forget all that nonsense. Just eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Of all the books I’ve read and blogged about, this one is by far my favorite. It’s sensible, it’s funny, it resonates. Three thumbs up.


2 Responses

  1. Interesting… I don’t think I can completely jump into those rules, but I’ll give some a try. The one that I have the most trouble with is the rule about eating plants and leaves… I don’t digest them… and I get a lot of discomfort (read pain) when I eat them…so I don’t know what the answer is for weirdos like me?

  2. Lots to think about here, Megs. What is wild food? I can barely grow a flower, so I’m not too keen on the thought of picking my dinner off my outside bushes.

    But still, lots of information for me to digest.

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