Paul's Review of "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan.
Food is something that we all must eat. As simple as this may seem, we are now faced with an unprecedented number of food choices. Many of these choices are highly processed and marketed foods, which make the decision of just what to eat into something quite complicated. Here is a book that attacks the complexities underlying the simplistic problem of deciding what to eat and ultimately produces a set of relatively simple and sensible guidelines for the modern human eater.
Michael Pollan begins by making a convincing and troubling argument that many humans, especially those in industrialized Western nations, have a dysfunctional perspective on nutrition. The historical reasons for this are linked to one of my scientific heroes, Justig von Liebig, who helped initiate a reductionist approach to plant and animal nutrition. Reductionism in this case means we that look not at the food in toto but view each food item in terms of its content of carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals. This reductionist approach to food has been developed, extended, and well-marketed (especially over the last 30 or so years) to the point where most of us now view an orange not as a fruit but as a package of vitamin C. Look at your cereal box and you will learn about the 15-20 nutritional additives that make the food especially good for you. The trouble with this approach is that it: 1) largely ignores the interactions of multiple food components, 2) is often based on poor or misguided science, and 3) can lead to very poor dietary guidelines and decisions. In essence, this is leads to an important and valuable conclusion we should all consider- we don’t need to know what specifically makes a food healthy if we know that the food is indeed healthy.
What are the consequences of the reductionist food perspective? Michael Pollan argues that herein is, partially or completely, the root cause of the current evils plaguing Western societies. No, it’s not the cause of the evils resulting from the excessive influence of corporations on government policy, the decline of religious attendance, or the increased popularity of reality TV. Reductionism, says Pollan, is the fuel that fires the beastly problem of poor weight management and related metabolic disorders that are becoming increasingly common in Western societies. Could it be that recent changes to our diets, specially an increased number of calories originating from highly processed foods, account for the surge of weight and metabolic problems seen in America? Pollan provides interesting but mostly correlational evidence supporting this idea. For example, metabolic and weight disorders became more common after the proliferation of calories offered to American consumers, which resulted from changes to U.S. farm policy in the 1970’s. As a whole, I found his arguments and their empirical support convincing (although I am guessing skeptics will be ready with the obvious counter-arguments). It was convincing enough that I became increasingly hungry for Pollan’s advice on what to and what not to eat.
The last main portion of this book details a set of guidelines about how to manage your diet in a world of highly processed and over-advertised foodstuffs. There were many suggestions, almost too many because already I can’t remember them all. They were mostly rooted in common sense such as buy stuff that your great-Grandmother would recognize as food, buy more food from the periphery of the grocery store, and go to your farmer’s market. The take home message is that food processing is generally bad for nutritional quality as it breaks the food apart, takes nutrients away, and then repackages the food with a great many replacement additives. So you should eat less of these foods and more of the food that don’t typically receive advertising promotion, such as fruits and vegetables. It seems plausible that this will not only improve your health and that of your family but that you can make a strong economic vote in favor of returning to food basics and against more corporate tinkering with what we eat. The importance of these topics, providing yourself with good nutrition and defeating the global corporate puppeteers, makes this book a must read for everyone concerned about their modern diet and its implications for Earth. Luckily, Michael Pollan is skillful writer who makes digesting this story easy, entertaining, and educational.