Tuesday, May 17, 2016

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food. Michael Pollan. 2008. Penguin. 205 pages. [Source: Library]

After watching the documentary In Defense of Food, I sought out the book. The documentary was released several years after the book, and, it may be a little more up-to-date, in my opinion. It also benefits from the video format. It is engaging, fascinating, and fun. The documentary is able to use photographs, print ads, and commercials throughout. That being said, there is something to be said for the book itself. One can read it at your own pace, slowly digesting the information within, and rereading if necessary to make sure you've truly gotten what you needed.

The book is divided into three sections: "The Age of Nutritionism," "The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization," and "Getting Over Nutritionism."

So. The book is an "eater's manifesto," and it begins with seven glorious words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pollan explains those seven words in the final section of the book. Also in the introduction.

The book explores the question: what should I eat? what should I eat to be healthy? He points out that there is something unnatural about even having to ask--a sign that our culture and society has been damaged or upset. Until recently, people everywhere have known what to eat, and relied upon culture and tradition and common sense. It is only in the past century that this question has been taken over by so-called experts--scientists, doctors, politicians, food marketers, etc. Or perhaps I should say it's only in the past century that the majority have people have decided to follow so-called expert advice.

Other questions addressed in the book:
  • What is the Western diet? How did it come to be? What role has technology and new science played in food production?
  • What diseases are linked to the Western diet?
  • What health risks exist in the present and the future for those on the Western diet?
  • What are the alternatives to the Western diet? In other words, how, does one escape eating the Western diet?
  • What is nutritionism? How does it differ from nutrition or nutrition science?
  • How does one know who to trust and what to eat?
  • Can common sense save you after all?
  • What is food? How does "food" differ from "edible-foodlike substances" that you find in grocery stores and restaurants?
  • What should you be buying? What should you be eating?
  • Is it easy to eat healthy? Or difficult?

The book is a true must-read. Or. Perhaps the documentary is the true must?! I haven't made up my mind which is best. What I love is embracing common sense and grounding everything in reality. It isn't snarky or pessimistic. It is encouraging and inspiring.

From the introduction:
My aim in this book is to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters. To do this requires an exercise that might at first blush seem unnecessary, if not absurd: to offer a defense of food and the eating thereof... I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it--in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly, alone--is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term. (7)
That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea--destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well. Indeed, no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans do--and no people suffer from as many diet-related health problems. We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obessession with healthy eating. (9)
From part one:
The first thing to understand about nutritionism is that it is not the same thing as nutrition. As the "-ism" suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology...A reigning ideology is a little like the weather--all pervasive and so virtually impossible to escape. Still we can try. In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Put another way: Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help. (28).

We eaters, alas, don't reap nearly as much benefit from nutritionism as food producers. Beyond providing a license to eat more of the latest approved foodlike substance, which we surely do appreciate, nutritionism tends to foster a great deal of anxiety around the experience of shopping for food and eating it. (53)
From part two:
A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species. (122)
From part three:
Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. (148)
Avoid food products that make healthy claims. (154)
Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. (157)
Eat meals (188).
Do all your eating from a table (192).

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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