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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Review: In Defense of Food

When Michael Pollan visited Google to give his talk, he explained the motivation behind this book: folks would come up to him and say, "I read half of The Omnivore's Dilemma and then stopped." When questioned as to why, the answer that came back was: "Every time I read a chapter, I found another thing I couldn't eat. I was afraid that when I was done I'd die of starvation."

In Defense of Food then, was Pollan's attempt to resolve this problem. Well, to begin with, the book is definitely much shorter and faster paced, to match American's lifestyle. Pollan himself sums it up in 7 words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." There's a hidden subtext though, which is: "Spend more time and money on your food."

The book is divided into 3 parts. The first part is an explanation of what he calls nutritionism, the modern tendency to reduce food to its nutrients and try to construct a diet in that fashion. He argues that we know too little about food to try to do this, though he grudgingly admits that this form of research (reductionism) is truly the only hope we have in the future of truly understanding how our bodies work and interact with the food we eat. The second part of the book is a tirade about how the modern Western diet is really responsible for most of the chronic diseases we see today. The last part of the book is prescriptive, where he elaborates on the 7 words presented and explains how to achieve your goal of eating healthy.

Those who know me also know that I'm an unabashed foodie. I love eating, I love food, and I enjoy all of it. I exclude very little from my diet, and will visit multiple cafes to eat what I like. Yet I am skeptical of this book. First of all, to extract the food and diet from a culture without regards to its origins and the environment that culture it came from reeks to me of the same kind of reductionist mistakes that Pollan criticizes in his tirade against the food industry and nutrition science. For instance, he spends a page or two praising the small Parisian portions --- yet when I visited France, that was not where I found the best food --- the best food was to be found outside the big cities, where French farmers will feed you like a farmer, and if you're a hungry cyclist you will be more than satisfied. It seems to me that to extract food as the only source of chronic disease out of a lifestyle is also reductionist, and food can't be the only answer when the real problem is that Americans sit in their cars to go places, refuse to walk or bicycle, and think that the Wii is the solution to exercise. His approach to solving the problem also leaves those of us who aren't great cooks (I'm a reasonably good one, but I would never call myself great) stuck.

So read this book if you must, though I don't think it's nearly as good as The Omnivore's Dilemma. But in the grand scheme of things, I don't believe it provides any more of a solution than its predecessor.


gwadzilla said...

I am too busy eating to read all this stuff

bullet points

I can read between chews!

daisy said...

really? i thought this book was fantastic! to me, pollan is the dawkins of the food movement -- a fresh voice who's sayin it like it is.

granted, i only read the first half of it (nother halfway-through pollan datapoint for ya -- maybe it wasn't the fear of starvation after all ;)), but i thought it had the following very good and specific things to bash into apparently unthinking american brain tissue:

- don't eat things that come in cardboard boxes. humans make this stuff to get rich, and it would be one thing if it also had the side benefit of making you better off. but we've seen in the past few decades that it's decidedly the opposite. i'm continually surprised how many "smart" friends of mine eat boxes and boxes of synthetic food under the premise that it's "healthy".
- don't make drastic changes to your diet because of scientific claims that such-and-such a compound has recently showed in a handful of studies to have benefit or drawback X. case in point: you know how egg people have been pumping omega-3's (or is it 6's) into eggs and chickens recently, under the premise that more of this stuff is better? well, voila more research that shows a link between increased omega-[36] and alzheimer's. when faced with this barrage of information, it seems more prudent to eat what we evolved eating and stop worrying about superfood that will take us to the singularity faster.
- now that we have the choice to eat good-quality fresh food, make sure we continue to have that choice by supporting it.

i know he often repeats himself, but i find his work extremely readable and rational. i'd also encourage you to check out his letter to the president-elect in last sunday's NYT magazine, or if you can't find a copy of that, go dig up his fresh air interview with terry gross (from about five days ago) on dunno; maybe it will all be repeat for you, though.

Unknown said...

Oh, I think it's a good idea to follow his prescription, but again, I don't believe that food is the root of all the health problems that he claims it is. I believe the American lifestyle is fundamentally unhealthy (and unsustainable), and even if everyone ate the way Pollan said to do, we'd still have obesity, etc.

Conversely, I live very well on a diet that's opposed to what he does. In fact, my problem is keeping weight on my body! I actively seek out sources of fat and protein.

When I finally discussed this with Pollan he admitted that people in my category really shouldn't be reading his book. :-)