Monday, May 17, 2010

A Review of In Defense of Food

There isn’t a single person among us who hasn’t heard the old adage, “You are what you eat”. In the case of Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, this adage is taken one step further: you are also how you think about what you eat. In this book, Pollan reconstructs the way that our thinking about food has changed, and how, instead of making us healthy, which was the initial point of nutritionism, it is making us less healthy. Nutritionism, Pollan argues, is thinking about our food not as a whole system of factors that nourish us, but instead dividing and deconstructing our food into nutrients such as fat, carbs, omega-3 fatty acids, etc. Nutritionism has proposed that the key to health is not in the foods we eat, but the nutrients that are in those foods. This thinking has gone hand in hand with the over processing of our food, the logic being that, since all that is required of our food is for it to have nutrients, those nutrients can be added to processed food after the fact with little ill effect.

Pollan insists that this thinking is one of the major factors of the obesity and health crisis in the United States. There are others, such as the structure of what he calls “the standard American diet” and its overemphasis on meat and our overconsumption of seeds (rice, corn, etc) and not leaves (spinach and other greens). In this way, his controversial stance that he is defending “food” becomes clear. Pollan is defending food—real food, that is, food that isn’t heavily advertised or doesn’t come with toys in the box but is nevertheless the substance of the building blocks of healthy eating.

This is, indeed, heady stuff, but the book also has extremely logical and simple “food rules” that Pollan translates into very matter-of-fact ways of making food choices (He will later go on to write a whole book of common-sense ways of choosing food, titled, aptly “Food Rules”). The third part of the book deals with these. Pollan has a spectacular versatility with his language that allows him to discuss food in a very “meta” way, while in another chapter offering very accessible and usable new ways of thinking and looking at food. Albeit, Michael Pollan argues, these are not new ways of looking at food, but are, instead, old ways that have been lost due to the radical ways that we have changed how we eat and how we make food in the last fifty years.

Pollan streamlines his thinking into three simple, almost monosyllabic sentences: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Simple, yet deceptively so, and that is why I consider the reading of this book essential to really comprehend why concepts such as our CSA are a radical but positive departure from conventional eating, and also, why these new ideas and concepts are so very important for our health.

by Johanna (Turf CSA Member)