I recently read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Food Rules, both by professor and journalist Michael Pollan. Pollan distills his research and book down to this simple mantra: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” A simple mantra, but a complicated meaning.
Pollan writes about what it means to be a food in today’s modern supermarket. All those rows and rows of packages, cans, and boxes in the middle of the store? That ain’t food. It’s science. How can something that’s full of chemicals to keep it on a shelf for an indeterminate amount of time be good for you? Pollan talks about the science that goes into creating and producing chemical-heavy packaged goods, and the bad science that goes into the so-called health claims that label those packages. Pollan is clearly against “nutritionism,” a practice he defines as focusing on a single nutrient to the exclusion of all others or other reasons why a food may be good or bad for you. He critiques the companies who advertise that a food is “high in” or “low in” a certain nutrient because it leads the average consumer astray. If you see a packaged loaf of bread that says “low in cholesterol” on it, you may ignore the fact that the bread is made of highly processed ingredients, including seven different types of sugars–and that, of course, is exactly what the big food companies want you to do.
He slaughters the Western diet, noting studies showing that cultures and remote tribes who switch to a Western diet suddenly have skyrocketing health problems, largely attributable to meat as well as soda and other sugary treats. I appreciated Pollan’s dip into the meat market, and fully expected him to proclaim that all meat is bad and we should all become vegans, without really exploring the issue. To my delight, he didn’t. While Pollan pointed out some of the things that are disturbing about the raising, processing, and selling of meat, and eventually concludes that the less meat you eat the better you are, he didn’t get sanctimonious about it.
Oh, but wait: he does devote an entire section of his book to how and what you should eat. Eventually, Pollan totally lifted this section for his book “Food Rules.” Save yourself the money before you buy, because “Food Rules” is exactly, almost word-for-word, the third section of “In Defense of Food.” Which is not to say it’s bad. I found Pollan’s food rules to be simple and concise, yet really thought-provoking. For example:
- Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
- Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third grader can’t pronounce.
- Eat only food that will eventually rot.
- If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
- Be the kind of person who takes supplements–then skip the supplements.
I recommend this book. It’s a quick read, and it’s written with a more evenhanded approach than is normally seen in this genre. Sure, a lot of it is common sense stuff, but it’s worth taking the time out of your busy day to really think about it what you eat and whether it’s really food.