In Defense of Food – Book Review

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This is in essence the entirety of the advice in the book. Ok, so should you skip the book and instead keep the above sentence in mind? No, because unless you have defined what food is, you would probably continue with your old eating habits. Therefore I fully sympathize with Michael Pollan when he says that it is surprising that he needs to defend or even define food. But it is not that simple. Here’s what I mean.

Imagine meeting your long lost friend from the past – someone who lives in the 19th century, or even the early 20th century. You take him to a supermarket and you ask him to “Buy some food.” Then imagine giving the same advice to someone who lives in the present. When both of them are done with their shopping, you would definitely realize that what food means to your present-day friend is way different than what it means to your historic friend from the past. Your long lost friend would have probably picked up fruits, vegetables, and some meat (if he could have recognized it in the slick packaging), while your present day friend would have probably picked up a few packets of Lays, his favourite soda and an assortment of candies. What the average person today thinks of food is way different than its traditional definition.

That is why reading the rest of the book is important. Today, there are more food-like substances gracing the shelves of our supermarkets than actual good old food. Every year thousands of new variations of old products are introduced, each bringing more extreme changes to the chemistry of the product. Today in America the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented—and dizzying. Each of these carefully engineered products are stuffed down the consumers’ throats through rampant marketing and advertising, much of it questionable or even unethical.

There are quite a few thought provoking arguments that the author has made in defense of food. Years ago what you ate was a function of your culture, or what your parents or grand-parents said was good. Lately, mom has been put to the sidelines. Over the last several decades, mom lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers. And just because the new coach is wearing a slick custom-fit suit or has a long list of educational qualifications, consumers are lapping up his advice. But unfortunately, in the long term the new coach’s advice is only harming the player.

The author argues that this new coach – the food marketers, and their game plan – the Western Diet, is one of the biggest culprit for the increased rate of disorders such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. The human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them.

The author even goes on to make a bold claim questioning the entire science of nutrition because it is a flawed science that knows much less than it cares to admit. The focus on individual nutrients and their importance is seen in isolation by these nutrition scientists with the result being that food has been de-constructued into its partial constituents and then repackaged in convenient boxes supposedly fortified again by their nutrients. But the author argues that these reconstituted food-like substances cannot give the same benefits as the original food that they were derived from. So, eating oranges (with all its fiber) may be healthier than gulping down packaged orange juice (which may be nothing other than sugar, artificial flavouring and preservatives). Another example the author gives is of milk where scientists have failed to replicate the entire spectrum of nutrients that milk as a natural liquid provided compared to baby formula.

The scary thing about the whole matter is that inspite of this happening in full view of the government, the government is actually toothless to keep a strict check on such practices. Take for example the famous food pyramid, the US government has failed to completely avoid the influence of powerful industries that influence the advice that it gives out to the citizens. The story of the food pyramid is something that has been explored in Sugar Salt Fat, which is yet another excellent read for finding out about the power that corporations wield today in order to push their products further and more aggressively. This makes it clear that it is in the individual’s best interest to make sure that he or she makes the right eating choices because neither the government nor the food companies are going to do it for them.

The second part of the book expands the author’s single sentence advice further. The great thing about Pollan’s approach is that he does not advice you to track your macro-nutrients to the last ounce, nor is it obsessed on counting calories. The advice simply follows the traditional advice that would be prevalent in many cultures across the world, the kind that is given by your grandmother (and that you’re more likely to ignore). Michael Pollan carefully defines what food is. And he does that using simple and memorable rules. For example, DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. This sentence is so simple that it almost seems obvious. Yet many people today would happily pickup something that comes in a colorful box, with its healthy benefits screaming from its packaging. Although the author doesn’t advice people to turn vegetarians, he does suggest that plants should be the major constituents of a healthy diet. Lastly, the adage of staying a little bit hungry at each meal is presented to help slow aging and prolong lifespan in animals.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The author gives out the essence of the book within the first few lines itself. Yet the entire book is an interesting read to understand how food has mutated into an attractive yet unhealthy mixture of carefully engineered chemicals . Food has become less food, more foodish. Only once you distinguish this unholy mass from good old fashioned food, it will be possible for you to start eating your way to health.

This was my second read of the book and I’ll probably keep coming back to it a few more times in the years ahead. This is a must read if you’re planning to start out a new diet or even if you simply want to be more conscious and aware of what you put on your plate today.