Saturday, December 6, 2008

Review: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: an eater's manifesto by Michael Pollan
2 stars

Reasons for reading: For book club; Nonfiction for Triple 8 Challenge

Description:"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." These simple words go to the heart of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, the well-considered answers he provides to the questions posed in the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma. Humans used to know how to eat well, Pollan argues. But the balanced dietary lessons that were once passed down through generations have been confused, complicated, and distorted by food industry marketers, nutritional scientists, and journalists-all of whom have much to gain from our dietary confusion. As a result, we face today a complex culinary landscape dense with bad advice and foods that are not "real." These "edible foodlike substances" are often packaged with labels bearing health claims that are typically false or misleading. Indeed, real food is fast disappearing from the marketplace, to be replaced by "nutrients," and plain old eating by an obsession with nutrition that is, paradoxically, ruining our health, not to mention our meals. Michael Pollan's sensible and decidedly counterintuitive advice is: "Don't eat anything that your great-great grandmother would not recognize as food." My thoughts: Well, some of them are book club's thoughts, too - we just discussed it last night. Overall, I like Pollan's simple manifesto of "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I've particularly been trying to concentrate on the plants part, as I constantly struggle with my fruit and vegetable intake. So that's positive.

But, for all of Pollan's questioning "nutritionist" research, some of the research he quotes isn't very convincing. While the study (which he comes back to numerous times) of the aborigines who were able to lose weight, reverse diabetes, etc. when taken out of their sedentary city lifestyle and taken to the bush to eat their "traditional diet" is interesting, but if you took me away from my stressful job, family and social obligations, housework, general busy-ness of life, and, of course, the TV and computer and all I had to do was walk around gathering food in the fresh air, I'd get healthier, too. While I'm sure the food had a lot to do with it, it seemed to ignore other factors, something that Pollan constantly calls other research on throughout the book.

The beginning of the book is a slog, quite repetetive, with a rather off-putting evangelical slant to it (although he does say right in the title it's a manifesto). The second half, with practical tips, is better. Although the tips for paying more for food ("those who can") comes off as rather elitist, and it's really not a good year to be told to spend more money (not that Pollan knew that when he was writing).

I did start noticing all of the packaging that makes health claims. My favourite is a new line of frozen vegetable mixes that, rather than just saying the names of the veggies, labels them as "Fibre," "Antioxidants," and "Omega-3's" with the names of the actual vegetables in tiny print underneath.

The best line in the book? "But don't take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health."


Crissy said...

As much I as appreciate the subject matter, I have never been able to stick with Michael Pollan's books.

The silence of the yams quote did make me laugh, though.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Yeah, if it hadn't been for my book club, I wouldn't have stuck with it, either. So I was at least glad for the yam line. :)