Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book review: In Defense of Food

Today was my last day of school -- I'm done for the year! I could not be happier about it, because this means no driving back and forth and back and forth, or, as I've been doing lately, spending the whole day an hour from home. We've been bouncing between school and church and the library and the park, but naptime has been an issue and it's just so tiring for me to be away from home. I wish John were done with having to deal with it too.

The next book I read this past week was In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. The book is a critique of a notion called "nutritionism," the idea that food is simply the sum of its nutritional parts. Nutritionism is the philosophy behind fortified foods, "healthy" versions of food, and artificial food. The prime example is margarine. It's supposed to be healthier because it uses vegetable oils which are lower in saturated fat ... only it has "trans fats" which are incredibly bad for you! Every time we try to improve on food, it ends up backfiring.

Pollan's answer is, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Eat food means, only eat actual foods in their more-or-less natural state -- no processed stuff. I can totally sign on for that one. "Not too much" means, as he explains it, that we should eat the way other cultures do, for enjoyment, in company of others, and slowly. Americans tend to see food as a fuel to keep our bodies going, and we scarf it down in front of the TV, at our desks, or in the car. That's hardly a recipe for health -- or happiness. And "mostly plants" means that we should eat less meat ... which was something I actually didn't agree with.

After all, Pollan spends a lot of time debunking traditional nutrition. He argues that fat is not bad for you after all (and the scientific community knows it!) and talks about traditional cultures that eat high-fat, high-meat diets. There are even cultures that hardly ever eat plants at all, and they're known for their vibrant health. But after telling us all this, he turns around and says, "But Americans eat too much meat." His defense? "Everyone in the medical community agrees on that." Yes, but everyone in the medical community thought 20 years ago that low-fat diets would save us all. Pollan even suggests the danger of meat is all that saturated fat ... but I thought we weren't supposed to be demonizing particular nutrients!

Now, I agree that conventionally-raised meat isn't the best for you, and so we shouldn't overindulge in it -- or anything else, for that matter. But I think part of other cultures' secret that keeps them from overeating is that they eat plenty of fat. Take the French. French food is swimming in butter (i.e. saturated fat) and they are extraordinarily healthy. He talks a bit about the "French paradox" but mostly says it's due to their cultural eating habits (eating slowly, having small portions, etc.). It seems to me, when you've been eating shellfish drenched in garlic butter, you won't want seconds. Trying a bunch of psychological tricks to make yourself stop eating when you've still got the munchies seems a little ... self-depriving. Possibly unnecessarily.

I also didn't like how Pollan went on and on against choosing foods based on the nutrients inside them, saying we shouldn't be counting grams of fat or carbs (which I agree with) but also saying we shouldn't keep track of what vitamins we're getting or labeling some real foods as "healthy" and others as "less healthy." For one thing, some real foods really are healthier than others. Some things, like liver, are really rich in nutrients, and others, like rice, aren't so much. Then, of course, Pollan goes off about omega-6's and omega-3's, showing that maybe talking about nutrients isn't so bad after all. Except that it is. Except that it isn't. The whole book was a little too fluffy and poetic for me to quite get a handle on actual, hard-and-fast ideas.

Overall, I did like the book, and I agreed with most of it. I agree that the industrial food system and the nutritional establishment have some serious problems. But I'm not sure I like his solutions. The real-food movement (say, the Weston A. Price Foundation) tends to treat Pollan like an ally, because he does believe in real food. However, his odd idea that we should eat less meat doesn't really jive with what the WAPF says -- even though he was happy to quote Price when he agreed with him.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with analyzing the nutrition in the food we eat. I actually love doing it, and sort of wish I had a lab so I could compare the nutrients in plants grown on different soils and so forth. I don't think we need to be counting and tallying and worrying, but I'm a believer in science and tradition working side by side. Is X a traditional food? How healthy is the culture that eats X? Can we replicate the health benefits of X in people not of the same culture? Okay, then, let's eat more X. Bonus points if you can quantify what X is and how it works.

Still, I found the book an enjoyable (one-day) read. It was short and sweet and poetically written. I liked the stories of Aborigines curing themselves of heart disease and diabetes by returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and things like that. And it exposed a lot of issues with processed food, a few of which I hadn't known about. So, definitely a good book -- but I wish that it, like a blog, had a comments section for me to argue with the author. I think the internet has spoiled me.

Note: It is no longer May 26th. But I'm leaving the old date because this post begins "It's the last day of school!" Oops. Somebody didn't have any blogging time over the weekend, and I think it was me.


Sarah Faith said...

I really liked that book, too. Quite level headed and common sensical. His conclusions made sense in the light of the conventionally raised meat, but of course as you and i know there is a better option. :)

Meredith said...

I've wanted to read this book for a while... I suspect that I already agree with most of it, so I haven't shelled out any money!

I must confess that American eating habits are a hot-button, rage-inducing issue for me. Every time I open a women's magazine and look at the adds for processed "convenience" food, I turn into a scowling crank. Bless me father... I judge moms who give their kids Lunchables.

Sheila said...

Haha, so do I. Which puts me in a bit of a bind, because I've been known to give my kid some pretty unhealthy stuff myself. Sometimes baloney is just all that I seem to have around! And I worry when John gives him a lick of his day-glo popsicle. But I do try, and most of what he eats is good for him. You do what you can. Someday, when I have a little more cash (wouldn't THAT be nice), I'll feed him a lot better than I do now.

The Daddy factor, however, is out of my control!

Unknown said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what you had to say. I'll have to get that book!
BTW, I just came across your blog and have really enjoyed it. I've also given you an award. Click back to my blog for it:

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