Michael Pollan says that he began doing the research for In Defense of Food almost as soon as his epochal work on the Western diet, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was published: “I found that readers were, first, astounded to learn what they were eating, and second, eager to know how they might change the way they eat. I was surprised to discover how confused so many of us are about this most elemental of creaturely activities: figuring out a healthy diet.” There are several reasons for the obfuscation currently surrounding what should be a fairly basic question. For one thing, food and eating have become detached from the cultural context in which they were formerly embedded. Add to that the combined exertions of nutritionists and the food industry, and we find ourselves where we are today: trying to eat in a healthy manner but puzzled as to how to do so.
I especially enjoyed Pollan’s description, in his introduction, of the kind of food his mother grew up eating: “…stuffed cabbage, organ meats, cheese blintzes, kreplach, knishes stuffed with potato or chicken liver, and vegetables that often were cooked in in rendered chicken or duck fat.” He adds that he never ate that food except when they went to visit his grandparents. This was the cuisine of Jews who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe or Russia, and it describes the kind of cooking my grandparents did as well (except that I also remember the vegetables being boiled to within an inch of their poor lives!). Okay, Pollan, admits, this was one cultural gift that was not the healthiest in the world. But some of it, I can tell you from experience, was really delicious!
However – we digress (always a danger when food is being discussed). Pollan’s little book is full of fascinating contemporary food facts, some of which amaze, while others infuriate. He marshals statistics and cites studies, lightening the tone from time to time with tales of some incredibly bizarre theories from past years and the equally bizarre personalities who espoused them. For instance, it seems that animal protein was the bugbear of many nutrition scientists in the early part of the 20th century. John Harvey Kellogg was of the opinion that it was not only responsible for the proliferation of toxic bacteria into the colon – it also promoted masturbation! Pollan then regales us with tales of the doings at Kellogg’s Battle Creek sanitarium:
“…patients (who included John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt) paid a small fortune to be subjected to such ‘scientific’ practices as hourly yogurt enemas (to undo the damage that protein supposedly wreaked on the colon); electrical stimulation and ‘massive vibration’ of the abdomen; diets consisting of nothing but grapes (ten to fourteen pounds of them a day); and at every meal, “Fletcherizing,” the practice of chewing each bite of food approximately one hundred times. (Often to the rousing accompaniment of special chewing songs.)”
The lesson here, obviously, is that nutrition fads encouraged by nutrition crackpots are nothing new on the scene. While this type of extreme “treatment,” unsupported by hard science, was eventually discredited, the food science of the second half of the 20th century became more serious, more methodical – and more insidious in its effect, or so it seems to this reader.
The basic problem, as Pollan sees it, is the tendency of nutrition science to isolate nutrients and then recommend the consumption of certain foods because they possess those nutrients – and to advise against eating other foods, for the same reason. Of course, the most egregious example of this is the margarine/butter imbroglio, in which it was eventually revealed that the trans fats in margarine were much worse for you than the saturated fats in butter. (In our house, we had a one word response to this finding: HURRAY!!) There needs to be more awareness and acceptance of the fact that the interaction among various foods, when those foods are eaten together, can in itself promote health, for subtle reasons that are not well understood (and possibly don’t need to be).
Toward the book’s conclusion, Pollan offers some specific guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid eating. He has already summed up his advice on this question with a seven word mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But what does this rather cryptic exhortation actually mean? Well, to begin with: Don’t eat anything that would not have been recognizable as food your mother, or your grandmother – or possibly even your Neolithic ancestors! In other words, stay away from engineered comestibles: anything processed, including food that has had nutrients inserted into its makeup in a way that nature never intended. Rather, eat foods in which those nutrient elements occur naturally
As regards how much to eat, Pollan suggests cutting down – way down – on snacks, in favor of regular meals, preferably eaten in good company, and very importantly, eaten slowly. (See the Slow Food Movement.) Finally, Pollan extolls the virtues of fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens. They are rich in all sorts of nutrients that benefit our health. Omega-3 fatty acids are espcially vital. Although we usually think of fish as the primary source here, leafy green vegetables are even better. Fish get the Omega-3 from the algae and seaweed that they themselves consume. As Pollan reminds us, you are not only what you eat – you are what you eat eats!
(And wouldn’t you know it: just as I am resolving to eat more spinach, a story entitled “Report Criticizes FDA Over Spinach Packers” appears in today’s Washington Post!)
I hasten to say here that I’m oversimplifying a very complex subject. Michael Pollan does an impressive job of elucidating these various issues in this relatively short, highly readable volume.. I love his writing style, which is conversational, engaging, and liberally laced with humor. He avoids being doctrinaire, preferring instead to use sweet reason; because of this approach, I find him persuasive and compelling.
My only criticism, and it’s a gentle one, is that I was left feeling a bit wistful regarding the matter of flavor. In Defense of Food is not a recipe book, nor is it intended to be. I still have questions in my mind as to how to make my leafy greens taste delicious without undue adulteration. It was this same voracious quest for flavor that led me down the fatal garden path to – horrors! – Doritos Nacho Flavored Tortilla Chips, to which I was, in my former life, virtually addicted. (The diagnosis of Type II Diabetes put that guilty pleasure permanently off limits some years ago, though I still yearn for them, the crispy little devils!)
Here are some of the sites Michael Pollan recommends in the section on resources:
Center for Informed Food Choices. (See especially the FAQ’s.)
Weston A Price Foundation. I’m grateful to Michael Pollan for introducing me to Weston A. Price, a dentist by profession, a sort of nutrition visionary by inclination, and altogether a person worth knowing about.