on 25 May 2010
What can I say about this book, it is simply superb. What Pollan has done in this book is to bring together all the common sense that been learned about food over the last few thousand years and asks if what we've been doing to foods in the last few decades has really been beneficial.
The book begins by looking at modern food (i.e. processed food) and investigated how this `improved' food has impacted upon the health of the last few generations. The results show just how the food we are eating really is affecting our health despite all the miraculous health claims the packaging may have been making. But Pollan goes on to look at the even bigger picture of how this same food may be affecting more than just health, but behaviour of people and just how the "ready in 20 mins" food may effect the family unit too. He goes on to expose some of the lies that the food industries are making with their health claims and just how the inclusion, or exclusion, of certain vitamins, oils etc can actually be having adverse effects upon our health.
I must admit you begin to feel a little hopeless at this point, however this is where the real brilliance begins.
In the final third of the book Pollan explains how we can reclaim the power over our diets and health. He does this, not in some complicated diet, i.e. GI, Atkins, Calorie counting or any of the other ridiculous `weight loss' diets (personal opinion), but by simple easy to follow guidelines (i.e. if a food has more than 5 ingredients, most of which you can't pronounce, then don't by it, or even simpler, buy food that your Great Gran would recognise (that's the yogurt in a tube out then)). Pollan describes how to enjoy food and urges you to spend more than 20mins preparing and eating food in front of the TV, but rather to make food an intrinsic part of your life and your families' life for the benefit of all.
To those of you, like me, who are already love food and are keen to improve the health of your diet, but not at the cost of your enjoyment of food, then this book will guide you to a sensible and life affirming view of food. To those who are already trapped in the ready meal hell (or even worse the weight loss food hell), and are looking to escape, this book is a brilliant place to start, but be warned your belly, body and health are going to thank you for it.
Mr Pollan I thank you for this book.
on 3 March 2008
I heard Mr Pollan on Radio 4, and was impressed. The book is well worth persevering with, it is crammed with well researched information.
This is not a diet book, it is an anti-diet book. It arms you with all the tools you need to make up your own mind about food.
It is easy to become almost evangelical about this book, but it is a really important piece of work. Nutritionalists should not worry, the world still needs you, but this book makes you wonder about the way that major corporations use this information to boost profits.
on 8 February 2008
This book is very well written and easy to understand. It conveys a complicated subject matter very simply. This is that the "western diet" of processed food products is slowly killing people and that we need to radically change our relationship with food. While this sounds scary, the book is not an act of scare-mongering but an essay on what and how we should eat food. I would highly recommend anyone living in the west to read this book as it will open their eyes.
The devils here are "nutritionism" and "reductive science." I would prefer the terms "big agriculture" and "over processed, refined and denatured" foods. And if the word "science" is insisted upon, it should be "science" sponsored by big agriculture and food processing companies. Terminology aside, the point that Michael Pollan is making is that the problem with the American diet that has led to an astonishing increase in obesity and attendant chronic diseases of plenty such as type two diabetes, is that we are eating foods that have been produced unnaturally in monocultures, foods that have been stripped of many of their nutrients, foods that are alien to any kind of established or traditional cuisine.
Pollan demonizes reductive science because that has been the tool of the corporate interests. However reduction in science is a method breaks things down into individual parts, a method that is handy for some kinds of problems. When we cannot break down the problem effectively, as in the case with food, reductive science is less capable and we must give greater weight to historical science. We must look at entire cuisines and the social situations in which food is eaten to understand our nutritional relationship to what we eat and how. Sometimes it is the case the whole IS greater than the sum of the parts. In the case of even a single food, such as an orange or an apple or leaf of spinach, it is not currently possible to identify reductively just what it is about the food that makes it healthy for us to eat. Indeed, as Pollan argues, there may well be synergistic effects from a single food to an entire cuisine that are essential to good eating.
Pollan writes: "In recent years a less reductive method of doing nutritional science has emerged, based on the idea of studying whole dietary patterns instead of individual foods or nutrients." (p. 179) He adds, "How a culture eats may have just as much of a bearing on health as what a culture eats." (p. 182)
It is also the case that we eat too much. We eat by portion size or until our plate is clean when we should be paying attention to how much we have eaten and how full we feel. We are not able to do that very well because we eat too fast and eat amid a host of distractions like the TV, or the traffic as we are driving in our vehicles, and we have no traditional guidance as to how much to eat. Guiding us are the great corporations that produce the food and want us to consume vast quantities of their products. Furthermore, eating has gotten too easy. I did a little study of some of the foods eaten by the Native Americans in the area around Sacramento and found that just processing foods like acorns, Digger pine nuts, black walnuts, etc. required hours per meal. Pollan asks, "How often would you eat French fries if you had to peel, wash, cut and fry them yourself--and then clean up the mess?" (p. 186) Fast food is a huge part of the problem which is why there is a healthy movement that started in Italy called "slow food." Pollan even refers to some studies which show that "the widespread availability of cheap convenience foods could explain most of the twelve-pound increase in the weight of the average American since the early 1960s." (pp. 186-187)
The sad truth is that big agriculture and the food processing corporations have addicted Americans to the easy macronutrients in their "foods" and we are in denial. Pollan notes, "The snack food and beverage industry has surely been the great beneficiary of the new social taboo against smoking..." (p. 191) We have traded one addiction for another.
When we look at traditional diets the world over from China to the Mediterranean, we can see that they suffer from heart attacks, obesity, etc. must less often than we do. I think a more active lifestyle is a major factor here, but the total of ensemble of what, how, and when they eat in traditional ways is the other major factor. Pollan concludes that "the human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them." (p. 11)
There is a lot of other interesting information and insights in this excellent book about how and why we got to this sorry state of affairs vis-à-vis food. This is the third of Pollan's books on food that I have read, and although perhaps the least of the three, it is nonetheless an outstanding piece of work that ought to be widely read. The other books are The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (2001) and The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Natural History of Four Meals (2006). See my reviews at Amazon.
on 11 May 2009
Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at Berkeley, is a prolific writer on food and food-related issues, which have drawn much attention in the United States in recent years. After his more historical and philosophical works, "In Defence of Food" is a practical guide to and defense of food. To be precise, food as opposed to processed, additive-filled, can-conserved and/or microwavable goo that passes for food in most of our Western supermarkets.
Pollan uses a pleasant style and a usefully skeptical attitude towards the faddish nutritional science of the past decades to launch a critique on the industrial process of food production in the Western world, which has made us at the same time less healthy, fatter, and less nourished. As Pollan shows, typical 'rich' diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, coronary disease, stroke and so forth are directly and invariably correlated to following the broadly defined 'Western diet' (which despite Pollan using this name is really mostly the American diet). This, in turn, is caused partially by an excessive focus on single 'good' or 'bad' nutrients in food science, which eliminates both the interplay of various elements in given foodstuffs as they relate to our health, partially by the social and cultural contexts of food being ignored in such science, leading to useless and confusing study results, and finally in part by the food industry bribing and cajoling governments and researchers alike to make these practices suit their profit needs. He calls this 'nutritionism', following an Australian researcher on the same topic.
Although Pollan's critique is backward-looking in the sense of supporting traditional conceptions of food, where food is healthy qua food, not because of one or another 'good' nutrient du jour being part of it, its radical nature is by no means to be underestimated. Consistently, at times even repetitively, Pollan shows chapter after chapter how all the negative effects associated with the American way of eating as well as the 'food' consumed are the result of the modern agrocapitalist food industry and its unrestrained victory over any standards of healthcare or regulation other than removing explicit poison (and even that not always).
As alternative, Pollan proposes methods of food production that eliminate the artificial focus on individual nutrients as well as restoring the social context of meals in the classic sense, which implies eating natural, unaltered foods (organic or better), eating them in normal quantities, and taking your time with the meal to enjoy it. He summarizes his basic viewpoint as "eat food, not too much, mostly plants", but expands upon this in the final chapter to give some more detailed considerations on what kind of attitude to take to choosing food in our kind of society.
In a pleasant change from the normal faddish type of diet advice book, he actually looks at the structural issues around the production of food, not just choice of specific nutrients in them, and he gives tips on what kind of things to consider when choosing rather than telling the reader specifically what kind of food to eat. This is indeed a great advancement and for that reason this book is certainly to be recommended. The only downsides are a gratuitous and unnecessarily anti-socialist attitude (he repeatedly compares things he doesn't like to Marxism or the Soviet Union, even though that has no relation to the topic whatsoever), and the fact his critique gets a little repetitive over time.
on 5 June 2009
Everything I read in this books makes complete sense. Pollan's 'manifesto' is not a diet in the traditional sense (thank goodness - we don't need any more of those). It has reinforced my belief that we don't need to look to scientists to tell us what to eat and that there is so much more to eating a healthy balanced diet than nutrients and calories. Even doing some of what he suggests, some of the time would make an enormous difference to our health. Don't hesitate, buy this book right now!
Michael Pollan's hard-hitting, witty and possibly life-saving look at food - specifically the shambolic disgrace that is the 'Western Diet', sets its premise out right at the start - we need to:
Eat food. Not too much. Eat more plants.
That first statement might raise a few eyebrows. Surely anything we eat, by definition, is food? Not so. As Pollan shockingly shows, we stopped eating food in the West several decades ago, and began to eat 'nutrients' instead. As part of an ongoing 'reductionism' which gets applied to almost everything. our foods have been picked apart to analyse specific ingredients (in isolation) which are said to harm us or to help us. Politics, big business, whether the food 'industry' - which it has become as most of our food is now manufactured rather than, well, allowed to grow, graze or roam - or the 'health industry' have all benefitted from the 'un' food revolution. The individual consumer pays the price in terms of soaring rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and more. The planet and future generations pay the price in terms of depleted soil, the rapid fall in biodiversity and an unsustainable way of life. Our non-food is another way we are killing the planet. And ourselves.
Pollan's book shows elegantly and easily how much our food has changed. He urges us not to follow faddy diets which all look at food through single nutrient zealotry - eg 'the Atkins Diet' 'the GI' diet 'the Omega 3 diet'. Look at the labels on any 'packaged' food. A loaf of bread rarely contains the ingredients your great grandmother would have recognised. Not only are there a whole host of 'enriching' additives and 'nutrients' - designed to replace those which should have been naturally within the original foodstuff but which modern farming techniques and agri-breeding for yield rather than anything else has stripped away - but the food will have been subjected to processes further depleting it of its goodness.
We literally consume more of our 'food' because it is giving us less in the way of 'nutrients', as Pollan says, the 'Western diet' manages an unheard of own goal - obesity coupled with malnourishment or deficiency!
Throw out the faddy diet books, throw out the supplements, throw out the 'science' - often bad science - eg margarine being 'better for you than butter' - eat food you can recognise which is simply grown or reared. The food we have evolved to eat over millenia. And recognise that food has always been about more than nutrients - its about our connection to the earth and to each other - food is a part of our culture, cementing and connecting social bonds. As Pollen engagingly shows, food loving cultures such as Italy and France celebrate and enjoy food, as part of life's pleasures,; they don't eat nutrients! And they tend to be healthier. Or at least they were, till 'the Western Diet' (ie McDiet) began its parasitic onslaught into every corner of the globe
on 3 June 2010
I will keep this brief as there are already wordy reviews here.
Being round, I read quite a bit on diet and how to eat and for me this was a clear concise opinion on the subject that I agree with. I read the whole book last weekend (no mean feat for me) couldn't put it down. Not only does he present how things got into the state they are, which for me was helpful, he offers a practical and simple solution, one we all know but forget. Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants. He fleshes out what he means by this and made it simple so I can remember it as I shop. It's only been a week but I do feel a weight has been taken off my shoulders when it come to eating. He taken it away from simply feeding and back to eating and being civilised around food. I anticipate not being round for much longer.
on 24 October 2009
I know that different people will read this book in different ways, but I really like this book - purely because it reminds us that the best way to eat is: quality over quantity, real food not stuff from packets, and mostly to enjoy food, take our time and eat it slowly, preferably with others.
Can't say fairer than that really!
on 24 August 2008
This may be one of the best books I've read this year. I came across it mostly by chance, when browsing the biology books. Michael Pollan has written a book about the evolution of fruit-trees, and when looking at that, "In Defense of Food" came up too. Since it's very popular, I naturally wanted to see what was shaking!
I wasn't disappointed. I originally assumed that Pollan was a wacky independent thinker, but actually he's a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and a regular contributor to the New York Times. He's not a Green radical or militant vegan either. In fact, Pollan's book is eminently reasonable, almost conventional, but precisely for that reason, revolutionary!
As you no doubt have guessed, "In Defense of Food" is a critical book about the American food processing industry. But not just the industry! What makes the book so interesting, is that Pollan *also* criticizes the nutritionists and their health fads. At first glance, this may seem strange. Aren't nutritionists and the food industry adversaries? Don't the nutritionists often criticize the food processing industry for producing unhealthy food? Isn't it a good thing that government regulations force the food companies to make healthier food?
Pollan's answer is: well, no, not really. In his opinion, the nutritionists are part of the problem. Indeed, the industry and the nutritionists are two sides of the same coin! Artificial, processed food (such as margarine) has *always* been marketed with the argument that it's more "healthy", "scientific" and "nutritious" than the real thing (in this case, butter). Conversely, the nutritionists have never criticized the production of processed food as such. They only criticize it for lacking this or that nutrient, this or that vitamin or fatty acid. The food companies can easily "solve" the problem by simply manufacturing a new artificial product, and pretend that's "health food". Besides, the federal regulations aren't exactly water-tight, and allows companies to market even snacks and candy as health food!
About a century ago, people had no problem with what to eat. They simply ate what they had always eaten, for generations, and this seems to have worked very well! As Pollan puts it: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants". Or "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food". While more people died of infectious diseases a century ago, fewer people died of heart attacks, diabetes and other food-related conditions. A person who made it into ripe old age was less likely to die of food-related conditions in 1900 than today. In plain English: food was healthier and more nutritious in the good old days (and no, Pollan doesn't sound like a paleo-conservative). What went wrong?
The industrialization of food production, that's what went wrong. Together with mass marketing and mass lobbying of Congress, the food industry created a situation where what we eat was no longer decided upon by culture and tradition. Rather, eating became a matter decided upon by corporate executives, lobbyists, politicians and nutritionists, many of whom were employed by the food processing industry itself. Naturally, they recommended that we eat more processed food. And when this food turned out to be dangerous, the industry responded to pressure by simply producing even more processed food, now with some extra "nutrient" added to make it look healthier. Once again, there is a connection between the phoney food produced by modern industry, and the periodic health fads and health crazes. (Pollan's argument is more subtle and complex than I can summarize in a short review, but this is the bare gist of it.)
So what's the solution? Pollan describes an interesting experiment in Australia, where a group of Aborigines who lived a modern and unhealthy lifestyle (they had developed both diabetes and insuline resistance!) were persuaded to return to their original hunter-and-gatherer way of life. After a very short period, they became *much* healthier. Of course, modern Americans can hardly "go native" in the same way, but Pollan believes there are things one can do, such as buying food from farmers' markets, or straight from farms, rather than from supermarkets, or at least avoiding the most obviously artificial foodstuffs in supermarkets. He also makes a compelling case for common meals (real common meals, as in the good old days), and calls on people to stop snacking all day long.
On the face of it, this sounds like pretty obvious advice, almost boring. No sensational new diets, no extraordinary health cereals or chocolate bars, no genetically engineered or irradiated superfood. And no New Age meditation! Just plain, old-fashioned cooking: "Eat (real) food. No too much. Mostly plants". Come again?
Actually, Professor Pollan's advice is revolutionary. Although Pollan himself is presumably pretty main-stream, this must be the most revolutionary book published this year! It's obvious from his analysis that the food processing industry is a powerful special interest group that simply cannot stomach this kind of reasonable advice. Why not? Pollard points out that the food processing industry would loose a large part of its profits if people would go back to traditional cooking. Since food cultures that existed for centuries tend to be naturally conservative, there would be less room for innovation, and hence for windfall profits. Naturally, profits would fall if people ate less, and skipped the snacking altogether, or bought more food from local organic farms rather than from multinational supermarket chains. The author also points out that the food processing companies have a vested interest in marketing bad eating habits, such as snacking in the car, children eating alone after preparing food in the microwave oven, etc. In other words, the proposals of "In Defense of Food" would threaten the commodification and marketization of food! They point in the direction of a Green community.
If that's not revolutionary, what is?