Barbara Kingsolver's quest to embrace a food culture that is healthy for both the eater and the earth, while also indulging myself in stories of the rich and chocolatey dishes that have defined the most important memories of Molly Wizenberg's life. And so it was no surprise to me that, once I finally got around to delving into one of Michael Pollan's much-buzzed food books, I was totally engrossed.
True, this is a book that is more about the food industry and nutritionist science than food itself. Nonetheless, In Defense of Food makes me think about what I goes into my body in a whole new way. Pollan expounds upon the benefits of home-grown produce, of eating real food, of the pleasure of a completely home cooked meal from seed to table for reasons that go beyond popular nutritional science. I lead a relatively healthy lifestyle and a big part of that is I owe to my love of cooking. I do also have a sensibility about food well-aligned with the tenets of ayurveda that what you put into your body has an enormous impact on how you feel. And if you're struggling to improve your health, change your diet, or ward off disease, I have found the perfect prescription - read In Defense of Food. Even though Pollan doesn't write with the intention of creating a new diet trend, what he has to say will change the way people think about, and thus how they eat, food.
Pollan advocates eating real, whole foods, not the processed, refined, and heavily marketed "food-like substances" that line the aisles of your grocery store. He provides countless pieces of evidence to prove how much more healthful life was before the introduction of the Western diet. Many of the diseases with which we are most plagued today, including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cancer, are nearly if not entirely absent in native populations that have never encountered refined carbohydrates or processed fats. No matter if these populations depend on lots of meat, high dairy contents, or primarily fruits and vegetables, their food culture is immune to the unhealthful byproducts of processing and their people healthier because of it.
While nutritionists search for the most important power nutrients and slander the ones to avoid, Pollan advocates for a new kind of food science that focuses on actual foods and total diet, rather than individual nutrients. Nutrition science is far from a well-understood science, but rather an ideology that narrowly views food as merely the sum of its nutrient parts. Many nutritionists fail to acknowledge the healthful synergistic reactions that occur in the human body when consuming whole foods and adhering to traditional diets. The interaction of various types of food, the ways in which whole foods have repeatedly proven themselves better for our health than processed foods with the same exact nutrient makeup, the fact that populations following traditional diets have lower incidence of chronic diseases than those with Western diets - these trends all point to the need for an important change in the Western food culture. Yet nutritional science steers popular thinking about food in Western society, espousing particular nutrients as good and bad rather than taking in the larger picture pertaining to what we eat as a whole, how we eat it, when we eat it, and how we think about it.
Pollan's book is a fairly easy read on the most essential aspect of human life: food. And his conclusions are alarmingly simple. The steps that we need to take to improve our lifestyle as it pertains to food can be summed up quite simply by Pollan's 7-word adage to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In another sense, we need to eat more like our ancestors, to un-learn what has been taught to us by the food industry and re-discover our sense of food. The implications of these potential changes are enormous for our health and well-being, our environment, politics, and economy. Unfortunately, the possibility of seeing such a massive refashioning of the food industry, however, is highly unlikely with so much damage already done and so many market interests at stake. The most we can hope for is that Pollan's cause be spread. Once people start to think more about their food, how they prepare it, where it came from, how they will eat it, etc., hopefully small changes that occur on the level of the individual will gradually accumulate to the larger, society-level adjustments that are necessary. In Defense of Food won't scare you like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle - this isn't propaganda - and Pollan won't encourage you to take on a fad diet that will only last until nutritionists discover a new super-food of the moment. Rather, Pollan erects a thorough, nearly impenetrable argument for changing the Western way of thinking about food in order to improve multiple aspects of life on levels both personal and cultural.