Review: In Defense of Food

Every weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.

Ok. So “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan isn’t a cookbook, but I read it while I was traveling and it is getting a lot of press these days so I thought I would review it.

The Slogan

If you are even mildly interested in food these days you have probably heard the manifesto that Pollan refers to throughout this book. It is actually the entire basis of the book and it is this: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It seems simple enough but it takes Professor Pollan 205 pages (not to mention over 20 pages of qualified cited sources) to unpack this simple 7 word phrase.

And if you think about it, it makes sense. What, exactly, is food? How much is too much? Mostly plants? These are pretty vague questions and they take some work to unpack.

We are Unhealthy

The first thing that Mr. Pollan has to prove before we can even talk about this 7 word phrase is show that the diet we have now (which is the opposite of that seven word phrase) is actually harmful. He makes a very convincing argument (and has a lot of very qualified science backing him) to show that most of the health problems we have an abundance of in the West (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) can be directly linked to our diet.

Some of the most telling studies that show this do nothing more than track down a group of people who were not eating a Western diet (say aborigines) and monitor their health after they started eating in a Western fashion. A group of ten aborigines that were tracked in this method all developed Type 2 Diabetes. Once they were placed back on their normal diet, the health problems disappeared. Now, obviously, not everyone who eats a Western diet gets Diabetes, but this study (along with many others Pollan cites) pretty clearly points to a problem.

Defining a Diet

So what the heck is a Western diet? What is it that millions of people are eating daily that is causing all these issues? Instead of picking a specific thing, like we eat too much fat, Pollan focuses on larger issues such as how we have moved from whole foods to refined foods, from complexity to simplicity of food production, from quality to quantity, from leaves to seeds, and from food culture to food science.

When he lays out all of the effects of these shifts that compose the Western diet, it is no wonder why it is causing so many problems.

Fighting the Western Diet

A lot of this book is nothing more than a pure assault on the Western Diet. This includes a wide range of things that most Americans take for granted everyday including most fast food, processed foods, and even diet foods or foods that promise added nutrients.

The problem, according to Pollan, is that to this day, nutritionists and diet-makers have been trying to piece apart the Western diet to find the one thing that causes all of these issues rather than just throwing out the whole thing. He makes a compelling argument by pointing to all the fads that have come and gone and how each fad (low-fat, low-carb, low-whatever, high-whatever) hasn’t made us healthier and, in fact, our health continues to decline.

So instead of trying to deconstruct this thing, why not just give it up? It’s not like we need to eat this way. In fact, we can give it up by just following those seven special words.

Eat Food

This is the first of three sections that give actual rules that you can use to follow Pollan’s seven word phrase of how to effectively stop eating a Western diet that so many of us have become accustomed to. The rules may sound weird when you first read them, because they are novel and broad. But I find them easy to remember as I’m browsing the grocery store shelves which is kind of the point.

I don’t want to give them all because you should buy this book, but my favorite from this section is “Don’t eat things your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” In some cases he says you may need to go back to your great grandmother depending on age. The point is that your Grandmother would never recognize Fruit-by-the-foot as a food.

While that is my favorite because it sticks with me, one of the more helpful hints in this chapter is to shop on the perimeter of the grocery store. Anytime you venture into the interior isles you are almost certainly venturing into the land of NON-food.

Mostly Plants

Here Pollan gets a bit more specific on what to eat rather than what not to eat. My favorite part of this section plays off an old addage: “You are what what you eat eats too.” Kind of an awkward sentence to say, but you get the idea. If you eat a hamburger that came from a cow that was fed nothing but corn and antibiotics its entire life, then guess what you are eating also?

One other rule that I liked was “Eat like an omnivore.” Now, he redefines omnivore a bit because even a vegetarian can eat like an omnivore. It just means that you eat a wide range of things and that is beneficial. You’ll get a lot of different nutrients and benefits by varying your diet regularly.

Overall, this was maybe my favorite section out of the three. There is a lot to learn in the mostly plants section.

Not Too Much

This is the shortest chapter out of the three because it is pretty straightforward. Just don’t eat so much food. Of course, easier said than done so Pollan gives some rules that will help. Stuff like “Don’t eat alone” and “Always eat at a Table” are solid rules to keep you away from the chips and give you some reason to stop eating.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I found it to be a quick read but also very well-written. Each page is thought out and easy to follow. The rules are easy to remember and I find myself thinking about them daily now. If you are looking to change the way you think about food and dieting, this is a great place to start.

7 comments on “Review: In Defense of Food

  1. I just bought this actually, and I’m about halfway through. So far so good. It seems like common sense, but really it’s surprising how we’ve come to eat what we do. Michael does a good job of explaining his slogan. My Italian grandmother lived well past nineties and I don’t think she even knew what margarine was (bacon fat though – that she knew!).

  2. Thanks for the in-depth review of this. I’ve been thinking about picking this up, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ve got some hefty traveling coming up in the next few weeks and I think, after reading your awesome synopsis, that this may become my airplane reading fodder.

    Now I’m going to have to start looking through your site to see if you’ve reviewed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as well – that’s another one I’m thinking of grabbing.

  3. I just requested this book from the library and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for your insight. Eating any less?

  4. Actually that is the section I have the most trouble with. The Eat Food and Mostly Plants I have down, but I still want to stuff my large American face on occasion…. :)

  5. I'm glad you enjoyed it. As a scientist and foodie you can imagine I have a *moderate* (shoots quick glance at mountain of health books by desk) interest in this subject. To date this book is the easiest, most accurate explanation of the way it is.

    As for everyone asking about eating less, I have found that the best way to tackle this is to eat balanced meals of a variety of different foods (especially vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits). A nourished body is a satisfied body =) Also, eat slow.

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