In Defense of Food

In his newest book, "In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto,"  Michael Pollan sets out to resolve the "Omnivore’s Dilemma,"  where if you ate industrially produced food you were killing the environment, if you ate industrial organic, you were doing slightly less harm, but the carbon impact of your consumption remains an environmental killer.  You could hunt yourself, and become a killer or you could eat food produced on places like Polyface Farms— if you live near such a famed place.  Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma was like eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge, it brought an uncomfortable awareness to every meal.  I wanted back into the Garden of Eatin’.  An Eater’s Manifesto both raises awareness about how we got to a place where food needs to be defended and sets out an alternative path.  His advice:  "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

In Defense of Food, Pollan references the problems of food production systems he took on in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but here the real enemies of food are "nutritionism," bad science, market forces and the collusion of US food regulating agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.  According to Pollan, it’s hard to conduct good scientific research on food, and that much research, including what went into the USDA’s food pyramid is flawed.  Basically, the whole low fat craze was based on a hunch.   The nation changed how we ate, and we ate low fat–only much more, and are now fatter and less healthy.  So what should we do?

"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Pollan’s argument is that culture is a better guide for what to eat than the claims of the food industry–and we should be especially wary of those claims.   I wish the core findings of this book were published as a pamphlet, distributed by a government concerned with the health of its citizens.  If I have any hesitation about Pollan’s prescription, it’s that it’s probably not a realistic option for those who are poor.  Organic and farmers market produce costs more than the industrial counterparts.   I also think that there’s a time tradeoff–if you follow his advice, you’re probably going to spend more time in the kitchen.  (Not a bad thing, but beware, it’s addictive.)  While "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," is memorable, fortunately, Pollan provides more detail:

  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food.  (OK, bacon is safe!)
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar b) unpronounceable c) have more than 5 ingredients or d) include high fructose corn syrup.  (Oreos, I shall miss you.)
  • Avoid products that make health claims.  Bye bye Smart Balance.  Hello Buttah!
  • Shop the edges of the supermarket and stay out of the aisles.   If you can, get out of the supermarket and get to the farmer’s market.  Join a Community Supported Agriculture Group  Here’s a link to a directory
  • Get a freezer and freeze things when they’re in season
  • Eat mostly plants–especially leaves. 
  • Eat like an omnivore–that means a wide range of foods. 
  • Eat well grown foods from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can.  Purslane, dandelion anyone?
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (code for be rich and well educated–again, if only we were all so lucky)
  • Eat like the French, Italians or Japanese–follow a food culture, unlike the latest food craze  it has thousands of years of experience behind it.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for a magic bullet in a traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner (Cheers!)

How not to eat too much

  • Pay more, eat less.  (Whole Foods will like this one.)
  • Consult your gut.  Stop when you’re 80% full–or start to feel full.  (Where’s my meter?)
  • Eat meals–embrace the social value of sharing food.  In place of "feeding."
  • Do all your eating at a table (and no, your desk is not a table.)
  • Don’t buy food where you fuel up your car
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Eat slowly, make time for your meals
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden.

All in all, good advice.  Bon Appetit!

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