In Defense of Food

It is so easy to see why this book was recommended to me by so many people. At several points in the book it looked as if I were reading my own thoughts and ideas on food and nutrition.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan is exactly what the title states: An Eater’s Manifesto. Western civilization went from eating food to eating food products and along the way nutritional sciences told us what we were doing was healthy for us. Tweak the product with a little soy, a little corn, fortify with some vitamins, add back in some fiber, and presto you have a cheaper more convenient product that can deliver the same nutritional greatness as the original food source. They were wrong.

This book is an easier and more accessible read than his earlier book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Both are excellent and do not overlap. In Defense of Food has three distinct sections.

  1. The Age of Nutritionism
  2. The Western Diet and Diseases of Civilization
  3. Getting Over Nutritionism

The Age of Nutritionism goes after the science of studying the components of food and demonstrates the poor record nutritional science has had in trying to derive simple rules from complex food. During my journey with food, I discovered people interested in nutrition fell into two camps: those motivated by fear and those motivated by possibility.

The vast majority of people interested in nutrition are motivated by fear. They don’t want cancer, high blood pressure, or excess body fat and they are receptive to every news story or food label which provides a tip or product that they can use to avoid that disease or condition. An endless parade of studies citing the benefits of whatever diet is the fad of the time period. Moving away from fat, carbs, salt, sugar, or whatever in the hopes not of being healthy, but of not being sick. If you are one of those people who¬†turn up the volume whenever the local news comes on with the results of the latest study about some macronutrient, this section of the book should knock some sense into you.

If however your interest in nutrition is motivated by possibility, this section will be old news to you. By possibility I mean those of us that are striving toward optimal health not merely being disease-free. If you already have a set of guiding principles on eating healthy foods and are not easily swayed by the latest medical studies or newest food products, section one is not for you.

The Western Diet and Diseases of Civilization is the best section of the book. If your reading time is extremely limited, I highly encourage you to at least read The Industrialization of Eating: What We Do Know (p101-136 hardcover 1st Edition). These 35 pages are the most concise explanation of where we went wrong with the Western Diet.

Getting Over Nutritionism is the final section of the book. Instead of using the terms rules or tips, the author uses a great phrase. He lists his advice as Eating Algorithms. The entire chapter is the best collection of food wisdom I’ve ever seen assembled in one spot.

This is a very good book. Put down the box of high-fiber, heart-healthy, low-sodium, low-cholesterol, low-fat cereal, and read it.


Add yours

  1. Michael: thanks for the excellent review! I’d been trying to decide which of the two Pollan books to get for my wife; I now know to get the more recent one.

    I also appreciate your differentiation of motivations – it reminds me of Gerry Jampolsky’s classic book “Love is Letting Go of Fear” in which he says we are always operating from one of two perspectives – love or fear. Others have used labels such as “abundance” and “scarcity”. In any case, it’s helpful [for me] to think about those two poles in the context of nutrition.

  2. My favorite part of the book is the first part where he exposes nutritionism, nutrients, and nutritionists for the fraud that it all is. It still angers me when I see all those absurd labels on the boxes of packaged foods.

    One practical tip worth remembering to pass on to friends… when you’re shopping at the grocery store stick to the outside isles. That’s where the produce/meat/dairy are. Avoid the fraud of the inner-isles.

  3. Stay out of the aisles I believe was a tip first put out in the Zone Diet book.

    Even though Dr. Sears got the caloric levels way too low, I believe he was one of the early pioneers to bring focus back on healthy food. At least for a while until they started their own food line and “nutrition” bars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.