In Defense of Food: Summary and Review

Rob's Epic Quest for Health and Sanity
I recently finished reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, a book that condemns large swaths of American food culture and aims to provide a few alternatives. In this post, I’ll provide a summary of the book’s core ideas and then give my thoughts about the book.

Summary of In Defense of Food

In some ways, In Defense of Food is a sequel to The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a book which I read and loved). In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan traces the history of four meals, looking at where each ingredient came from. What he discovers is surprising, and worth discussing elsewhere, but the main reason this work is relevant to In Defense of Food is that this previous journalistic work built Pollan’s credibility as an expert on food. When readers of Omnivore’s Dilemma wrote to Pollan and asked for his advice on what and how to eat, he began writing In Defense of Food as his response.

Pollan opens up with his basic recommendation: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The rest of the book, he states, is an elaboration on this basic piece of advice. In the first half of this book, Pollan deconstructs and criticizes two things: The philosophy of nutritionism and the apparent health disaster caused by what we call the “western diet.” In the second half, he provides his thoughts on potential solutions.

Against the Philosophy of Nutritionism

The philosophy of nutrionism is not the same as the science of nutrition. Pollan discusses the value of that science, but emphasizes that it is inherently limited. It’s impossible to study a system as complex as eating (and the culture that surrounds it) with a tool that aims to hone in on individual nutrients, as Pollan demonstrates by examining specific studies and by interviewing experts.

The very notion of nutrients, Pollan argues, is problematic. We try to boil down food to the “important parts” and view food as being worthwhile for the nutrients it provides. While this philosophy—that food is basically valuable for its nutritional parts—seems like it ought to be to the benefit of our health, the opposite seems to be true. People in countries that focus more on the nutritional value of food tend to be less healthy, whereas those who focus on food consumption as a pleasurable act tend to be more healthy.

The problems with nutritionism, Pollan claims, are manifold. For one, nutritionism assumes that we fully understand what is important about food. We identify certain aspects of food as vital, and because we now know that macro-nutrients or micro-nutrients are important, we figure we’ve got it all figured out. History, however, has shown this assumption to be mistaken. We consistently learn new things about food, and many of our efforts to employ our limited knowledge turn out to be disastrous.

Pollan examines the “war on fat” as an example. The creation of margarine allowed people to avoid some fats, but did so by using a type of fat that we discovered—decades later—was actually far less healthy for you. The focus on foods being low fat or fat free may have also given people implicit permission to eat however much of the low-fat food they could. In numerous ways, the “war on fat” made us less healthy and made the average American gain more fat than they otherwise would have.

Pollan argues that real food is hard to come by in the U.S. The philosophy of nutritionism has led manufacturers to process and refine far more of the food we consume, and has led consumers to question the process very little.

Against the Western Diet

Pollan argues that the western diet is clearly problematic. He does this thoroughly and effectively by examining the disastrous health consequences of those in nations that eat a western diet—and the comparatively excellent health of indigenous peoples and those in cultures with deeply entrenched cultures of eating (that turn to tradition rather than science for information on food).

He then examines what he views as the path food has taken in western civilization: Form whole foods to refined foods, from complex foods and food systems to simple ones, from quality food to high quantities (including through selective breeding for yield), and from food culture to food science. These transitions, he argues, are the root of the problem.

Pollan’s Advice

Rather than trying to figure out what missing part or added part is causing problems in the western diet (and thus return to an approach of nutritionism), Pollan attempts to cultivate a new philosophy of food, which are exemplified in what he calls “food algorithms.” The notion boils down to this, however: Get away from the western diet. Eat whole foods and plants whenever possible. And eat less.

How does one escape the western diet? Pollan suggests that we can learn from cultures with their own food traditions. Eating is a complex system and thus requires a response that is about food, food pairings, food culture, and far more. He also suggests that we should suspect foods that are part of the nutrionist philosophy. If a food makes nutritional claims, it’s probably refined and over-processed.

What defines “whole foods”?  Foods that your great-grandma would recognize as food. Foods that are not refined, simplified, and then enriched. Plants—especially when you buy them in plant form—are one of the best whole foods, since we have a great deal of evidence that says they’re nutritious and they’re almost certain to be unprocessed.

Pollan also argues that there’s a benefit to a calorie-restricted diet, partially using science to back up this claim and partially discussing the ways that—culturally—those in the U.S. don’t use appetite to decide how much to eat, but simply use portion size. With those portion sizes growing, we’re eating more and more, whether we’re hungry for it or not. Eating less, Pollan argues, is the healthy response to this.

Conclusions

The western diet is killing us, and part of the reason is that we’re so obsessed with nutrition. Food science has disconnected us from culture, tradition, and appetite, and science isn’t nearly so good at telling us what’s good for us as we sometimes like to believe. Ultimately, Pollan argues, we should reject the philosophy of nutritionism and the complexities it creates. Instead, we should follow some basic ideas of eating: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

If I didn’t already respect Pollan due to his earlier work, it would have been harder to swallow his premise. If I weren’t already open to the idea that science is an imperfect approach to many aspects of life, it would have been hard to proceed. However, even the skeptics are likely to respect Pollan’s thorough approach, which mixes research into scientific studies, investigative journalism, and personal anecdotes to provide a compelling and convincing read.

While Pollan’s view may be its own sort of simplistic (an oddity in a book that condemns the reductionist nature of our society’s philosophy of eating), and while it may be unrealistic for some, the suggestions are nevertheless worthwhile. The most interesting part of the book, however, was the deconstruction of the disastrous western diet and the philosophy of nutritionism that, paradoxically, makes us far less healthy.

For me personally, this book was valuable for how it opened my eyes to the flaws in the nutritionistic philosophy. While my response may be different—one of mindfulness, intuitive eating, and listening to the body’s appetites as opposed to turning to cultural solutions—it was valuable to hear someone speaking against the dominant cultural system.

I give Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food a 4 out of 5. I recommend it for those of you who want to read a compelling exploration of our food culture, be exposed to a fascinating set of facts about the history of food and food culture, and receive a valuable set of advice that—while imperfect—will likely serve as a useful starting point for contemplating your own philosophy of eating.

Here’s a link to buy the book if you think you’d like to check it out for yourself: In Defense of Food

Take good care of yourself,

Rob

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