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Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”
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Incisive cultural commentator takes a more prescriptive approach in his engaging new book

by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell

Michael Pollan is the journalism professor at the University of California Berkeley who’s become a bestselling author, regular New York Times Magazine contributor, and major voice on food issues.

He’s published three provocative but persuasive books on food and culture: The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and now, In Defense of Food.

We enjoyed meeting and speaking with Michael at Dr. Andrew Weil's 2007 Nutrition & Health conference, finding him as thoughtful and engaging in person as he is in print.

His In Defense of Food answers some of the questions posed in the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma, making it a somewhat more prescriptive, but still very engaging work.

Pollan attacks the current cultural paradigm for food and health – called “nutritionism” by a fast-growing army of critics – which he says turns food into mere delivery vehicles for a collection of chemicals that promote or prevent disease.

As he points out, the nutritionist approach provides fodder for food marketers and media outlets, jobs for journalists, and funding for academic research.

This dominant, reality-distorting perspective constitutes a serious case of reducto ad absurdum: one that warps public discourse about food and health.

Of course, food is much more than the sum of its parts: a point argued persuasively by two university researchers, as we reported last issue (See “Whole Foods Seen Superior to Supplements”).

Michael Pollan describes his central theses in his own words, in the form of the Introduction offered on his web site. The following excerpts come from “An Eater’s Manifesto”, Pollan’s introduction to In Defense of Food:

Introduction: An Eater’s Manifesto

by Michael Pollan

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

“That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy… you’re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products.… For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket.

“As I argue in part one, most of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half century (and in particular the advice to replace the fats in our diets with carbohydrates) has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.

“All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food… These changes have given us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything—except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

“That such a diet makes people sick and fat we have known for a long time.

“Early in the twentieth century, an intrepid group of doctors and medical workers stationed overseas observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

[Here, Pollan probably refers in part to Francis Pottenger, Jr., MD, Weston A. Price, DDS, and others who conducted research into traditional diets in the 1920’s and 1930’s.]

“They called these the Western diseases and, though the precise causal mechanisms were (and remain) uncertain, these observers had little doubt these chronic diseases shared a common etiology: the Western diet.

“What’s more, the traditional diets that the new Western foods displaced were strikingly diverse: Various populations thrived on diets that were what we’d call high fat, low fat, or high carb; all meat or all plant; indeed, there have been traditional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine. What this suggests is that the human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them.

“Nutritionism prefers to tinker with the Western diet, adjusting the various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place. Nutritionism is, in a sense, the official ideology of the Western diet and so cannot be expected to raise radical or searching questions about it.

“But we can. By gaining a firmer grasp on the nature of the Western diet—trying to understand it not only physiologically but also historically and ecologically—we can begin to develop a different way of thinking about food that might point a path out of our predicament.

“This is the burden of the third and last section of In Defense of Food: to propose a couple dozen personal rules of eating that are conducive not only to better health but also to greater pleasure in eating, two goals that turn out to be mutually reinforcing.

“Among other things, this book is an eater’s manifesto, an invitation to join the movement that is renovating our food system in the name of health—health in the very broadest sense of that word.

“I doubt the last third of this book could have been written forty years ago, if only because there would have been no way to eat the way I propose without going back to the land and growing all your own food. It would have been the manifesto of a crackpot.

“That anyone should need to write a book advising people to ‘eat food’ could be taken as a measure of our alienation and confusion. Or we can choose to see it in a more positive light and count ourselves fortunate indeed that there is once again real food for us to eat.”

© Michael Pollan. Excerpted from the Introduction to In Defense of Food (Penguin Press HC 2008) at.

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