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In Defense of Food

Michael Pollan



Real food -- the kind of food your great-grandmother would recognize as food - is being undermined by science on one side and the food industry on the other, both of whom want us focus on nutrients, good and bad, rather than actual plants, animals and fungi. According to author Michael Pollan, the rise of "nutritionism" has vastly complicated the lives of American eaters without doing anything for our health, except possibly to make it worse. Nutritionism arose to deal with a genuine problem -- the fact that the modern American diet is responsible for an epidemic of chronic diseases, from obesity and type II diabetes to heart disease and many cancers -- but it has obscured the real roots of that problem and stood in the way of a solution. In 200 pages, Pollan outlines the challenge and offers a straightforward manifesto -- "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." -- as well as practical advice on how to accomplish these deceptively simple goals.

About the Author

For the past 20 years, Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles about the places where the human and natural worlds intersect: food, agriculture, gardens, drugs, and architecture. He is the author, most recently, of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. His previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award for best food writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Pollan's previous book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, was also a New York Times bestseller, received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best non-fiction work of 2001, and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and PBS is airing a two-hour special documentary based on The Botany of Desire in fall 2009. He is also the author of A Place of My Own (1997) and Second Nature (1991). A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine since 1987, his writing has received numerous awards, including the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003; the John Burroughs prize (for the best natural history essay in 1997); the QPB New Vision Award (for his first book, Second Nature); the 2000 Reuters-I.U.C.N. Global Award for Environmental Journalism for his reporting on genetically modified crops; and the 2003 Humane Society of the United States' Genesis Award for his writing on animal agriculture. His essays have appeared in many anthologies, including Best American Essays (the 1990 and 2003 editions), Best American Science Writing (2004), and the Norton Book of Nature Writing. In addition to publishing regularly in the New York Times Magazine, his articles have appeared in Harper's (where he served for many years as executive editor), Mother Jones, Gourmet, Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Gardens Illustrated, and House & Garden. In 2003, Pollan was appointed the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, and the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism. In addition to teaching, he lectures widely on food, agriculture, and gardening. Michael Pollan, who was born in 1955, grew up on Long Island, and was educated at Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University, from which he received a Master's in English. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer, and their son, Isaac.

Michael Pollan


From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Jane Black

In his 2006 blockbuster, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan gave voice to Americans' deep anxiety about food: What should we eat? Where does our food come from? And, most important, why does it take an investigative journalist to answer what should be a relatively simple question?

In the hundreds of interviews Pollan gave following the book's publication, the question everyone, including me, asked him was: What do you eat? It was both a sincere attempt to elicit a commonsense prescription and, when it came from cynical East Coast journalists, a thinly veiled attempt to trap the author. "Oh! So he shops at farmers markets," we snipped enviously to one another. "Well, easy for him out there in Berkeley where they feast on peaches and cream in February! What about the rest of us?"

In Defense of Food is Pollan's answer: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

For some, that instruction will seem simple, even obvious. (It will seem especially so to those who read Pollan's lengthy essay on the same topic in the New York Times magazine last year.) But for most people, those seven little words are a declaration of war on the all-American dinner. Goodbye, 12-ounce steak. Instead, how about three ounces of wild-caught salmon served with roasted butternut squash and a heap of sautéed kale? For many, following the rules may not be so simple after all.

Yet in this slim, remarkable volume, Pollan builds a convincing case not only against that steak dinner but against the entire Western diet. Over the last half-century, Pollan argues, real food has started to disappear, replaced by processed foods designed to include nutrients. Those component parts, he says, are understood only by scientists and exploited by food marketers who thrive on introducing new products that hawk fiber, omega-3 fatty acids or whatever else happens to be in vogue.

Pollan calls it the age of "nutritionism," an era when nutrients have been elevated to ideology, resulting in epidemic rates of obesity, disease and orthorexia, a not yet official name for an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. "What we know is that people who eat the way we do in the West today suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity than people eating any number of different traditional diets," he writes. "When people come to the West and adopt our way of eating, these diseases soon follow."

Part of Pollan's answer to improving our health is going back to traditional foods and ways of eating: Eat leaves, not seeds. Steer clear of any processed food with a health claim. And for goodness sake, don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

But equally important is changing the way we relate to food. Pollan argues that we've traded in our food culture -- a.k.a. eating what Mom says to eat -- for nutritionism, which puts experts in charge and makes the whole question of what to eat so confusing in the first place. Indeed, Pollan makes a strong case that the "French paradox" -- the way the French stay thin while gobbling triple créme cheese and foie gras -- isn't a paradox at all. The French have a different relationship with food. They eat small portions, don't come back for seconds and spend considerably more time enjoying their food -- an eminently sensible approach.

In Pollan's mind, trading quantity for quality and artificial nutrients for foods that give pleasure is the first step in redefining the way we think about food. The rules here: Pay more, eat less. Eat meals, not snacks. Cook your own meals and, if you can, plant a garden.

Each of the rules is well supported -- and only occasionally with the scientific mumbo-jumbo that Pollan disparages. But what makes Pollan's latest so engrossing is his tone: curious and patient as he explains the flaws in epidemiological studies that have buttressed nutritionism for 30 years, and entirely without condescension as he offers those prescriptions Americans so desperately crave.

That's no easy feat in a book of this kind. What should we eat? The answer is here. Now we just have to see if Americans are willing to follow good advice.

From Publisher's Weekly

Pollan provides another shocking yet essential treatise on the industrialized Western diet and its detrimental effects on our bodies and culture. Here he lays siege to the food industry and scientists' attempts to reduce food and the cultural practices of eating into bite-size concepts known as nutrients, and contemplates the follies of doing so. As an increasing number of Americans are overfed and undernourished, Pollan makes a strong argument for serious reconsideration of our eating habits and casts a suspicious eye on the food industry and its more pernicious and misleading practices. Listeners will undoubtedly find themselves reconsidering their own eating habits.

From Booklist

Expanding on a theme from his popular The Omnivore's Dilemma (2007), Pollan mounts an assault on a reigning theory of the relationship between food and health. For Pollan, "nutritionism" offers too narrow a view of the role of eating, confining its benefits solely to food's chemical constituents. This has resulted in an unnatural anxiety about the things we humans eat. To counteract this, Pollan appeals to tradition and common sense. The "Western diet," with its focus on meat as the principal food, produces cardiovascular problems, and nutritionists' attempts to correct this with a high-carbohydrate and sugar regimen has served only to spawn a generation of obese diabetics. Although Pollan doesn't advocate eliminating meat or any other whole food, he wants to place vegetables and fruits in the center of things, reassigning meat to the status of a side dish. Given the continuing fascination with Pollan's earlier work, this smaller tome will surely generate heavy demand.

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