Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food"

So, I must preface this review/summary of In Defense of Food with the fact that I adore Michael Pollan; he is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Possibly, this is because I like his journalistic style of writing or the serious humor he incorporates. Or, maybe I just enjoy that he writes about a topic most of America cringes to think about. Now that I have stated my bias in this matter, let us discuss the contents of the book.

I had managed to condense about 200 pages of text into four pages of notes, but as I wrote this post, those pages expanded considerably (I have proceeded to cut them down twice over). I cannot ever hope to achieve the likeness of Pollan's compacting the entire solution to the problem of the Western diet into seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." These are the first words read upon opening In Defense of Food; words that Pollan himself reflects should be self-evident. In the Introduction, Pollan goes on to explain that the rest of the book is broken into three sections: 1) discussing "The Age of Nutritionism", 2) discussing the Western Diet and disease , 3) stating rules for eating in a healthy, pleasurable manner. Pollan states, "My aim in this book is to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters."

Pollan has filled a profusion of facts into the 200 pages. I cannot possibly present them all for your perusal without simply re-writing his book. Therefore, I am going to address the overarching ideas he presents in each section. At the end of each summary, I've included my favorite quotes from the section (the ones that really drive the point home); feel free to skip them if you prefer.
"Today in America the culture of food is changing more than once in a generation, which is historically unprecedented - and dizzying. "

The Age of Nutritionism
In this section, Pollan explores the history surrounding our eating practices and explains the origin/development of the nutritionism ideology. The overall point of this section in the book is to point out the flawed logic behind the ideology of nutritionism and nutritional science. There are too many factors that we don't, and often cannot, examine in our research of nutrition. Our methods in examining the effects of nutrients and diets are based on trials that have too many human and reductionist errors (placebo effect, lying on surveys, removal of lifestyle context, etc.). The ideology of nutritionism is causing too much anxiety coinciding with the Western diet; our obsession with health and eating borders on becoming a medically recognized eating disorder ("orthorexia nervosa"). Journalism, government and the food industry are responsible for the prevalence of this ideology. Plus, nutritionism has failed at its root goal to make us healthier. Thus, we need a "whole new way to think about eating."
"By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular actual food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: eat more low-fat foods."
"Not only does nutritionism favor ever more novel kinds of highly processed foods (which are by far the most profitable kind to make), it actually enlists the medical establishment and the government in the promotion of those products."
The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
In section two of In Defense of Food, Pollan examines several studies that show exactly what transformations the Western diet has wrought on our way of eating and how we can change them. A 1982 seven-week experiment with diabetic Aborigines in Western Australia showed that the health problems brought on by the westernization of a diet can be reversed by adopting a more traditional (hunter-gatherer) lifestyle [note: not just a traditional diet]. Pollan explains that his regard for this study revolves around Kerin O'Dea "not attempting to pick out from the complexity of the diet (either before or after the experiment) which one nutrient might explain the results [...] focusing instead on larger dietary patterns." He points out that most nutritional researchers treat overall dietary patterns as a fixed matter, that is, unchangeable. Considering the Western diet consists of "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," is it really any wonder why adding this or that nutrient to our diet doesn't lead to being healthier? Other studies Pollan presents examine the connection between overall health of soil, the food grown and the eaters of that food (us and the animals we eat).

Pollan states five transformations caused by adaptation of the Western diet that can be reversed; we have moved from:

  1. Whole Foods to Refined
    • Part of this adaptation was refined foods acquired a prestigious status upon first entering the market since not everyone could afford them and "refining grains extends their shelf life." Many food products in today's market are extensions of the refining process started with grains.
  2. Complexity to Simplicity
    • Here, Pollan discuses how we've simplified foods into nutrients and the biochemistry of soil. We've reduced the complex nutrients in soil to Liebig's big three, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. We've reduced the food in our diet to what nutrients and vitamins they provide us. By processing our food we deplete some of the natural nutrients, only a small amount of which science can add back during "fortification". We've also reduced the number of species in our diet by breeding sub-groups together for greatest yield.
  3. Quality to Quantity
    • We are producing increasing amounts of food with our high-yield crops; however, "USDA figures show a decline in the nutrient content of the forty-three crops it has tracked since the 1950s." We are consuming a lot more calories since 1980, but "nearly a quarter of these additional calories come from added sugars."
  4. Leaves to Seeds
    • We grow grains because they are so efficient at "transforming sunlight, fertilizer, air, and water into macronutrients [and] these macronutrients in turn can be profitably converted into meat, dairy, and processed foods of every description." Grain seeds can also be stored for long periods of time. However, these seeds provide a minuscule amount of the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that humans need to live. This ecological change has caused the change in biochemicals that are found in our diet, which scientists are always studying.
  5. Food Culture to Food Science
    • "Before the modern food era - and before the rise of nutritionism - people relied for guidance about what to eat on their national or ethnic or regional cultures." These traditions were passed down through the history of our people's and had stood the test of time. Today, we rely on the newest information about nutrition to dictate what we eat. What is this information based on, but a few (relatively unreliable) studies? Not only is this information not tested by evolution and centuries of history, but it often contradicts itself leading to confusion about exactly what we should eat.
A way to reverse this is to simply add more whole grains and produce to your diet. Do not eat anything with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a by-product of refining corn.  Try to cut the amount of pure sugar down in your diet and consume whole fruits, which cause a less harmful effect on the body thanks to the fiber slowing its absorption. Another part of the solution is to eat more organic foods which have been shown to have higher levels of minerals and phytochemicals. Of those organic foods, we should try to eat more leave based foods than seeds (like soy, corn and wheat). When it comes to eating animals, we should eat those that were pasture-raised rather than fed more seeds (mostly corn), especially cattle who are not meant to digest corn. Last but definitely not least, we should attempt to reclaim a food culture rather than relying on food science to tell us what to eat. [In my house, I eat a lot of homemade foods (like salsa, jams and pickles) because my grandparents grew a garden, made their own food and canned a lot of it.]

"Looking at eating and food through the ecological lens opens a whole new perspective on exactly what the Western diet is: a radical, at least in evolutionary terms, abrupt set of changes over the course of the last 150 years, not just to our foodstuffs but also to our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal." 
"Our food system has long devoted its energies to increasing yields and selling food as cheaply as possible. [...] Today, corn, soy, wheat and rice account for two-thrids of the calories we eat." 
"You now have to eat three apples to get the same amount of iron as you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple, and you'd have to eat several more slices of bread to get your recommended daily allowance of zinc than you would have a century ago."  
"Of all the changes to our food system that go under the heading 'The Western Diet,' the shift from a food chain with green plants at its base to one based on seeds may be the most far reaching of all."
"We think of culture as a set of beliefs and practices to help mediate our relationship to other people, but of course culture - at least before the rise of modern science - has also played a critical role in helping to mediate people's relationship to nature. Eating being one of the most important manifestations of that relationship, cultures have had a great deal to say about what and how and why and when and how much we should eat."
"The concept of a changing food environment is not just a metaphor; nor is the idea of adapting to it. In order for natural selection to help us adapt to the Western diet, we'd have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die." 
Apparently it is easier, or at least more profitable, to change a disease of civilization into a lifestyle than it is to change the way that a civilization eats."
Getting Over Nutritionism
 In this section, Pollan gives us some suggestions on how to adjust our diet to combat the ideology of nutritionism; expounding upon his original seven words of wisdom: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." [Most of the following are direct quotes that I will refrain from putting quotations around for the sake of attractiveness.]

  • Avoid foods that make health claims.
  • Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
    • Don't eat anything incapable of rotting.
  • Avoid products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number, or that include d) high fructose corn syrup.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
    • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible (shortening the food chain).
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
    • You are what you eat eats too (so consume animals who mostly consumed leaves).
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (because buying in bulk is cheaper).
  • Eat like an omnivore (diversify your diet).
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils (mostly organic, ideally local).
  • Eat wild foods when you can (berries are found everywhere in summer! Venison, squirrel, rabbit and wild hog are also good options).
  • Be the kind of person who would take supplements (but don't need to take them).
    • i.e. be more health conscious and better educated (reading many perspectives on the subject of food; I recommend Michael Pollan and Carlo Petrini).
  • Eat more like a traditional food culture ( French, Italian, Greek, Indian, Japanese, etc.)
    • Remember, "the whole of a dietary pattern is greater than the sum of its parts."
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner.
  • Pay more, eat less.
    • This goes back to quality over quantity; better food will be better for you and you will need less of it.
  • Eat meals
    • Do all of your eating at a table (a desk does not count).
    • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.
    • Try not to eat alone.
      • "The shared meal elevated eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from a mere animal biology to an act of culture."
    • Consult your gut.
      • "Eating more slowly, and then consulting our sense of satiety might help us to eat less."
  • Eat slowly
    • "I means 'slow' in the sense of deliberate and knowledgeable eating promoted by Slow Food."
    • "Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
    •  "To reclaim this much control over one's food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts. These acts subvert nutritionism."
    • "The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many things to worry about, but "health" is simply not one of them, because it is given." 
That last quote is the final sentence of the book and wraps up Pollan's suggestions quite succinctly. Shortening and diversifying our food chain, by buying (or growing ourselves) whole foods that are grown organically, locally, and seasonally (and by cooking those foods ourselves) we are able to increase the quality of our diets and therefore the quality of our health. To shop like a traditional food culture is to worry not about nutrients, but about taste and quality. To enjoy our food, especially in the company of others, is to become better acquainted with our bodies needs and to gain more than simply physical health from the act of eating. To no longer be afraid to eat this or that because of the amount of fat or carbohydrates (or some other arbitrary nutrient) is to lose some of the anxiety that does nothing good for our health.

To eat in the way Pollan suggests is not as easy as it once was. I have been attempting it for the last two weeks, since I completed the book. The hardest point for me is making sure my food has less than five ingredients (find me a flour tortilla in a store that does, please!) as everything has fillers (even lime juice!). It is, however, possible if you can give up some products. I have not eaten processed foods (like microwave dinners) for quite some time, but some processed products, like bread and certain cheeses, were harder to give up. 

Pollan's book has inspired me to attempt to escape the ideology of nutritionism, which I can clearly hear in my head anytime I go to the grocery store. It is my hope that you can now better understand how the Western diet has transformed the way we think about food and how it is not providing us with better health as it claims to do. I encourage you to read Pollan's book for yourself to learn the facts that I have omitted. I will attempt to eat following Pollan's advice for the next two months and report to you the difficulties I find, if there are any, and to aid you in being able to do the same should you so choose.
"In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance than most of us do today. [...] For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life."

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