I just finished reading Michael Pollan‘s newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It is a well-written and well-researched book that dives into the Western diet and deconstructs it in three parts: The Age of Nutrionism, The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization, and Getting Over Nutritionism. I’ve heard this book referred to as the follow-on to his wildly popular The Omnivores Dilemma (which, in full disclosure I have not read, yet).
I found In Defense of Food particularly interesting in part because of my own view of food and how it has evolved. A decade ago I was completely clueless about food. If I was asked how many calories were in a cheeseburger I could have easily agreed with 100 or 4,000. I really had no idea. Then while focusing extensively on fitness and diet I started logging every bit of food that passed my lips. I was focused in a nearly obsessive manner (nearly? who am I kidding) on how many grams of various macronutrients I got and precisely how many calories I consumed. To put a point on it, I weighed my fruit on a gram scale before and after eating it to determine the precise intake. Yeah, that is obsessive.
This is not behavior that you can model forever and when I stopped doing it I learned that I hadn’t really learned how to eat, but instead had become a discipline of nutritionism. Nutritionism is not Pollan’s term, it was coined by Gyorgy Scrinis. The behavior and mindset that it describes though is the antithesis of the most basic suggestion on how to eat.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Those are the first seven words in Pollan’s book and admittedly you could stop reading there. The remaining 200 pages dive into the details of the Western diet and the issues with it. Pollan’s writing is interesting throughout and even the deeper dives into the roots of nutritionism are immensely interesting. He does a great job of highlighting for the reader just how much our food system has changed, and in most ways for the worse, in the last 70 years. This paragraph really hit me hard. I expected corn and high-fructose corn syrup to be the evil doer in this book, but the bases of nutritionism predates that trend.
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 it’s base to one based on seeds may be the most far reaching of all. Nutritional scientists focus on different nutrients — whether the problem with modern diets is too many refined carbohydrates, not enough good fats, too many bad fats, or a deficiency of any number of micronutrients or too many total calories. But at the root of all these biochemical changes is a single ecological change. For the shift from leaves to seeds affects much more than the levels of omega-3 and omega-6 in the body. It also helps account for the flood of refined carbohydrates in the modern diet and the drought of so many micronutrients and the surfeit of total calories. From leaves to seeds: It’s almost, if not quite, a Theory of Everything.
Throughout the book Pollan deals with the challenge of arguing nutritionism while not falling into the logic arguments it naturally suggests. I was happy to see him recognize this later in the book, and I thought it appropriate. After all, to have a book that suggests that you have to stop looking at food as grams of chemicals, and then just suggests that you start gardening would be incomplete and unhelpful.
The undertow of nutritionism is powerful, and more than once over the past few pages I’ve felt myself being dragged back under. You’ve no doubt noticed that much of the nutrition science I’ve presented here qualifies as reductionist science, focusing as it does on individual nutrients (such as certain fats or carbohydrates or antioxidants) rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns. Guilty. But using this sort of science to try to figure out what’s wrong with the Western diet is probably unavoidable. However imperfect, it’s the sharpest experiemental and explanatory tool we have. It also satisfies our hunger for a simple, one-nutrient explanation. Yet it’s one thing to entertain such explanations and quite another to mistake them for the whole truth or to let any one of them dictate the way you eat.
This is the heart of Pollan’s message. Stop thinking of food as a collection of micro- and macro-nutrients and instead think of it in the whole. This obsessive push to the one thing that will save us is destroying us.
Pollan doesn’t spare the establishment in his analysis. Early in the book he outlines legislation passed in 1938 under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that required the word “immitation” appear on any food that was fake. I love the definition of this “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they shoudl get the foods they are expecting…” The sad thing is that nearly everything in the modern grocery store would have to be labeled immitation. The requirement was repealed shortly after enacted after protests from the food industry. Nobody apparently wanted to buy immitation spaghetti.
When corn oil and chips and sugary breakfast cereals can all boast being good for your heart, health claims have become hopelessly corrupt. The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice’s Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich — this at a time when scientists are coming to recognize that dietary sugar probably plays a more important role in heart disease than dietary fat. Meanwhile, the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute. But don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.
Pollan doesn’t leave it at just the food either, but the way in which we consume it. I was surprised by one of the statistics cited in the book, that 60% of McDonald’s revenue is made at the drive-through. A healthy meal is not consumed in your car. It may seem unachievable, but having a real family meal is a critical part of a healthy diet.
That one should feel the need to mount a defense of “the meal” is sad, but then I never would have thought “food” needed defending, either. Most readers will recall the benefits of eating meals without much prompting from me. It is at the dinner table that we socialize and civilize our children, teaching them manners and the art of conversation. At the dinner table parents can determine portion sizes, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed and gluttony and waste. Shared meals are about much more than fueling bodies; they are uniquely human institutions where our species developed language and this thing we call culture. Do I need to go on?
Indeed he does not. In Defense of Food is a great read. If you question your approach to what you put on the table (or don’t put on the table), this is a good perspective on that challenge.