As a fan of Michael Pollan's previous books, I was excited to read, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Not quite a diet book, Pollan imparts nutrition common sense as he breaks down various theories as to why American's have become so fat.
The first half of Pollan's book is dedicated to understanding nutritional advice given in American over the last century. Pollan picks apart various "ground breaking" nutritional studies and their impact on how we eat. A common thread is how we have moved from our parents and culture telling us what to eat, to putting our faith in the government and nutritional science. Pollan explains how in many ways nutrition is not an accurate science and how many of the top studies are deeply flawed.
Pollan sites 1977 as a year of major shift in attitudes towards nutrition. This was when we made a dramatic shift away from home cooked meals, to the science of pre-packaged foods that were supposedly not only more convenient, but more nutritious. This struck a cord, as I was born in 1977 and I can personally attest to being raised by a working mother, who didn't like or have time to cook, so she put her faith in the food industry. We ate pre-packaged meals many days a week and she didn't breast feed me, because she was urged by doctors to use the "more nutritious" formula. We followed the trends, like low-fat or low-carb. When sugar substitutes came into vogue, we jumped on those band wagons. If the FDA approves it, it has to be okay for us, right?
Pollan's detailed explanation of food science in America and its crossover with farming and government, is enlightening. He provides a clear context for nutrition ideals in America, before transitioning into his diet advice in the second half of the book.
To make it easy, Pollan offers three pieces of diet advice.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
He gleaned this advice from studying other cultures and studying our own culture, prior to the turn of the century. He was trying to figure out what created the decline in American eating habits and also, what type of eating habits should we strive towards.
Eat Food really clicked with me. It's Pollan's phrase for avoiding processed food. Processed food seems to be the root of a majority of our ills. His advice is that if our great-grandparents wouldn't recognize an item in a grocery story, then it probably isn't food. It's too processed. If you don't recognize the ingredients or the ingredient list is a huge paragraph, it probably is too processed as well. He goes a step further to call processed foods, "food like" to imply that they are not actual food. Admittedly, this had me checking labels at the grocery store this week and thinking twice about the prepackaged items already in my cupboards.
Not Too Much is where Pollan explores the concept of consuming far less calories, which in many cultures seems to be optimum for health. The thing that really stuck with me in this section is the idea that part of our overconsumption stems from a lack of proper nutrition. Farming practices are yielding more food, but it is less nutritious and less of a variety than what our ancestors ate. We may have more, but it's less nutritionally dense, so we consume more to try to find the vitamins that we are lacking. The advice is to seek out a varied diet and organic produce that tends to be grown in more fertile fields.
Mostly plants isn't Pollan's call for vegetarianism. Although, it seems that a healthy diet is one that treats meat as a side dish and the vegetables as a main. We are now eating more meat than ever and the meat isn't as high of quality as it was in previous generations. Pollan suggests less meat, but when consumed, pick higher quality and animals that were fed what they would have eaten in nature. He also suggests wild game as being the more nutritionally dense choice. To roughly quote Pollan, "We are what we eat and what we eat eats."
As usual, Pollan makes a compelling argument. I was even motivated, before finishing the book, to join a local CSA (community supported agriculture) program, where I will get a fresh produce box every week from local farms. It's called Abundant Harvest Organics. I did it years ago and loved it. Thank you to Michael Pollan for giving me the motivation to rejoin!