In Defense of Food: Book Review

I’m not usually a fan of nonfiction books—I like to escape through literature—but this is truly a fascinating read. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan does just that, defends food. But it defines food in its most natural form, meaning food that your great grandmother would recognize as food. That eliminates most things you find in grocery stores: frozen pizzas, french fries, candy, chips, soda, etc.

In the first two parts of the book Pollan starts out by describing the evolution of food, how it changed from something wholesome to something filled with preservatives and other indistinguishable ingredients. It all began in the early 1900s with the kick to reduce saturated fats to decrease heart disease. Margarine and other imitation foods were produced and marketed as healthy alternatives. Unfortunately, what these foods eliminated in saturated fat they added to in trans fat. Ironically, there’s no evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease, but there is evidence that trans fat causes heart disease: “The amount of saturated fat in the diet probably may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease” (68). So in essence, manufacturers fed the very ailment they meant to eliminate.

Meanwhile, instead of heart disease and other ailments decreasing over the last century, cancer, diabetes, and other issues have increased exponentially, suggesting that the unnatural substances in “food” and refined carbohydrates are the real villains of the story. Most of the food people eat is manufactured, not grown. Manufacturers then infuse it with some vitamins and minerals, get the American Heart Association or USDA seal of approval, and suddenly corn chips are considered heart healthy: “Yet as a general rule it’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit their quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their new found ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters” 62). The creation of food ignores food synergy, those properties in meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and grains that have almost magical health benefits due to a combination of vitamins and minerals that scientists and nutritionists don’t understand even yet. For instance, vitamin C is great, but it’s much better in the orange than in a pill form or, worse yet, concentrated orange juice with too much sugar and no fiber.

The third part of the book is all about escaping from what Pollan calls the Western Diet. It all boils down to these simple instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Which is advice that doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Doesn’t good health always boil down to a good diet and exercise?

The book is great, very informative and interesting. HOWEVER, I think the author gets a little too carried away. Eating all organic, even grass-fed beef is great in theory, but it’s not practical, especially because it’s way too expensive for most people. And canned and frozen food is as nutritionally sound as fresh food. So take baby steps. Eat less refined carbs. Oust the chips in favor of carrots. Eat pizza every two weeks instead of every weekend. Enjoy the natural sugars in apples instead of filling up on refined and sugary desserts. Use your common sense.

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