Michael Pollan is probably the most popular food journalist of our time, and I always find him worth reading. His newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is a short volume in which he attempts to define “food” and set forth some basic advice for healthy eating in 21st century America.
Let’s start with the problems:
1) His awareness of class issues is woefully nonexistent. He writes as though everyone has as much money, and as much access to ingredients, as he does. This has never been more obvious than in this book, where at one point he has the nerve to include a recommendation that people be affluent and educated. (“Be the kind of person who take supplements.”) He also frequently recommends spending more on food, for reasons I find useful, but never acknowledges that many people may be unable to do this. This class-blindness undercuts everything else he says.
2) He’s anti-fat. Worse, he’s stupid about it. He consistently throughout the book refers to fat and obesity as a “disease,” which is not part of contemporary medical theory. He’s able to use the famous “nurses’ study,” which is a keystone of the health-at-any-size movement to help show that dietary fat may not be dangerous, but he’s unable to use it to show that weight may not be dangerous, even though the scientific conclusions are inescapably similar. He also repeatedly cites the “Americans have gained an average of 12 pounds since the 1960s” (I’ve also heard six pounds), and yet constantly refers to the obesity epidemic, as if he never looked at those two sentences together. (It doesn’t help that he spends some time relying on the nurses’ study and similar studies, and also spends some time criticizing that same study enough to make us doubt his conclusions in the earlier sections.) Fat-acceptance folks may well decide not to read this book.
Those things being said, Pollan does have a lot of information about food history that I found invaluable. One of his key areas of examination is what he calls “nutritionism,” the shift from looking at what we eat as food to looking at it as a combination of nutrients. He traces a lot of history here, and also looks specifically at a 1977 report from the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which issued a trial recommendation of “reduce consumption of red meat and dairy products” and was lobbied into changing that to “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”
The fat intake isn’t the point here; the point is thinking about foods versus thinking about nutrients. That trend, which started well before 1977, is how we now get to the point where the doughnuts in the store on the corner are labeled “prepared with 0 grams transfat,” and supermarket bread, loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and other additives, is covered in health labels promoting “whole grains” and “enriched flours.”
Two important nutrition takeaway messages which Pollan makes clearly are: 1) all vegetables are not created equal. You can’t quantify the amount of beta-carotene in a carrot, because carrots have different nutrients in different seasons, in different soils, grown organically versus on a factory farm, etc., etc.; and 2) even the best nutrition science doesn’t understand what it is in foods that contributes to making or keeping us healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids probably are important, but they are differently important in the fish that produces them than they are in a pill.
By dissecting the history (and the money trail) that got us from food to nutrients, Pollan does a real service to understanding food, and why we eat so many things that we think of as food but really aren’t.
Pollan ends with a long advice section–I disagree with a few of his conclusions but support most of them, and am taking a few more to heart than I used to. The three basics get quoted a lot:
Not too much.
He defines food as “something your great-grandmother would recognize as food.”
Overall, he’s a good writer, he does (at least some of) his homework, and he’s entertaining. So if you can take the fat and class issues with a grain of salt (or a snack that makes you happy), read the book.