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In Defense of Food


Michael Pollan wrote In Defense of Food to encourage people to eat more natural foods, home cooked, out of ingredients they know. On one hand I agree completely with this message. On the other hand, I disagree with some of the commentary he provides along the way.

In Defense of Food I took literally 8 pages of notes while reading this book. Especially during the beginning chapters I was shaking my head and writing down things I disagreed with. Michael makes gross exaggerations to get across a point or simply says questionable things. However, I toughed it out as Michael has obviously done a LOT of research to compile this information. As I got through the first part, he becomes much more evenly balanced and provides quite a lot of helpful information.

For example, I agree with him that people should eat more natural foods, including vegetables, and stay away from over-processed foods. I agree that scientists learn information in stages - they might think "all fats are bad" until they realize that there are different types of fat. Our standard white flour has been so processed to make it long lasting that they've removed the nutrition from it. Our breeding has made foods "prettier" while simultaneously removing nutrition. An apple today has only 1/3rd the iron of an apple from 1940.

So these things are great to know. However, mixed in with this information are some things I disagree with. For example, Michael takes delight in talking about the French Paradox (that French people drinking wine and eating cream are healthy) and says it proves that western diets are bad. However, a key part of living the French lifestyle is that you walk around a lot - physical activity is a normal part of the day. To say it is "all about eating what you want to eat" is extremely short sighted.

Which brings me to another key complaint. He says - repeatedly - that people should just "eat what they want" without thinking about labels. He says that people who worry about fiber or omega-3s are the ones who eat badly. He says people who just "eat what they want to" end up eating well. What?? This is COMPLETELY opposite to my experience. I hear from hundreds of visitors a month who DO eat what they want and ended up extremely obese as a result. This is simply not true.

A corollary to Michael's "eat anything" theory is that "native menus" are always perfect. Only the Western diet is bad. However, I can easily name several cultures in which heavy people are quite prevalent. Also, a culture's menu is innately tied to its activity level! The pasta-rich Italian diet is created for hard working Italian farmers. If you are a desk worker and eat tons of heavy Italian pasta every day, you're going to get heavy. It's not that an "Italian Diet" is innately good or bad. However, if you eat the food, you need to also live the lifestyle's activity level to burn off the calorie levels.

There are MANY native diets which load in the calories with the assumption that you're a farmer toiling in the fields all day and you need those calories to live. If you take in those calories without being active, you are going to have serious issues.

Michael also insists that any food with a nutrition promo on its box is evil. If a food item says "contains lots of fiber!" you should avoid it. He in general is against any nutritional information being shown, apparently. Again this makes no sense at all to me. As much as he loves the "old days", people did get scurvy and other diseases back then. People were malnourished. If something has fiber in it, it's good to know!

I definitely agree with some of his summaries. He says we now eat 300 more calories/day than in 1985 and while we are generally overfed we are still undernourished. Our bodies crave more nutrients, so we eat more food, but since we're eating nutrient-poor food it doesn't satisfy the craving.

I just wish he could have made those good points without being so single-sighted in blasting "all Western food", praising "all Eastern food". In the same manner he blasts people who "focus on just vitamins" (rather than whole food categories) and then obsesses about omega-3s.

I do think it's a good idea to read this book. There is a lot of helpful information in it. Borrow it from a library perhaps. But take the information with a grain of salt. Separate the wheat from the chaff - just like he says to do with all food writers.

Buy In Defense of Food from Amazon.com

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This content was written by Lisa Shea. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Lisa Shea for details.

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