How often do you think about whether what you’re eating is food or science? So much of our nutrition is now supplied by processed food that it’s hard to tell; even bread isn’t reliable because it’s got so many additives in it. While nutrients are constantly labeled “good” or “bad” by the authorities that matter – too much saturated fat, too much trans fat, not enough omega 3 – Michael Pollan chooses to stand up in defense of food, real food, and argue that if we stuck a little closer to what nature intended, we’d be much better off than by following the dictates of the latest fad diet.
While I don’t think this book supplied me with too much information that was entirely new, it definitely combined it in a way that opened my eyes to some of the problems with our eating. I try when I can to buy local and fresh, but do find myself giving in to the temptation to get something ready made because it’s a lot easier. This book has definitely made me reconsider signing up for a local box scheme – where you get a box of fresh local vegetables each week – and think about cooking more from scratch like I used to, back in those days when I had time. (Let’s hope Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute meals do the job – a review of that will be coming soon too!)
Anyway, on to the book itself. Pollan starts out with guidelines. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Doesn’t sound hard, right? He then goes and explains how, surprisingly, it is difficult. He demonstrates the fact that nutrition guidelines these days are driven by profits, not by actual consideration of public health – science makes discoveries, but the big food companies can easily turn them around and soften them so no one pays attention. The first processed food to really catch on, of course, was margarine, and even now the vegetable spread blends aren’t far from shelves and mouths even if they’re not allowed to be called margarine any longer.
Now everything’s being processed in an effort to make more money and produce more food. Pollan explains the history, also including the fact that we’ve known for decades that a mostly plant-based diet is good for us. He shows how our food intake, which should be rich and varied, has been reduced to four main things – corn, soya, wheat, and rice. Most of us eat some other veggies too, but not in nearly enough amounts, and our diets are mainly full of those things plus meat which has also been fed corn instead of grass. He also goes on to show how science hasn’t really explained why vegetables are so healthy; aside from knowing that they’re fantastic for us, no one can explain just why or make something that does the same job. But there’s no marketing vehicle behind carrots or tomatoes, so they don’t tend to get much attention, and it’s Pollan’s aim to reverse that. After all, people who eat their native diets, no matter the content of them, suffer far less from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than those who eat a Western processed diet; shouldn’t we try and compromise to achieve better health for all? We may not be hunter gatherers, but we can try a little bit harder, and Pollan argues that our generation finally can.
With that in mind, Pollan lays out a few guidelines. My favourite was not to buy anything with more than five ingredients. This is impossible to avoid if you eat anything that comes in a package! It’s my new mission, however, to try and minimise what we are eating out of packets and make fresh food instead. And if I do buy a package, I need to make sure I actually recognise what’s in there and don’t purchase lab experiments.
I’d highly recommend In Defence of Food to anyone looking to improve their eating, to have a little peek into the history of the food industry and be inspired to make a change. It’s not a perfect book, he slips into the “nutritionisms” that he is so against at times, but he does explain everything in a way that makes sense and appeals to my own instincts. This is a book well worth reading – it’s not a diet, it’s logic that should make sense to all.
I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.