Monday, October 26, 2015

mini book review: in defense of food

I recently (finally) listened to In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan on audiobook. He tells us his main point right up front: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Then he spends the rest of the book unpacking what this means: "eating," as in, not gorging, and eating as a social occasion rather than something we do by ourselves in front of the TV or just for the sake of ingesting nutrients. "Food," as in, actual food rather than some processed pseudo-food, and cooking it ourselves so we know what goes into it and so we're participants in the process and therefore value each bite more than we otherwise would. "Not too much," of course, refers to the American propensity to eat huge portions with high calories. "Plants" doesn't require much definition, except that with statistics like the fact that it takes 3-4 of today's apples to equal the nutritional value of one 1950s apple due to soil nutrient depletion as well as human selection for visual appeal and high yield, we have selected against nutrient content in many of our staple foods. He also suggests in the final pages that we participate in the food production process, if only by way of a small herb garden on a window sill, or more if we have space.

Another main point in this book is about "nutritionism." Pollan talks about the science of nutrition as almost a religion, and the irony that Americans are so fanatical about "health" and are one of the most unhealthy populations in the "developed" world.

He also gives a lot of information regarding "the Western diet," by which he means the processed food (or what passes for food) that many Americans eat. He says, interestingly, that pretty much any traditional diet produces fairly healthy people with low risk for "Western diseases" such as cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. People who eat any traditional diet are, on the whole, much healthier than the population eating a Western diet. Pollan cited a fascinating study of Australian aborigines who had adopted a Western diet and had developed diabetes. A researcher had them go out into the bush and hunt and gather for their sustenance again. The study lasted for 7 weeks, during which time they lost an average of 17 pounds and their diabetes was much more controlled.

Pollan connects the dots that a Western diet, although supposedly superior because it's based on science, is actually making us sicker. He gives a number of helpful and practical suggestions about how to eat more healthily, not just by falling into the trap of a shiny new diet to try (a nutritionist perspective), but by shifting our perspective from food as a means to the end of survival, to real food as an enjoyable experience in which we participate as a community.

Since this is a mini-review, I'll leave it there, saying I agree with Pollan's conclusions, and this is basically how I've been eating for several years now. But there are some criticisms of Pollan's approach, not surprisingly, from the field of nutrition and science. Since Pollan's point is basically that science's approach to food is to reductionist, these critiques are not surprising, but it is difficult for those of us having been brought up in a culture that relies so heavily on scientific evidence to just stop listening to science. I don't think Pollan would have us do that, but to pay attention to the ways that science is being used and the assumptions upon which it is based, striving for scientific processes that actually serve us rather than leading us down the path toward tinier and tinier meaningless reductionist minutiae.

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