Book Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Published this year (2008), In Defense of Food is a book about eating food which is written by Michael Pollan. In the book, Pollan looks at the eating habits of our cultural ancestors and how what used to be a simple, group act has turned into a gigantic business that tricks people, defines traditional mores, and decreases the health of people overall. The main points that I picked up while reading this books are:

  • Only eat whole foods. The concept may sound weird, but Pollan makes a good point in his book – most of the food that we eat today is some variant of the original product. In other words, we go to the supermarket and buy bread that is created from overly processed wheat grain whereas people used to just go to the local grocery store and buy a loaf of bread. In the search to create more “nutritious” food, we’ve actually created less healthy food products.
  • Nutritionism is a red herring. Pollan does a good job of describing the governmentalization of our food. He talks about how the lobbyists for the food industry managed to get regulations that are heavily in their favor during the 1970’s and 1980’s. For example, there was once a time when if a food producer made an imitation product, they had to label it as an imitation. Through creative lobbying, that restriction was removed and now we buy fruit juice that has less than 2% real juice. Scary.
  • Stay away from high fructose corn syrup! Pollan goes back to this point over and over again in the book. This is one of the worst forms of excess sugar that is found in many of the processed foods that we eat.
  • Eat leaves. No, don’t go outside and feast on your pine tree. Instead, when you make a meal you should be sure to have it consist mostly of leaves. For centuries, the human diet was based on hunted meats and gathered leaves and fruits. It was a leaf-based diet – which also includes the fact that the hunted meats usually grazed on leaves. Today, we eat a diet high in seed-based foods. This hasn’t been good for us as you can see by the increasing levels of poor health in society. Eat leaves!
  • Eat with other people. Pollan talks about how eating used to occur three times per day, but how in today’s diet there is an odd fourth meal that takes place throughout the day – snacking. Without diving too much into the sociological aspect of eating, Pollan reminds the reader that families used to gather around the dinner table and socialize during dinner. This also provided an opportunity for parents to set a proper example for their children in terms of what to eat and how much to eat.
  • Beware of health claims. One of the main messages of the book is that if you’re in a grocery store and you see something that claims to be low-fat or that it has some percentage of needed nutrients, you should run away! Pollan brings up the point that I have believed for quite some time now – that if a product has to publicize whether it’s good or bad for you, then it likely is not a real food (instead it is probably some processed food product) and it likely is not good for you at all (lowering the amount of fat in a product but increasing other unhealthy aspects).

Another thing that I picked up from reading this book was the existence of community supported agriculture (CSA). With CSA, a consumer pays a set dollar amount to buy a “share” in the farm’s produce; their share comes in the form of a weekly or monthly box of produce that are grown at the farm. This is a good idea for a variety of reasons including the freshness of the items, supporting the local economy, and creating a sustainable method of getting food on your plate. Check out the link above to see if you have a CSA in your area.

Overall, I enjoyed reading In Defense of Food and I was intrigued by many of the points that Pollan raises throughout. For those who are interested in healthier eating, I highly suggest getting this book from your local library or spending the $20 to purchase the book. This is the type of work that I hope people would share with their friends after reading it (thanks to my co-worker for lending me her copy).