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Book Review

A new meal plan: No more processed foods

Email|Print| Text size + By Chuck Leddy
January 7, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
By Michael Pollan
Penguin, 256 pp., $21.95

Michael Pollan's 2006 bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma" helped trigger a vigorous debate about the ecology and ethics of our eating habits. With his provocative new book, Pollan examines how to eat healthy, how to enjoy food, and how we can better support the interconnected nourishment chain that sustains us all.

Pollan makes a powerful case against what he calls "nutritionism," the scientific idea that the food we eat should be viewed as invisible elements that can be isolated and added to food products to promote health. Thus, if we eat more fiber, less fat, and fewer carbohydrates, as recommended by various (yet often maddeningly contradictory) nutrition studies, we'll be decreasing our risk of disease. As Pollan repeatedly points out, today's hot new nutrition recommendation is often tomorrow's discredited food trend.

Pollan's approach is holistic, less willing to deem food a mere collection of nutrients packaged and processed by corporate behemoths like Frito-Lay: "Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity." As Pollan sees it, our fast-food mentality and our worship of convenience over food quality are undermining us: "The chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat."

Pollan's vigorous assault on nutritionism is based largely on looking at its dismal record over the last three decades. As the public and media focus more on nutrition, and as health claims proliferate on every supermarket shelf, we're getting fatter and less healthy as a nation. Pollan spends much of his gripping narrative eviscerating the research methods of nutrition science, describing not only how this research consistently supports the agenda of the food industry but also how its methods of gathering scientific data are deeply flawed. Contradictory nutrition advice abounds.

It's not some "evil" nutrient that's hurting our health, Pollan says, but the entire Western diet of processed and refined food-like products. In the book's second half, Pollan gives highly specific advice about how to eat more holistically, with an eye toward ecology. He offers numerous rules of thumb for better eating, such as: "Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number, or that include d) high fructose corn syrup." Pollan also offers this counterintuitive rule: "Avoid food products that make health claims," explaining that "when corn oil and chips and sugary breakfast cereals can all boast being good for your heart, health claims have become hopelessly corrupt."

Perhaps most importantly, Pollan urges eaters to value and savor food, to spend time eating with loved ones at meals. Pollan wants people to focus more on food quality, rather than continuing our national obsession with low cost, convenience, and "healthy" nutrition. Some of Pollan's recommendations are obvious, like buying locally grown produce at farmers markets, but some are less so, like a preference for a eating a plant's leaves rather than its seeds.

Pollan's accessible, meticulously researched book will be essential reading for anyone who takes food seriously. His manifesto may seem simple - "eat food; not too much; mostly plants" - but adopting it wholeheartedly would create a revolution in our nation's eating habits. And based on the abysmal evidence of our diminishing health, that might not be such a bad thing.

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