The Biblio-Files

bib·li·o·phile (bĭb'lē-ə-fīl') n.

1. A lover of books.
2. A collector of books.


In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

This post as been on hold for quite awhile...but I finally finished it up!! See below for more information. :)

Well I have finally finished this book and I can honestly say it was a great read! At first the book is pretty heavy with a lot of scientific and case study talk, but if you can manage to get through all of that to the point that Pollan is making you will learn a lot. On a personal note, this book has changed my view on a lot of things. This may be a lengthy review of the book as I hope to talk about some of the subject matter in depth and more than just typing up a quote or two. I hope that this review will be helpful and will encourage you to think hard about what you eat and maybe pick up a book on the subject and do some learning too!

To start, the title of this book really sets up what you will find on the 200 or so pages contained within. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (more on the other subtitle later- Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants). The majority of this book is spent defending food, as the title claims. At it's core it is a "A public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions" (definition of the word "manifesto" from from the eater to the eater. Now one would think that defending food and spending pages upon pages even defining the word "food" seems kind of silly, but Pollan pretty clearly makes the point that food is in fact in great need of such defense. To explain it in his own words:

"...'eat food,' which is not quite as simple as it sounds. For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims..." (pg. 2)

Pollan sets up in the very first pages of the book his reasoning for why such a defense of food is needed. The book is divided up into three main sections each with numerous subsections or chapters within it.

I. The Age of Nutritionism
II. The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
III. Getting Over Nutritionism

The Age of Nutritionism
The first section unfolds the idea that in the last few decades we have seen an emphasis on the nutrient parts of food over the actual value of the food itself. Vitamins, fiber, saturated fats, etc. The food is no more or no greater than the sum of its nutrient parts. Like I said you have to "weed through" a lot of scientific talk, even some history talk too, to get to the point.

"In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed in the nutrient. Put another way: Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts. From this basic premise flow several others." (pg. 18)

"Indeed, nutrionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing." (pg. 32)

In this section he continues to explain how certain laws passed by the FDA have now, as he puts it, thrown the regulatory door wide open to all sorts of processed and fake foods. He gives examples of margarine, low-fat this and fat-free that, bacon bits, etc. The sky is now the limit to what food scientists can come up with. The ultimate problem being what you have to put in that sour cream to make it low-fat. Take the fat out, put the hydrogenated oils and guar gum in!

This first section also defends real food by talking about the marketing behind the aisles and aisles of processed foods that you will find in a typical grocery store.

"Yet as a general rule it's a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit their quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound "whole-grain goodness" to the rafters." (pg. 39)

"As I write, the FDA has just signed off on a new health claim for Frito-Lay chips on the grounds that eating chips fried in polyunsaturated fats can help you reduce your consumption of saturated fats...So can a notorious junk food pass through the needle eye of nutrionist logic and come out the other side looking like a health food." (pg. 52)

Now as a lover of all things carbohydrate and low-fat and fat-free some of these sections were hard for me to swallow. But the truth hurts sometimes, right? Tracing our current obesity epedimic back Pollan points out that as certain fats (as food is simply reduced to its nutrient parts) were deemed as evil, new guidelines were put in place.

" us low-fat pork, low-fat Snackwell's, and all the low-fat pasta and high-fructose (yet low fat!) corn syrup we could consume. Which turned out to be quite a lot. Oddly, Americans got really fat on their new low-fat diet--indeed, many date the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes to the late 1970s, when Americans began bingeing on carbohydrates, ostensibly as a way to avoid the evils of fat." (pg. 50)

The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

This section closely examines the western diet. The quote mentioned above is really what he delves into in this section. That the abundant amount of refined carbohydrates in the western diet is by no mistake at its peak the same time that heart disease and other problems linked to obesity are rising. All it takes is a day of people watching at the mall and hearing the statistic that 1 in 3 Americans is obese to realize something must be wrong with our diet!

"The price of food has fallen, portion sizes have ballooned, and, predictably, we're eating a whole lot more, at least 300 more calories a day than we consumed in 1985. What kind of calories? Nearly a quarter of these additional calories come from added sugars (and most of that in the form of high-fructose corn syrup); roughly another quarter from added fat...46 percent of them from grains (mostly refined); and the few calories left (8 percent) from fruits and vegetables." (pg. 122)

Getting Over Nutritionism

The very first point that Pollan makes in this final section is that we need an escape from the Western diet. This won't be any easy escape, but it's well worth the effort and change that is required.

"In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance...A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap, and easy. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and little more than an hour enjoying them." (pg. 145)

It is in this final section that Pollan explains in more detail the subtitle of the book (Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants). This is his prescription for how to fix the problem that he spends the first two-thirds of the book addressing. And under each of these subsections he gives "commandments" on how to do what he is calling you to do.

Eat Food

  • Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food
  • Avoid food products containg ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible (i.e. go to local farmers' markets)

Mostly Plants: What to Eat

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism

(there are many more points under this subsection that would require some explaining, but essentially it can be summed up in this quote)

"There are literally scores of studies demonstrating that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of dying from all the Western diseases. In countries where people eat a pound or more of fruits and vegetables a day, the rate of cancer is half what is in the United States." (pg. 164)

Not Too Much: How to Eat
  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all your eating at a table
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly (this point and the one above it go hand in slow and when you feel full--stop!)
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

"For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week--and eat a little less of it. Is it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared?" (pg. 187)

So, that is essentially the main points of In Defense of Food. This book has really changed my thinking on a lot of things and has changed the food that I buy for our house. There is something to be said about stopping and thinking about what you are putting into your body. And then when you do buy the good stuff to put into it, stopping and enjoying the flavor and savoring each bite. Try will really change the way you view food!


Eron said...


Hey you're a good little writer--that's attractive! Thanks for taking care of me in the area of eating. As you know, I would eat my body weight in smores if you weren't around. Love ya.

Oh, and are you done with that?


sarahdodson said...

That was interesting reading. We're incorporating a lot more raw foods into our diets. It's really worth the little extra money.

Amber said...

Very Interesting Indeed. I will now have to check this book out. Chance and I have been cutting back on "unheathy food" low fat this and that, but reading the reveiw and the quotes maybe its not quite so heathy. Thanks for posting the Reveiw!

Heather said...

I have been trying recently to make healthier foods, thinking low fat was a way to that goal. I am really interested in this book. Thanks for the report.