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Book: In Defense Of Food; An Eater’s Manifesto

August 14, 2008

I got both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense Of Food (both by Michael Pollan) from the library the other day. I looked at The Omnivore’s Dilemma and decided that I didn’t feel like reading it, after all. Just not in the mood for lots of facts and figures and anecdotes about farmers or, worse, industrial feedlots. I’ve read enough articles about this book to know that I already agreed with what he has to say, and I’m more interested currently in ‘what to do about it’ than being persuaded to a side I’m already on.

So I went with In Defense Of Food, which focuses on the pseudoscience of ‘nutritionism’ and the bad effect it’s had on American health, and what to do to combat those negative health effects. I liked this book. It was a quick read and very interesting — I learned a few things and definitely got to thinking about food in general in a slightly different way than I had.

Basically, nutritionism is looking at food as nutrients (building blocks) rather than as food (whole units of multiple nutrients, working together in as yet unknown and beneficial ways). This reductionist way of thinking has brought us such things as “heart-healthy” potato chips and Snackwell’s cookies. The history of this way of thinking is fascinating and the unhealthful effects undeniable.

One of my big revelations was that foods such as sour cream that are labelled ‘low-fat’ are, essentially, imitation sour cream. The food industry (I think) lobbied back in the 30s (or 70s? I can’t remember) about when they could and could not label something ‘imitation’. Clearly imitation is inferior to the original, so they fought long and hard and won — and as a result, many ‘fake’ foods are actually labelled incorrectly. For instance, yogurt. Unless you buy yogurt in which the ingredients read: “Milk + bacteria”, it’s not exactly yogurt.

Of course this makes sense once you think about it, but I often fall for the big lie that buying the low-fat sour cream (or whatever) is a healthful move. Duh. For one thing, low-fat is not shown to be ‘healthful’ anyway, and for another, if I use the real thing, I’m going to need less of it and be more satisfied than if I use the imitation kind.

So, how do we eat, then? He lists a number of very simple, sound ‘rules’ for healthy eating. I won’t list them all, but the ones I’m going to try and incorporate as much as possible include:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Buy fresh produce at farmer’s markets, in season
  • Avoid high-fructose corn syrup and other additives and sweeteners
  • If a product has a health claim, be suspicious (heart-healthy Froot Loops?)
  • If I can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it (with the possible exception of unfamiliar produce)
  • Eat the real thing

That seems reasonable and also delicious. I do have to inspect certain ‘healthy’ imitation foods that I use, such as Earth Balance and stevia.

I had to put these guidelines into action tonight, because I was super tired (been staying up too late lately) and kind of mopey, so I bought some frozen pasta from Trader Joe’s for dinner. I don’t often do this, but there is a certain frozen gnocci dish that I really like sometimes. After finishing the book, I was afraid that my dinner was doomed. But I read the ingredients and although the flour was not whole-grain, everything on the short ingredient list was recognizable, so I deemed it okay (as an occasional easy dinner). I have no doubt that gnocchi and tomato sauce that I made myself would be more healthy and delicious, but the effect on my temper and the mood of the household (from said temper) would probably not offset the gustatory benefits.

I admit I sort of rushed through this book because now I have two Julia Child books to read that I’m eagerly looking forward to: My Life In France by Julia herself, and Appetite for Life, a biography of Julia. Add to these two delights the tantalizing news story this afternoon that Julia Child was a spy in WWII, and I have a lot of fun to look forward to.

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