February 26, 2009

Required Reading

Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food was on my to-read list for quite some time, but I never thought it would have such an intense effect on me.  (Let's just say my mom is cursing the day this book was written.) 

In a nutshell:  Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.

I'm already rather (read: very) health conscious as it is, and do my best to eat well and exercise etc.   Despite my healthy approach, reading this book shed a whole new light on how Americans view food and mealtime.  In short, Pollan emphasizes that nutritionism undermines one of the most natural processes in the world:  eating.  The fact that we are completely dependent on science and government to dictate what is "good for us" - that we need some larger entity to put health claims on our TV dinners and continually bombard us with breaking news about saturated fats and soybeans - goes against our most primal instincts to recognize good, nourishing sustenance.  

Pollan doesn't attempt to push a particular diet or food group, but rather asks us to question our approach to eating.  There is so much goodness in this book that it's not really worth trying to summarize.  (Read:  It is also 11:15 p.m. and I am tired.  And lazy.)  
Honestly though, I think that every person in the country should be required to read this book.  If nothing else, it will force you to examine your eating habits, and hopefully begin to make simple changes that can lead to a healthier (and more satisfying) lifestyle.

Here are Pollan's key rules for eating well.  And just a few (thousand) passages that I found particularly illuminating, and which do a good job of pulling out key facts in the book.  

Or even better, GO TO THE LIBRARY IMMEDIATELY and read it start to finish.

* * * 
The Rules:
  • Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.  (And don't eat anything incapable of rotting)
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients at are a) unfamiliar b) unprounceable c) more than five in number, or that include d) high fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.
  • Shop the perifpheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • You are what what you eat eats too.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
  • Eat wild foods when you can.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements.
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.  
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
  • Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.
  • Pay more, eat less.
  • Eat meals.
  • Do all your eating at a table.  (No, a desk is not a table.)
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.  (Gas stations have become processed-corn stations: ethanol outside for your car and high-fructose corn syrup inside for you)
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Consult your gut.
  • Eat slowly. 
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden.
* * * 

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, which brings me to another, somewhat counter intuitive, piece of advice:  If you're concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims.  Why?  Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it's not really food, and food is what you want to eat. [Page 2]

...it does seem to me a symptom of our present confusion about food that people would feel the need to consult a journalist, or for that matter a nutritionist or doctor or government food pyramid, on so basic a question about the conduct of our everyday lives as humans.  I mean, what other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?  ...for most of human history, humans have navigated the question without expert advice.  To guide us we had, instead, Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother.  [Page 2]

In one experiment, [psychologist, Paul Rozin] showed the words "chocolate cake" to a group of Americans and recorded their associations.  "Guilt" was their top response.  If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of the French eaters to the same prompt:  "celebration."  [Page 79]

We have known for a century now that there is a complex of so-called Western diseases - including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and a specific set of diet0related cancers - that begin almost invariably to appear soon after a people abandons its traditional diet and way of life.  What we did not know before [Kerin O'Dea conducted an experiment taking Westernized Aborigines] back to the bush...was that some of the most deleterious effects of the Western diet could be so quickly reversed. [Page 87]

[In the early decades of the 20th century, was when] a handful of dauntless European and American medical professionals working with a wide variety of native populations around the world began noticing the almost complete absence of the chronic diseases that had recently become so commonplace in the West... They compiled lists, many of which appeared in medical journals, of the common diseases they'd been hard pressed to find in the native populations they had treated or studied:  little to no heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, hypertension, or stroke; no appendicitis, diverticulitis, malformed dental arches, or tooth decay; no varicose veins, ulcers, or hemorrhoids. [ Page 90-91]

[Canadian dentist Weston A. Price learned] ... that isolated populations eating a wide variety of traditional diets had no need of dentists whatsoever. )Well, almost no need of dentists: The "sturdy mountaineers' of Switzerland, who never met a toothbrush, had teeth covered in a greenish slime - but underneath that Price found perfectly formed teeth virtually free of decay.)  Wherever he found an isolated primitive race that had not yet encountered the "displacing foods of modern commerce" - by which he meant refined flour, sugar, canned and chemically preserved foods, and vegetable oils - he found little or no evidence of "modern degeneration" - by which he meant chronic disease, tooth decay, and malformed dental arches. [Page 96 - 97]

Store food is food designed to be stored and transported over long distances, and the surest way to make food more stable and less vulnerable to pests is to remove the nutrients from it.  In general, calories are much easier to transport - in the form of refined grain or sugar- than nutrients, which are liable to deteriorate or attract the attention of bacteria, insects, and rodents, all keenly interested in nutrients. (More so, apparently, than we are.) [Page 97]

Price identified no single ideal diet - he found populations that thrived on seafood diets, dairy diets, meat diets, and diets in which fruits, vegetables, and grain predominated.  The Masai of Africa consumed virtually no plant foods at all, subsisting on meat, blood, and milk... But the common denominator of good health, he concluded, was to eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients. [Page 97 - 98]

A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature on to the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species.  In most traditional diets, when calories are adequate, nutrient intake will usually be adequate as well.  Indeed, many traditional diets are nutrient rich and, at least compared to ours, calorie poor.  The Western diet has turned that relationship upside down. [Page 122]

Still, medicalizing the whole problem of the Western diet instead of working to overturn it (whether at the level of the patient or politics) is exactly what you'd expect from a health care community that is sympathetic to nutritionism as a matter of temperament, philosophy, and economics.  You would not expect such a medical community to be sensitive to the cultural or ecological dimensions of the food problem - and it isn't.  We'll know this has changed when doctors kick the fast-food franchises out of the hospitals. [Page 142]

If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it's that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind... Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to the land and outward to other people. [Page 144]

In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance, to dust off a word, than most of us do today.  A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap, and easy... For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life.  Traditionally people have allocated a far greater proportion of their income to food - as they still do in several of the countries where people eat better than we do and as a consequence are healthier than we are.  Here, then, is one way in which we would do well to go a little native: backward, or perhaps it is forward, to a time and place where the gathering and preparing and enjoying of food were closer to the center of a well-lived life. [Page 145 - 146]

It is no accident that Slow Food has it's roots in Italy, a country much less enamored of the "folly of Fast Life" than the United States, and you have to wonder whether it's realistic to think the American way of eating can be reformed without also reforming the whole American way of life.  Fast food is precisely the way you'd expect a people to eat who put success at the center of life, who work long hours (with two careers per household), get only a couple of weeks vacation each year, and who can't depend on a social safety net to cushion them from life's blows.  But Slow Food's wager is that making time and slowing down to eat, an activity that happens three times a day and ramifies all through a culture, is precisely the wedge that can begin to crack the whole edifice. [Page 195]

PS:  I told you I was obsessed. 

PPS:  Today I made a mind-blowing revelation.  Butter is a REALLY good non-stick cooking tool!  PAM begone!  

PPPS:  I want to burn down the supermarkets.

PPPPS:  Do you think I should buy a cow and some chickens and plant a garden and quit my job so I can live a more native lifestyle?  I do.


Anonymous said...


Amanda said...

This has been on my list for a long time too. I just moved it up to the top. Thanks for the review.
ps, I am getting ready to order my garden seeds this weekend. Hooray!

James A Woods said...

Thanks so much for the info. I'm going to find this book.

You hear people (usually self-proclaimed experts) saying don't eat dairy, don't eat bread, don't eat meat; but I've never bought into it. It sounds like this book may offer more practical advice.

Stacey Snacks said...

Great book, though I don't follow all the rules in it.....but when do I follow rules?
There are many different schools of thought on food.
Just stay away from McDonald's and you will live longer.

Anonymous said...

You know I read it and wasn't super impressed---but I think that's because I've been obsessed with this for a while and so the info wasn't that much of a revelation to me...but it also seemed like he was interested in giving us snappy sound bites, and didn't back up many of his claims with the pages and pages of evidence that I would have liked.

Still though, the advice is sound and something to aspire to! And I'm totally up for moving to a farm together so we can raise cows and chickens in harmony with nature. I call dibs on butter churning duty!

Jaya said...

if you're into this, you should also read "animal, vegetable, miracle" by barbara kingsolver - a memoir of the year she and her family spent eating locally. it's fantastic, partly because of the content and partly because she's an amazing writer.