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In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

2010/06/11

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That is the slogan of the new food movement — whether you call it organic, slow food, natural. You know these people – they shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, can be found at the farmers markets and natural food co-ops, use all-natural cleaners and soaps, talk about raising chickens and rabbits in their backyard. Michael Pollan has written several books about food, nutrition, and the American diet; this particular book focuses on the controversy about nutrition, nutrients, food additives, and diet gimmicks. Pollan argues that much of what is consumed by Americans today is not really food, but rather “edible foodlike substances,” and suggests that despite our recent food science discoveries and studies on nutrition, Americans are less healthy than in previous generations. This book is a defense of food and eating, against misleading food nutrition science and the manufactured food industry. Pollan examines the historical background — the emergence of nutrition awareness and marketing, and something called “nutritionism” — that food is essentially the sum of its nutrient parts. He also looks at studies in which people from other cultures adopt the American diet — and inherit American diseases and disorders, projects regarding the cessation of the American diet and readoption of the traditional diet.

In addition to his critique, Pollan also offers practical, applicable suggestions: avoid food products that make health claims, stop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle, get out of the supermarket whenever possible, eat like an omnivore, remember that you are what what you eat eats (think about it), don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet, regard nontraditional foods with skepticism, don’t get your food from the same place your car gets fuel.

Though I had been skeptical of Pollan’s works after hearing much fanfare and hype about them, I found this book to be full of practical common sense. It was a bit ironic as I was reading to see that Pollan quotes studies and surveys regarding food claims and nutrition, right after berating the food industry for tweaking food claims and nutrition to sell food. Still, if books like this encourage Americans to look more closely at their food choices and move towards a healthier perspective on eating, I’m all for them.

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