In Defense of Food--Michael Pollan

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In this insightful follow-up to the magisterial The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan offers us a manifesto in seven words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

The remainder of the book is a fantasia on this theme, exploring each of the phrases and its ultimate meaning.

As a scientist, and one who has watched the nutritionist arguments back and forth for years, and even one who has taken some delight in the egregiously wrong recommendations that have issued forth from nutritionists and health advisors, I delighted in the junk science exposed in this book. I delighted in the parsing and picking apart of well-known "facts" about nutrition--for example the relationship between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease--for which there has never been an adequate medical demonstration.

Pollan makes a great deal of what I refer to as the great margarine debacle in which the food science industry and manufacturers called upon us to abandon the neutral to good fat in butter to accept what has been shown to be perhaps the only "toxic" fat precursor in the catalog--trans-fats.

For Pollan, food, real food, is a gestalt; that is, it cannot be understood, nor can its health effects be evaluated by evaluating the different constituents of it. We have been so indoctrinated in the fat, protein, cholesterol, minerals, and vitamins school of looking at food, that we have come to accept the food substitutes dished up by the food science industry as normative eating. Pollan demonstrates time and again how this kind of diet contributes to what is variously called "Syndrome X" or the "Western Diet Syndrome." In one spectacular case, he describes research conducted amongst a group of aboriginal people from Australia who moved into urban centers and adopted the western diet there prevalent. These people eventually developed high blood pressure, borderline type II diabetes, etc. When a volunteer group was returned to the outback to resume a traditional diet of real (if somewhat distasteful, from a Western point of view) foods, many of the observed health deficiencies were resolved or greatly ameliorated within seven weeks.

Pollan's point is not to denigrate those who have tried to understand how food affects health, but to point out that it is a complex study that may need something other than atomization to begin making real progress toward understanding the interrelationships. Moreover, his point is to get us to begin to consider our own diets and how many of the things we eat are not so much food as comestibles designed to resemble food. One of his rules in the book for identifying true food is to never eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

As with much of the food world these days, Pollan encourages us to eat with the season. To eat real food--mostly plant matter and most leaves and stems, not so much grains and hard-shelled fruits (nuts). But he points out along the way that nearly every native diet consisting of real food substances from the Kikuyu mix of cow's milk and blood, to the relatively high-fat diet of the French, tends to a healthy balance of the things we need to consume.

The book is a delight from beginning to end--not so much pushing an agenda as revealing where the, perhaps unconscious, agenda of nutritionism has put as as a society today.

Highly recommended.

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Thank God my grandmother would recognize pizza as food.

"In one spectacular case, he describes research conducted amongst a group of aboriginal people from Australia who moved into urban centers and adopted the western diet there prevalent."

Do you know the name of the study, or where I can find it?



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 5, 2008 7:29 AM.

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