Thursday, October 1, 2009

You Must Read This Book

In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, is the best book that never should have had to have been written. It makes such utter sense, that one has to wonder, how we Americans lost our way when it comes to eating. How have we lost our connection to and our joy in food, and at the same time, become the most unhealthy, obese country in the modern world? Pollan attempts to answer these questions, and then, more importantly, makes suggestions as to how to get back to eating for both health and happiness.

The book attributes Americans' unhealthy relationship with food, to several factors. Bad and confusing science is one factor. Over the past decades, scientists have demonized one nutrient after another, first fats, then carbs, until just the act of eating became a minefield for the average person. It has given Americans what Pollan refers to as, "an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating." We wonder about the French Paradox, the fact that the French eat more fat and drink more wine, yet are much healthier than we are. Maybe the real paradox is how Americans can be so obsessed with healthy eating, yet be so unhealthy. The industrialization and marketing of highly processed foods is another factor, claims Pollan. Quantity over quality has become the norm, as food goes, in America. Maybe the most overlooked, but, possibly the saddest factor, involves not what, but how we eat (and cook.) We have lost the value in the family meal, the home cooked meal, the joy and ritual of eating. The microwave, take-out, the habit of eating in our cars, at our desks, in front of the TV, have all contributed to the loss of the meal. Eating and dining can and should be, and once used to be one of life's great pleasures. (I remember trying to convey just this thought to a personal trainer a few years back, only to be laughed at!)

So, Pollan asks, if we have given up the taste, the pleasure and the fun of cooking and eating, shouldn't the trade-off be that we have become healthier? But, no! We are more unhealthy than ever.

So, what is an eater to do? The book has three tag lines: Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants. Let's look at each point separately. Eat Food. By this statement, is Michael Pollan implying that what we are eating is not, in fact, food? Well, yes, that is exactly what he is saying. The majority of what Americans eat are "edible foodlike substances," so highly processed that they bear no resemblance to anything that occurs in nature. When the conventional wisdom of the day is telling us to always read nutrition labels, Michael Pollan is telling us to eat more foods that don't carry labels. (Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, even minimally processed meats!) Here, we must steel ourselves to go against the marketing grain and say no to products like GoGurt (a yogurt-like fake food that actually tries to make us think it's good for our children!)

The next point is Not too Much. Whoever came up with the advice that we should eat every three hours? Maybe here is the answer to the French Paradox question. The French do not snack all day long. When we are constantly eating, how can our bodies even know what hunger is? (My question, not Pollan's)

Mostly Plants. Michael Pollan is not advocating vegetarianism. (Remember, he is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma.) He does argue that the American diet is woefully lacking in plants. Few nutritionists would disagree with him on that point. He is talking about fresh fruits and vegetables. Not french fries, not fruit roll-ups, not bread. He claims that if we did nothing but add more fresh fruits and vegetables to our diet, out health would improve.

There is so much more to this book. It is so phenomenally good, that you must read it immediately. So, here is the link to buy it on Or, get it from your public library. That's what I did, and was happy to see that the copy was very well-used.

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