The final section of Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, focuses on ways we can escape the Western diet. That’s not as easily done as said, and even a few decades ago it would not have been possible for most of us. As the book has explored, we also can’t achieve a desired result by focusing on the nutritional content of the food we eat. The science, such as it is, is constantly shifting and often contradictory. The lipid hypothesis tells us that fats are bad. The carbohydrates theory says that carbs are the problem. Other research indicates much of our problem lies in an omega-3 deficiency. And if the past is any indication, there are always more theories, studies, and ideas in our future. Therefore Pollan’s thesis is a much simpler one. Stopping trying to tweak and adjust our present diet. If we want to improve our health, stop eating a Western diet.
However, that’s not necessarily easy to do. Since even our whole foods are suspect and processed foods are in every niche, it can be hard to know what to eat and what not to eat. Most of us have little or no culture of food to guide us. We’ve never known anything but the Western diet. So in this section, Pollan provides some simple and thoroughly unscientific guidelines. They don’t say much about specific foods, nutrients, or calories. Instead, the rules he offers are simple ones that most people should be able to use to guide their food choices and which should then lead us to make healthier food choices no matter what specific foods we choose to eat.
Pollan begins with his first rule: Eat food. And by food, he basically means something that your great-grandmother (or in my case probably my great-great-grandmother) would have recognized as food. Imagine her walking down the aisles of a modern supermarket. Would she have even known if that package of Go-Gurt was food or maybe thought it might be toothpaste? Trust me, reading the ingredient list on it wouldn’t have helped her figure that one out. When discussing Twinkies, Pollan adds another rule you might want to consider adopting. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting. I got a chuckle out of that one, but there’s some truth to it. If even bacteria don’t want it, why should I?
Pollan notes that we have long processed foods to extend their “shelf life” through smoking, canning, pickling, fermenting, salt curing, etc. However, modern processed foods are not processed merely to extend the time they can be stored. Rather, they are designed to sell us more food by pushing the buttons of our inborn preferences for sweetness, fat, and salt. Those are all attributes which are difficult to find in nature, but which are cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy. (That point reminds me of another book on my reading list, The End of Overeating.)
However, there are some products that would look familiar to my great-great-grandmother, but which would really be fooling her. I would use the example I’ve been using of buttermilk. Pollan uses the example of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. It looks like bread, but when you look at the ingredient list, it’s an incredible processed bread-like substance. So he extends the first rule with this somewhat more elaborate one.
Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.
Pollan points out that none of those criteria are necessarily bad in and of themselves. However, he has found them to be good guides to the sort of processed food that forms the basis of the western diet. And they are guidelines that are at once simple and easy to remember.
His next rule follows in that vein. Avoid food products that make health claims. Don’t waste your time trying to understand or evaluate the claim. Just recognize it as a marketing ploy. And when a food is packaged in such a way that a health claim is prominent, it’s probably a highly processed food. In today’s world, the FDA allows corn oil, chips, and sugary breakfast cereals all boast that, at least in some “qualified” sense, they are good for your heart.
From that, he develops two corollary rules. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. If you’ve noticed, the whole foods tend to be along the outside of the supermarket while the more profitable processed food tends to be concentrated in the aisles in the middle. While that’s not absolutely true, of course, the more you stick to the edges, the less of the other sort of food you’ll see to tempt you.
And that leads, of course, to the next corollary. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Go to local farmer’s markets. Participate in community-sponsored agriculture. Grow your own food in small gardens. The closer you can get to the source of your food, the more likely it is that you will be eating food.
Pollan notes that as long we just eat food as defined above most of the time, we’ll probably be fine. If the incredible diversity of traditional human diets around the globe teaches us anything, it’s that human beings can survive and thrive with just about any sort of diet other than the Western diet. We are true omnivores. In fact, it took an incredible amount of technological innovation to produce a diet that seems to be incapable of sustaining us.
However, Pollan does note that the diets human beings seem to thrive the most on consist mostly of plants, especially leaves. Scientists disagree on why that’s the case, but the beauty of eating food as opposed to nutrients is that we don’t really have to understand why. And he further notes that eating meat in the massive quantities that Americans do, especially industrialized, grain-fed meat, is probably not very good for us. It would be better to eat smaller amounts of more expensive meat from animals that have been fed traditional diets of mostly leaves for their entire lives (especially ruminants like cows and sheep). Similarly, try to eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
I like his rule about eating more like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks. In other words, approach a culture of food as a culture. Don’t try to reduce it to something you can lift out of the overarching culture of food, food preparation, and dining. Rather, enter in and embrace the whole culture of food. You’ll get at least some of the benefits as a result, even if you don’t know why.
Finally, he suggests again that we pay more and eat less. We pay less than most other developed nations for our food and we get less benefit from it. Eat meals. Don’t consider food simply fuel for the body we must consume as we rush to do other things. Approach food within the context and culture of meals. Every cuisine that has a reputation for health comes embedded in a rich culture of dining. It might not just be the food, but also the manner and context in which we eat it. I think that point is one we should all take seriously.
It’s a relatively short book, but Michael Pollan develops and presents his case well. I certainly agree with many of his points and the entire book is very well sourced. I definitely would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone I know.