January 31, 2008

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In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (2008, Penguin Press, 244 pages)
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Those are the first three sentences of In Defense of Food — sentences so important that they appear on the book’s cover and, I’ll bet, in at least the opening paragraph of most of the reviews, previews or blurbs written about the book.

Those seven words do more or less sum up the thesis of the book, which Pollan says is the answer to the question that his last book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, brought up, namely, what are we supposed to eat? Pollan’s answer is food (i.e. nothing your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize, like GoGurt), not too much (duh) and mostly plants (because they have lots of good stuff in them and, try though science might, you can’t just get all of that stuff from a vitamin).

Pollan is generally against processed food, enriched or vitamin-fortified food, high-fructose corn syrup-containing food and food that (as he says in one of his lists of tips) you get at the same place you fuel up your car. He is for eating more foods that have little done to them and that are part of a non modern-Western diet (Japanese, Italian, Chinese, French, Greek — Pollan doesn’t seem to care which one or ones you emulate in your meal choices just so long as you don’t pick “Modern American Suburb Dweller” as your culture). He is also for eating in all the ways we know we should eat but for a variety of reasons (most of them involving the word “time”) don’t — in a chair, at a table, with family members, at set times in the day with no snacking in between, not in the car, etc. His dietary advice is, annoyingly, very similar to my mom’s and probably most people’s moms’ advice about how to eat healthy. But he backs it up with stories about the food business and the nutritionism fads, so you can pretend that you’ve never heard it before. How food got this way and why it’s not helping us takes up a good part of the book and gives some context as to why a low-fat frozen dinner and naturally low-fat vegetables aren’t the same thing in terms of what equal calories of such foods might do to you.

In Defense of Food reminds me very much of a book Pollan himself cites several times, What to Eat by Marion Nestle. She too is not a fan of screaming pink yogurt and the “food products” (as Pollan calls them) that fill the middles of supermarkets (don’t eat foods that are chemically incapable of rotting, Pollan suggests). Nestle’s advice, like Pollan’s, is mostly sensible but, if you are used to concocting a “meal” of gas station coffee and some sort of oat-encrusted bar, it can sound scary. “Cook, and if you can, plant a garden” Pollan says — good advice except for when you come home after a long day’s work and are hungry NOW. In this case, remind yourself that “have a glass of wine with dinner” is part of Pollan’s advice as well. B+Amy Diaz