News and Tribune

October 8, 2012

Book review: “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan


> SOUTHERN INDIANA — When I was asked to do a book review for Southern Indiana Fitness Source, I wanted to read something that would pertain to many readers and, would selfishly be something in which I was interested - food.

Although it's been out for several years, Michael Pollan's “In Defense of Food” met the criteria, and as the title suggests, he defends the sustenance of life.

The proposition Pollan offers is pretty basic. So much so that he was able to fit it on the cover of the book: “Eat food; not too much; mostly plants.”

But of course, it's much deeper than that.

The natural food movement has been going for a while, but Pollan offers some warnings on foods people may be eating when they think they're being healthy, like reduced-fat foods. Many “low-fat” foods substitute saturated fats with trans fats, which actually may be far worse for you, as it raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol.

At moments, Pollan can be overly-technical on the description of what is in the food, but everything is clearly written and when he got to offering his hypothesis on developing a better relationship with food, a few things stood out.

One was that the American diet is unhealthy. Americans, he said, are guilty eaters. They consume a diet that is at least one-half sugars and they don't take the time to cook and enjoy their food, opting for a faster alternative, e.g. drive-thrus and pre-made meals.

Even when we are eating whole foods, Americans are getting substantially less nutrition per calorie than we used to because of changes in how food is grown.

Another suggestion proffered was to not eat anything your grandparents wouldn't recognize as food. As an example he used - in my mind on of the more repulsive products out there - yogurt in a squeeze tube. Yes, there is probably yogurt in there somewhere, along with high fructose corn syrup, various chemicals to keep the tube goo from going bad and whatever the heck makes the stuff neon blue.

This led to more suggestions in keeping a healthy diet, such as avoiding products that are unpronounceable, unfamiliar or contain more than five ingredients. In addition, Pollan said to avoid products that make health claims and avoid the supermarket when possible by going to farmers markets instead.

“It's hard to eat poorly from the farmers market,” he wrote. “Shake the hand that feeds you.”

One dilemma that I have wrestled with was there is still an issue with cost and not all Americans can afford to eat “high-quality food.”

Disappointing as it may be, Pollan was only able to offer buying meat in bulk and that Americans could spend more on their meals if they make it a priority.

Overall, Pollan suggested: Eat more plants; when buying meat, you are what you eat and what you're eating ate too; eat meals at a table; don't get fuel from the same place your car does; eat with others; eat deliberately and thoughtfully; cook your own food; and if you can, plant a garden.

His book reinforced some perceptions I had about food and also reinforced that I, like many Americans, opt for the fast over the healthy sometimes. But above all, it reinforced the notion that my diet isn't perfect, it doesn't have to be, but there are opportunities to improve what I eat and at the very least, be cognizant of the choices I make about food.