In Defense of Food. Michael Pollan.

After reading Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and enjoying it so much, I thought I should read his follow up book.  In the introduction, he explains the purpose of writing In Defense of Food:

But many readers wanted to know, after they’d spent a few hundred pages following me following the food chains that feed us, “Okay, but what should I eat? And now that you’ve been to the feedlots, the food-processing plants, the organic factory farms, and the local farms and ranches, what do you eat?

He goes on to give the answer early:

Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much.

Of course, that answer needs a lot of explanation, which the rest of the book does.

Again in this book, Pollan shows he is a good writer, though I enjoyed the “adventure” aspect of The Ominvore’s Dilemma a bit more.  But this is still worth a read, and a fascinating account of the many problems with conventional wisdom, especially with respect to USDA guidelines for eating and, more specifically, with the food pyramid.  There is some repetition, of course, but that is expected.

I won’t say much more here, but will leave you with a few quotes:

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex, on the one side, as a food and on the other a human eater. It encourages us to take a simple mechanistic view of that transaction: Put in this nutrient, get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. We all know that lucky soul who can eat prodigious quantities of fattening food without ever gaining weight. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others. Depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. Depending on your genetic makeup, reducing the saturated fat in your diet may or may not move your cholesterol numbers. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same 100 calories of food may yield more or less food energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroides resident in your gut. In turn, that balance of bacterial species could owe to your genes or to something in your environment. So there is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and to think of food as simply fuel is to completely misconstrue it. It’s worth keeping in mind too that, curiously, the human digestive tract has roughly as many neurons as the spinal column. We don’t yet know exactly what they’re up to, but their existence suggests that much more is going on in digestion than simply the breakdown of foods into chemicals

Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet.

Nine percent of the calories in the American diet today come from a single omega-6 fatty acid: linoleic acid, most of it from soybean oil.

People eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets. Scientists can argue all they want about the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon, but whichever it is, the solution to the problem would appear to remain very much the same: Stop eating a Western diet.

Finally, he has this to say about Gary Taube’s Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I just happen to be reading now:

*Gary Taubes describes the developing carbohydrate hypothesis at great length in Good Calories, Bad Calories. According to the hypothesis, most of the damage to our health that has been wrongly attributed to fats for the past half century—heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and so on—can rightly be blamed on refined carbohydrates. But the healthy skepticism Taubes brought to the lipid hypothesis is nowhere in evidence when he writes about the (also unproven) carbohydrate hypothesis. Even if refined carbohydrates do represent a more serious threat to health than dietary fat, to dwell on any one nutrient to the exclusion of all others is to commit the same reductionist error that the lipophobes did. Indeed, Taubes is so single-minded in his demonization of the carbohydrate that he overlooks several other possible explanations for the deleterious effects of the Western diet, including deficiencies of omega-3s and micronutrients from plants. He also downplays the risks (to health as well as eating pleasure) of the high-protein Atkins diet that the carbohydrate hypothesis implies is a sound way to eat. As its title suggests, Good Calories, Bad Calories, valuable as it is, does not escape the confines of nutritionism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s