Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438
Following close on the heels of the very successful publishing of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the release of the movie Food Inc., Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, is one that attempts to address, in an even simpler way, the question of what we “should” eat. He examines that question in depth, trying to navigate through the supermarket, the diet industry, the health food industry, and every other place where we find and choose food.
The book is not a guide to certain foods that will make you healthy but much more of an examination of both the philosophy and the science of what food has become in the United States. Pollan takes the stance that our amazingly complex approach to food and food products is very likely getting us into more trouble than it is saving us from.
The book grew out of a 2007 article titled “Unhappy Meals,” which was published in the New York Times Magazine. Like in his other works, Pollan’s description of the issues is thorough and couched in a great deal of anecdotal and well-researched evidence that help to move along the discussion. He examines in detail the way that we have constructed an approach to food that he labels “nutritionism,” an approach that focuses on eating “nutrients” rather than simply food.
Pollan follows the rise of this outlook from its inception to its current state and describes many of the effects. He describes the low-fat craze (now apparently being debunked) to the craze for fiber. He also examines the basic idea that we look at food as a compilation of nutrients rather than as something edible. His basic premise is that we would likely be better off ignoring most (if not all) of food science and, as he counsels us, simply to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
Pollan writes that he has given away the entire story in the first line, but again, as he did in Omnivore’s Dilemma, he continues in great detail and with an intriguing style into what that means and how it goes from a simple to a very complex question.
The second and third portions of the book are a further examination of how our eating culture became what it is. Pollan then provides a very straight-forward examination of the ways to escape from the negative aspects of what he calls “The Western Diet.”
The book has already seen relatively wide commercial and critical success. Published in 2008, it rose to the top of the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction and stayed at the top for six weeks.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1321
Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food starts with a broad sketch of a key social change: how control over what families ate shifted from cultural factors, such as mothers and traditions, to marketing and the food industry. The result is that more health claims are made for food than ever before—but people are less healthy. The goal of In Defense of Food is to analyze the reasons for this seeming paradox. As Pollan does so, he makes other arguments as well, such as the idea that people should spend less time worrying about health and food and that the current Western diet makes people sick.
The body of the book is divided into three related sections. Part I, "The Age of Nutritionism," analyzes the scientific ideology called nutritionism. Part II, "The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization," applies the information presented in the first part to widespread issues of public health. In Part III, "Getting Over Nutritionism," Pollan focuses on the personal level, and he gives specific advice for what people should and shouldn't eat.
Part I: The Age of Nutritionism
"The Age of Nutritionism" argues that "food" in the purest or most traditional sense has disappeared from groceries in recent years and is replaced by "nutrients." The roots of this transformation are traced to nineteenth-century scientists William Prout (who identified protein, carbohydrates, and fat as the core components of food) and Justus von Liebig (the German chemist who discovered the role of minerals, or micronutrients). This led to the invention of vitamins and to increasing prestige for nutrition science.
Throughout the twentieth century, scientific understanding of nutrition and health developed new theories, such as the lipid hypothesis, which argued that increased consumption of fat and cholesterol were contributing to heart disease. In 1977, nutrition science received a major push from the American government when a Senate committee tasked with addressing health concerns developed its first dietary guidelines. These recommended eating less meat and dairy, but under pressure from lobbyists, the government weakened this recommendation. In part to avoid angering powerful lobbies and in part due to scientific trends, these guidelines began to speak about nutrients rather than food.
The term nutritionism was created by Gyorgy Scrinis in 2002. It refers to the fact that contemporary understanding of nutrition is more like an ideology than a science. Its core belief is that the individual nutrients are the essence of food. Because no one can see nutrients, this belief positions scientists as essential guides for the daily activity of eating. Like other ideologies, nutritionism divides its world along black-and-white lines: good nutrients and bad nutrients. However, there is ongoing debate about which nutrients go in which categories. Nutritionism is very useful for food manufacturers because they can now hype food as improved and healthier because they have added specific nutrients to it. It also allowed food manufacturers to finally dispel a labeling law from 1938, which had required any artificial food to be labeled as "imitation." After all, if nutrients are the essential elements of food, so long as they are present, they are real. This move removes the older distinction between natural and artificial foods, opening the door to a flood of newly engineered foods.
In the years since 1977, science, marketing, and regulatory bodies have worked together to create a golden age of food science. When nutrition fads move through, these disciplines work together to bring foods containing their qualities, such as low fat or high fiber content, to store shelves. However, few of the faddish beliefs are based in solid science, even those as well established as the idea that low-fat diets benefit your health. In fact, during these decades in which America has supposedly been eating a healthier diet, the American populace has gotten markedly fatter. Nutritionism's tenets have led people to distrust traditional diets and their own taste buds and have led them to radically misunderstand their nutritional needs.
Part II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
Part II starts by describing an experiment in Australia in 1982 in which ten Aborigines with various health issues were taken off a Western diet and lifestyle and returned to their traditional activities and diet. This seven-week return to tradition helped them lose weight, lowered blood pressure, drastically lowered signs of diabetes, and in all ways made these people healthier. This supports the idea that although humans can live on many different diets and stay healthy, the modern Western diet is not one of them.
Western medicine pours time and energy into curing disease without really acknowledging that in many cases it is the Western diet (and lifestyle) that causes these diseases. Time and again, when native peoples adapted civilized diets, chronic and deadly health issues followed. This is true for conditions ranging from heart disease to dental cavities.
There are several reasons for this. One is that nutrition science treats nutrition in isolation rather than as part of a larger chain of "ecological relationships." It ignores that people, as animals, eat things as part of a greater balance and context. A second reason is that the shift from whole foods to refined and processed foods removes countless nutrients that either go missing or must be added back in. If they are added back in, they lack the biochemical balance they had in the whole foods. A third reason is that as the food chain has been industrialized, it has moved "from complexity to simplicity." The soil has a narrower range of nutrients; our diets contain fewer species and fewer varieties of those. A fourth reason is that the Western diet emphasizes quantity of food over quality, essentially promoting obesity. A fifth reason is that of the plants people do eat, they eat more seeds and fewer leaves, which leaves out many nutrients and unbalances those they do get. Sixth, within intact traditional societies, the human relationship to food was mediated by culture. As those cultures are disrupted, so is the human relationship to food.
Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism
This third section of In Defense of Food discusses what individuals can and should do to improve the health of their bodies, the society, and the planet. The first core suggestion is that one should try to "escape" the contemporary Western diet. People should eat food rather than nutrients. This means avoiding any of the new food products: do not eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognize as food. This means no fast foods, no processed foods, no low-fat or imitation foods, and so forth. Avoid foods containing multiple food additives or high-fructose corn syrup. Do not eat food that makes special health claims.
Avoid the center of the supermarket (where more processed foods are shelved) and avoid the supermarket altogether when you can. Instead, buy food at local farmers' markets, forage for wild food, grow a garden, and keep a large freezer where you store frozen meats bought and butchered locally. Eat mostly plants, and pay attention to your food's food chain: avoid factory-raised foods and those raised with hormones or pesticides. Eat mostly plants and model your eating habits on the Greek, French, Japanese, or Italian diet. Eat slowly, and eat high-quality foods rather than eating large amounts of cheap food. Learn how to pay better attention to your internal signals indicating that you're full rather than using external signals like portion size or an empty plate. Make your meals a social occasion.
A note on characters or historical figures in the work: Given the nature of Pollan's work, there are not really any characters. The achievements of a few individual scientists are mentioned, such as the English scientist William Prout (who identified protein, carbohydrates, and fat as the core components of food) and German Justus von Liebig (one of the founders of biochemistry). However, no one is characterized as an individual. Instead, Pollan turns his attention on the system and key shaping ideas and ideologies, such as nutritionism.