Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Late to the Party

I finally got around to reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: an Eater's Manifesto; and I have to say that this book is seriously one of the best books I've read in an incredibly long time. I always try to read with some skepticism; but if it's possible, I agree with every word written in this book.

Anyone who knows the book knows the short version of the Eater's Manifesto which is:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

The book outlines the theory that since people have studied nutrition and tried to extract the specific components in food that are conducive to our health and survival- we have actually become less healthy with more of what he describes as the Western Diseases: Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Cancer among others. Over time, we've tried to find the 'magic bullet' of nutrition; protein,oat bran, antioxidants, pomegranates, flaxseed, or some single food (or supplement) that will take care of all our ills. As we ping-pong around following a current health fad, avoiding fat, or carbs, or meat, or dairy - we allow ourselves to push the common sense of eating in moderation foods that were raised healthfully and ethically away.

By studying what's 'healthy' in foods lets us create food products that do a much better job of supporting the economy with mass commercial farming, trucking, and commerce in selling the foods in a way that is shelf stable so that people can buy more food without the worry that the food will go bad. It's funny that in even my refrigerator, it's only the vegetables that hang around long enough to go bad, when the processed snacks (that could probably last for 100 years) are eaten within a few days of being purchased. By being so cheap and easy to consume, we don't appreciate the food we're eating - so people are more likely to 'feed' instead of 'dine' on our food. I would wager that most of the money put into the study of nutrition was put there by food corporations looking for ways to add another health claim to their package.

After talking about the problems caused by Nutritionism and the Western Diet, Pollan offers a solution in following the Manifesto: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. He gives us a blueprint to follow in making more positive choices that could benefit our lives.

I'm putting this down, not so much for any reader who happens by, but to remember more of what I've read and put it into practice for myself.


  • Don't eat anything your Great Grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. He uses the example of GoGurt (a far cry from yogurt that includes only milk and bacterial culture) .
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are: A) Unfamiliar; B) Unpronounceable; C) More than 5 in number, or That include; D) High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This answers the question that, yeah, Great-Grandma may recognize bread, but not the stuff on the shelves with added softeners and sweeteners because it's imperative that bread be eaten with no texture or inherent flavor. Also, to make lowfat milk more creamy they add powdered milk which contains oxidized cholesterol (which may be worse than regular cholesterol). Removing the fat also makes it harder for you to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that made milk healthy to drink in the first place.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims. Do we really need to talk about the sugar cereals that now trumpet the existence of whole grains along with the tablespoons of sugar in each serving? Also, think about what the package isn't saying.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. That's where real food lives.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.Farmers' Markets, CSAs, independent meat/dairy producers. Find sources that rely less on chemicals, grain, and hormones. Shorten the food chain.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. We need the omega-3s,vitamins, and antioxidants from plants because our bodies don't produce these. Sticking to a diet that relies mostly on plants helps protect us from Western Diseases, and uses less energy and resources than needed in the production of meat.
  • You are what *what you eat* eats too. Eat meat, dairy, and eggs from pastured animals.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer. Get healthy foods in quantity when they're at their peak, freezing has less of an impact on the nutritional impact of the food than canning does.
  • Eat like an omnivore. More species of everything, more covered nutritionally.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. Lots of farmers grow/raise food without the use of chemicals, hormones so the label 'certified organic' doesn't necessarily guarantee that the food is the healthiest option. Know who grows your food.
  • Eat wild foods when you can. Wild greens have super-high levels of phytochemicals, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Wild animals eat a diverse diet, wild fish have higher levels of omega-3 because they aren't fed grain. Higher levels of omega-3 can ward off depression. Abundant wildlife: deer, sardines, anchovies, salmon.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements. Be more health conscious, more educated, and more affluent. Could take a multi, and if you don't eat enough fish, a fish oil supplement.
  • Eat more like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks. Eating foods in the way they're eaten in a culture makes up for nutritional deficiencies, dangers that may come from eating a food in other ways. In mexico corn and beans together, corn was ground with limestone. In Asia, they developed the best way to eat soy: in tofu.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism. Be wary of new permutations of soy.
  • Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet. Mostly when we study aspects of diet, we aren't able to account for all factors in the success of a diet.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner. Men can have two. Drinking alcohol in moderation seems to promote health - or help us enjoy it.


  • Pay more, eat less. Better foods cost more. If you spend more, you may take more time over it, appreciate it, and consequently eat less of it. Americans eat by visual cue (unlike French who ea 'til they're full). Put a smaller portion on the plate, and we'll learn to be satisfied by that. We'll do less snacking, especially if we have to put effort in preparing what we eat. "In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 % of their income on food and 5.2 % on health care." Now, "spending on food has dropped to 9.9 %, while spending on health care has climbed to 16%." The numbers have flipped. Choose quality over quantity.
  • Eat meals. Together as a family, at the table, eating the same food. Turn off the TV and talk to each other. Do you really need to snack, or eat in the car? Are you going to starve otherwise. (Although I have to admit that a small latte before class (the mixture of protein, carbs and caffeine) was the key to getting A's in my Calculus classes.)
  • Do all of your eating at a table. No variations.
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does. Duh. Corn syrup.
  • Try not to eat alone. You'll enjoy the company, take longer to eat because you're less likely to scarf your food in front of an audience. Use tricks to make you think you're eating more than you are. Look at the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
  • Eat Slowly. Eat deliberately ("from freedom") instead of compulsively. Learn about the Slow Food Movement. Think about what happens when we put success at the center of life. Our whole life diminishes, family, friends, leisure all take a hit. So does our health. Appreciate the food you're eating. Make eating a ritual, offer a blessing before eating. From Wendell Berry:
    Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. We'll know, learn, and appreciate more about what we're eating.

1 comment:

POD said...

Michael Pollan is a genius. Read Botany of Desire. Fantastic book. Also Second Nature is very good especially for gardeners.
I just came back from the nursery but only bought some cyclamen for my mom's house. I'm staying here this week.

The weather is insanely warm but lovely still.

Happy Thanksgiving. I vow not to eat too much. The whole food/celebration thing leaves me feeling dysfunctional and nutty and makes me want to eat.
Oh, also if you like or don't like cauliflower, make the soup!