Saturday, May 10, 2008

In Defence of Food, by Michael Pollan

This is my second book by Michael Pollan, the other being his phenomenally popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read through quickly in a couple of days.

In Defence of Food I didn’t sweep through as easily, but nonetheless it’s also an excellent book.

Perhaps the reason I had to read a bit slower in part was because the book talks a bit about the scientific aspects of food and nutrition.

One theory says this, another says that, and in the end it can get quite confusing. Add to this the fact that science was never my strong point, and you see why some sections I plodded through.

Yes, the title of the book is weird. A defence of food, you say? Also the subtitle of the book will throw readers off: the myth of nutrition and the pleasures of eating.

In a nutshell: much, most in fact, of the food we see on our supermarket shelves is not real food. Rather it is highly processed food broken down into bit and pieces. Food has more and more been turned into a bizarre kind of chemistry. Vitamins that have been stripped from food during processing are then later added in.

Pollan describes the early process of grinding wheat into flour, and how so many vital nutrients were stripped from the whole food in the process. Later on when vitamin deficiencies were discovered in the population’s diet, the vitamins were simply added back into the food as a supplement.

This idea has gotten our of control in our own day, with the Coca Cola company now adding nutrients to their drinks.

Pollan calls this ideology ‘nutritionism’ (actually, the word is taken from an essay by Australian writer Gyorgy Scrinis).

This is where science has broken foods down to their nutrients – vitamins etc. – and taken them out of the context of the actual food.

For example, instead of eating a lovely sweet, juicy orange for the simple pleasure of it, you extract the needed nutrient out of it, vitamin C, stick it in a tablet and munch on it like a medicine.

This kind of thinking has overtaken our approach to food. Add to this the amazingly complex array of studies and findings into what food does and you have a population that is utterly clueless when it comes to what to eat.

(Most fascinating for this reader was the fact that fat does not necessarily cause heart attacks and cancer. More likely, we learn, it is the absence of plant foods from our diet. Hence the last thirty years spent over eating low fat foods has led to us being chronically unhealthy.)

Pollan quotes a study by an Australian researcher, where a group of diabetic and overweight middle aged Aborigines were sent back to the bush for seven weeks to live only on their indigenous diet. Rather than their usually crappy Western diet, they went back to eating shellfish, crocodile and witchetty grubs. Their health improved dramatically.

So what to do? The answer is quite simple. Avoid processed foods. (Ironically, Pollan says that any food advertising a nutritional benefit should not be touched.)

Eat food. By that Pollan means real, whole foods. Don’t eat TV dinners that you microwave and that have an ingredient list a mile long, full of chemicals you have never heard of. So buy whole, real vegetables, and cook them yourselves. Join a co-op if you can, or even better, grow something in your back yard yourself.

Eat mostly plants. Pollan says we can be fairly confidant of the research that shows a diet rich in vegetables and fruit will help to protect you against cancer and heart problems.

So cut down on your meat. (Although Pollan says there is nothing wrong with eating meat from a health perspective, as long as the portions are modest.) You could become what is known as a ‘flexitarian’ – vegetarian for part of the week, meat eater for the other part.

Pollan has a terrific final sentence which probably best sums up his book: ‘The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many thing to worry about, but ‘health’ is simply not one of them, because it is a given.’

This short 200 page book I feel would make a terrific gift for anyone exhibiting the signs of confusion about what to eat. It’s based on common sense: eat whatever people have always eaten, and avoid man made food based on crackpot scientific theories about what is best for us.

Nature produced the tomato, the apple, the potato for a reason: to enjoy and be eaten.

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