The Bookworm: In Defense of Food


In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. 256 pages. Penguin Books. 2008.

But if food and eating stand in need of a defense, from whom, or what, do they need defending? From nutrition science on one side and from the food industry on the other — and from the needless complications around eating that together they have fostered. As eaters we find ourselves increasingly in the grip of a Nutritional Industrial Complex — comprised of well-meaning, if error-prone, scientists and food marketers only too eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus.

I’m in the middle of the second revision of the personal essay I’ve tentatively titled “Directions.” The title won’t stand. I’m hoping to find a well-crafted turn of words in the text I can use as a real title. I have a habit of using one-word titles, which I want to break.

Anyway, I decided to take the night off because I’ve been working well, and because I finished In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto last night.

I heard about In Defense while listening to NPR. Here’s a tip: if you want to broaden your reading spectrum I recommend listening to NPR. Michael Pollan was discussing healthy eating on “Talk of the Nation,” and his opinions, advice, and knowledge of food and cooking impressed me. Later that day I added In Defense to my Amazon wish list so I wouldn’t forget about it. I bought it from Prairie Lights online a couple weeks ago. (It came packaged with Truck and the next book in my reading queue. Picture me waving my middle fingers at Amazon. Wooo hooo! Long live independent book stores!)

This is Pollan’s second book about eating and food. His first, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is now on my Amazon wish list, and I’ll write more about that book after I’ve read it. However, if you can’t wait until then — because who knows when a cheapskate like me will get the balls to buy it — I suggest you get your own copy. Trust me: if it’s anything like In Defense it will be well-written and thought provoking. In other words, damn good.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s the simple thesis at the nucleus of Pollan’s defense of food and case against the rampant industrialization of sustenance. Dividing the book into three sections, Pollan uses the first two to give an overview of the western diet and the diseases it causes (known as the “western diseases”), nutritionism (the predominant modern thinking that regards food as a combination of nutrients that can be broken down and isolated), the history of processed food (from white flour to Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt Tubes), and over a century of bad, inconclusive, and contradictory science (just about all of it based on nutritionism). In the last section he expands on his thesis by offering a dozen or so suggestions related to each recommendation — algorithms for eating, as he puts it.

(Here’s an odd coincidence: while writing this I’m listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s album “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” The 12th song, “Ham ‘n’ Eggs” just played.)

In Defense is caulk full of insightful facts and sensible advice. I just about bracketed every sentence and paragraph, highlighting it as interesting. Frankly, most of his suggestions and conclusions are obvious — at least to those of us who are vegetarians or grew up in families who cooked and sat together at the dinner table to eat — but it’s sad to think people are confused to the point where they don’t know what to eat or how to be healthy. It’s only been in the past 50 or 60 years that Americans have abandoned traditional (real) food and eating habits to the point where it’s killing them by the thousands each year. Even though Pollan suggests eating meat as a side is not detrimental (studies have shown it doesn’t do much harm in small portions, but the quality of meat is still a factor), In Defense reinforced my vegetarianism and the vigilance I’ve adopted when shopping for food. Having read this book I will never eat the same way, and I hope it changes others, too. When I’m in IC next month I plan to buy another copy and give it to my parents.

New words I learned: Yes — words. I’ve employed the circling technique to highlight words I don’t know so I can easily locate them while writing these posts. Despite how complex and scientific the subject matter of In Defense is, the language is understandable and well-crafted; like a good journalist, Pollan does an excellent job of explanation. However, there were two words I didn’t know. Symbiosis: “interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” Perforce: “used to express necessity or inevitability.” (Definitions courtesy of my MacBook dictionary.) There. That was much easier and more educational than the old way.

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