In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan - Book Notes

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That is the core advice Michael Pollan has for you on how to eat - it’s right on the cover of the book. It’s way simpler and easier to understand than the nutritional recommendations you usually see, which talk about things like trans fats and Omega-3s - things that you can’t see and touch.

Pollan traces the origins of such nutritionism to the aftermath of the 1977 report of the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. The committee’s goal was, broadly speaking, to recommend a national nutrition policy. Towards this end, the committee’s report recommended that Americans “eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less high-fat meat, egg, and dairy products”.

This was, unsurprisingly, met with a less-than-enthusiastic response by the cattle, dairy, and sugar industries, who proceeded to lobby the committee furiously, eventually pressuring the committee to change those guidelines to instead “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake”. Eating less is bad for business, plain and simple. And no longer do guidelines tell you what foods to eat - you must look within for invisible “saturated fats” and consult experts for guidance on what foods contain more or less of it.

And so, despite ever more fine-grained advice on what to eat, we’ve been getting fatter and fatter (image source):

We're getting fatter

And along with that, we’ve been suffering more and more from the “western diseases” like hypertension, heart diseases, cancer and so on. What gives?

Pollan’s central point is that we understand nutrition and food far less than food scientists claim. This is in some way obvious - witness the huge variety of “diets” credentialed nutriotionists promulgate. Maybe some of them have things right, but since there are so many contradictory theories, I think it prudent to be skeptical.

Calories in food, too, are highly misleading. Here is a fascinating history of how the food calorie came to be, and why it’s it time to bury it, from the Economist’s 1843 Magazine (paywall).

Without further ado, here’s Michael Pollan’s advice on what to eat and how:

  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronouncable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.

    Don’t forget that trans-fat-rich margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.

    The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice’s Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich—this at a time when scientists are coming to recognize that dietary sugar probably plays a more important role in heart disease than dietary fat.

  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. The suggestion here is to get as much food as you can from a farmer’s market, or sign up for a service that ships food from a farm directly to you - before it’s had a chance to be processed.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • You are what what you eat eats too. I.e. meat from grass-fed cows is much better for you than from cows that ate grains. The same goes for the relationship between plants and the soil in which they grow.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer.
  • Eat like an omnivore. Eat lots of different foods.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. Eating organic food is a handy, if not strictly necessary, shorthand for this. Studies have found food grown “organically” to have appreciably higher quantities of healthy nutrients than conventionally-grown foods. I got some carrots from a farm box recently, and they were easily the best carrots I’d had in years! I ate two huge carrots right when I got them; they tasted nothing like the carrots I usually get from a supermarket (which, indeed, don’t really taste much like anything).
  • Eat wild foods when you can.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements. People who take supplements are usually healthier than those who don’t… but study after study finds that supplements don’t actually make people healthier. So be the kind of person who takes supplements… and then save your money.
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks. Basically, avoid the “western diet” and the ways of eating that come with it.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.
  • Pay more, eat less.

    Is it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.

  • Eat meals. The bulk of the calories we’ve added to our diet since 80s has been through snacking.
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Consult your gut. Be mindful when eating, and stop when you’re full, or maybe 80% full.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden.

Pollan is a compelling writer - maybe too much so. Sometimes I wonder: if he were making the opposite argument to me in equally eloquent prose, would I buy into it just as much?

What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism, the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism—its supreme test and, as now is coming clear, its most abject failure. You can argue, as some diehards will do, that the problem was one of faulty execution or you can accept that the underlying tenets of the ideology contained the seeds of the eventual disaster.

I love that paragraph - it’s beautifully put, concise, and tugs at emotional strings just so. And yet it’s probably flawed - one of the key tenets of real science is its relentless pursuit of truth and self-improvement. What the horrible failure of the Low-Fat Campaign demonstrates is, say, hubris about how well we understand nutrition, and there is a deep lesson here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this understanding won’t get better over time.

Even so, I do like Pollan’s advice. I value simplicity, and “eat less beef” is a lot simpler than “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” Buying into Pollan’s argument restored confidence in me that I actually can figure out what I should eat to be healthy!

Will it work out? Ask me in thirty years.

5/5 - Beautifully written, concise, simple, and compelling advice on what to eat. I dig it.

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About Krystof Litomisky

Krystof is an engineer, adventurer, and all-around good guy based in Los Angeles, California.

Los Angeles, California