Bookplates: In Defense of Food


It's rare for a book to change your entire outlook on a subject as broad and vital as food, so it should be downright impossible for one author to write two such books within just a few years. Yet Michael Pollan has done exactly that. His latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, might not be as beautifully written as his revelatory 2006 tome, The Omnivore's Dilemma, but its concise, forceful argument is just as important.

Pollan wrote this book to answer the question posed by The Omnivore's Dilemma: What do I eat? He answers this question in the opening sentences: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It's a catchy answer, easily adopted as a mantra, and the designer of the book's jacket smartly includes it on the front cover.

Still, Pollan needs 200 pages to unpack those three, seemingly simple sentences. The first sentence requires the most explanation. What are we eating, if not food? As Pollan makes clear, our obsession with nutrients has spawned over a century of meddling with our diet to enhance foods with the latest miracle cure, from oat bran in the 1980s to omega-3 today, and remove those we believe to be harmful. This has led to supermarkets of overly processed food-like substances -- not, Pollan argues, foods.

Indeed, In Defense of Food could easily be titled Against Nutritionism. The first of the book's three parts reveals much of food science as reductive and poorly researched. The obvious example is the rise and fall of transfats. First promoted as a replacement for "dangerous" natural fats, transfats are now considered far more unhealthy than animal fat. The book's second half explores how the Western diet has led to unheard-of levels of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments.

The final section explores what -- and, crucially, how -- we should eat. The "what" isn't so difficult to comprehend, though Pollan offers a handy, if imperfect, rule-of-thumb: stick to the outside of the supermarket, where the fresh produce, meat and dairy are located, rather than the central aisles where the processed food is stacked. Better yet, go to farmers' markets rather than supermarkets.

More challenging is to change how we eat. Pollan points out that the so-called French paradox comes from how the French perceive food. It is a pleasure to be savored, not fuel. Serve smaller portions, eat slowly and don't go back for seconds. And -- what is both the most sensible and maybe the most difficult advice -- pay more for smaller quantities of better food.

Readers expecting the engrossing reportage that marked The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which (among other things) Pollan follows a single beef cow from pasture to feedlot and, later, hunts a wild pig, might be disappointed by his approach here. As its subtitle makes clear, this is an extended argument. But it's a sound argument and one applicable to all of us.

-Ian Froeb