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21 April 2010

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

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



Orthorexics are defined as people who have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and I can only hope no orthorexics read this book. It's an excellent premise, summed up quite beautifully by the titular tag line, "Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants" but Pollan gives very little practical advice and depending on what page the reader is on, contradictory advice. Fish is good, fish is bad (mercury) but fish is good because we need more omega 3. But wait. How the hell do we find mercury-free fish easily? cricket ... cricket ... cricket. Don't eat too many seeds because those are full of omega 6 and too much of that can kill you. So can too little of it. And by the way, everything we eat is seeds, or everything we eat ate seeds before it became our food. So good luck with that one. Don't eat things with more than 5 ingredients. Ok. Wait. What about my organic canned soups? Are you saying I have to make soup from scratch? Don't eat anything my great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Um. Organic/Natural but still slightly processed cereal? Whole wheat crackers? NO? Hold up.

I see Pollan's point. And I had never really conceptualized that I am eating what my food eats. So my local egg-laying chickens that can wander in the pasture but eat "minimally processed corn and soy feed" isn't good suddenly. Because the feed is seeds. I need to find chickens who only eat grass. And cows who only eat grass. And milk from cows that aren't Holstein and eat only grass. Damn.

If I wasn't an orthorexic before I started this book, I am in danger of becoming one now. Pollan goes a little too far placing restrictions on what is "ok" to eat. He also contradicts himself constantly, probably because good nutrition is contradictory. And he doesn't really provide enough resources to help one actually achieve his recommendations. In his defense, it is near impossible to eat Pollan-style in America but a couple of actual hints would have been welcome.

As with everything, balance and moderation are key here. When you CAN buy meat from a cow that ate only grass that was grown in a soil that hasn't been depleted by big agriculture, by all means, do it. Otherwise, do your best and don't eat at McDonalds. I already do that. And I am already trying to work CSA produce more into our diet. But if I have to buy carrots at the grocery store, now all I'm going to think about is that they aren't really carrots at all because they were grown in an industrial agriculture (apples have less nutrients now than they did in the 40s, after all, not that nutrients in and of themselves are important, except when they are). Sometimes, MOST times, I'm going to have to buy the carrots, organic carrots, in the grocery store. And, most of the time, they will have a carbon footprint because they came from somewhere that is not here. And I don't want to feel guilty when I buy them or when I eat them. And Pollan is in the business to make me feel guilty so that I will change. So that the world will change. I get that. But still, I have to eat and I live in America so until the world around me changes a little bit, I'll have to, once in a while, buy something that was shipped from Chile.  Or came originally from corn.


I did enjoy, immensely, the idea that our American attitudes about eating are mostly to blame. We want it quick, easy and did I say quick? We don't sit and savor. We eat in our cars. We are overfed but undernourished. Pollan advocates spending money on food; cut your budget for cable TV or clothing but buy the fresh food; if you do that, you are casting a vote for health in its largest sense. Amen. And treating meat, as Jefferson said, as a "condiment for your vegetables" is fine advice, too.

But I wanted more practical advice. He spends two pages at the end giving resources for finding real food and eating locally (www.ediblecommunities.com, www.informedeating.org. www.eatlocalchallenge.com, www.eatwellguide.com, www.eatwild.com
www.foodroutes.org) and I've yet to have time to explore them. Maybe they will have the answers for which I was looking when I picked this book up. And maybe they'll not lecture me indirectly because I ate a processed cookie.