Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



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




(Highly Recommended)




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Whether you eat food or not, read Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. You’ll understand that sentence better after reading the book, because “food” has a meaning for Pollan that may not match what you consumed during your last three meals. In Defense of Food follows up on his earlier work, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as an answer to the questions Pollan kept getting about what to eat. Even if you skip the book, here’s his manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The rest of the book explains what and why. The writing style is great, and the facts Pollan conveys may convince some readers to make changes in diet. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Section 3, “Getting Over Nutritionism,” Chapter 1, “Escape From the Western Diet,” pp. 139-141:


The undertow of nutritionism is powerful, and more than once over the past few pages I've felt myself being dragged back under. You've no doubt noticed that much of the nutrition science I've presented here qualifies as reductionist science, fo­cusing as it does on individual nutrients (such as certain fats or carbohydrates or antioxidants) rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns. Guilty. But using this sort of science to try to figure out what's wrong with the Western diet is probably un­avoidable. However imperfect, it's the sharpest experimental and explanatory tool we have. It also satisfies our hunger for a simple, one-nutrient explanation. Yet it's one thing to entertain such ex­planations and quite another to mistake them for the whole truth or to let any one of them dictate the way you eat.

You've probably also noticed that many of the scientific theories put forward to account for exactly what in the West­ern diet is responsible for Western diseases conflict with one another. The lipid hypothesis cannot be reconciled with the carbohydrate hypothesis, and the theory that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids (call it the neolipid hypothesis) is chiefly to blame for chronic illness is at odds with the theory that refined carbohydrates are the key. And while everyone can agree that the flood of refined carbohydrates has pushed important mi­cronutrients out of the modern diet, the scientists who blame our health problems on deficiencies of these micronutrients are not the same scientists who see a sugar-soaked diet lead­ing to metabolic syndrome and from there to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It is only natural for scientists no less than the rest of us to gravitate toward a single, all-encompassing explanation. That is probably why you now find some of the most fervent critics of the lipid hypothesis embracing the car­bohydrate hypothesis with the same absolutist zeal that they once condemned in the Fat Boys. In the course of my own research into these theories, I have been specifically warned by scientists allied with the carbohydrate camp not to "fall under the spell of the omega-3 cult." Cult? There is a lot more religion in science than you might expect.

So here we find ourselves once again, lost at sea amid the crosscurrents of conflicting science.

Or do we?

Because it turns out we don't need to declare our allegiance to any one of these schools of thought in order to figure out how best to eat. In the end, they are only theories, scientific explanations for an empirical phenomenon that is not itself in doubt: People eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets. Scientists can argue all they want about the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon, but whichever it is, the solution to the problem would appear to remain very much the same: Stop eating a Western diet.

In truth the chief value of any and all theories of nutrition, apart from satisfying our curiosity about how things work, is not to the eater so much as it is to the food industry and the medical community. The food industry needs theories so it can better redesign specific processed foods; a new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western diet instead of making any more radical change to its business model. For the industry it's obviously preferable to have a scientific rationale for further processing foods whether by lowering the fat or carbs or by boosting omega-3s or for­tifying them with antioxidants and probiotics—than to enter­tain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem.


This is a time of year when many people begin diets. Maybe In Defense of Food will encourage the kind of change in diet that brings back pleasure to eating. Read it and decide for yourself.


Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2008 issue of Executive Times


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