Friday, May 6, 2011

Book Review: In Defense of Food

Product DetailsAfter reading Michael Pollan's book Omnivore's Dilemma (click on the link for my review), I was interested in reading more from him. He is an engaging writer and does an excellent job of presenting information in a readable, fast-paced style that feels more like you're talking with a friend than getting schooled.

I checked In Defense of Food out from the library, mainly because I've been spending waaaaay too much money lately. And admittedly, I was fascinated by the general theme of the book: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. I found that last one particularly interesting as he is most certainly not a vegetarian. Nope. Not. At. All.

But luckily early on he elaborates on the theme, telling us what he means by each statement. When he says Food in this instance, it literally is with a capital "F". He means whole, unprocessed food. The kind your great-grandmother would recognize. The more processed it is, he believes, the less like food it becomes.

In this particular book, he runs with an idea called "nutritionalism," a term originally coined by Gyorgy Scrinis back in 2002. Basically, it means ceasing to look at Food as a whole (ie, tomato) and focusing instead on its various parts (lycopene, vitamins, minerals, etc). We, as a nation have ceased to look at our food as Food and instead focus on the little tiny bits. We get so caught up in the specifics that we lose sight of the whole - to our detriment.

Pollan points out that we really know very little about the food we eat. Sure, we know that spinach has iron and oranges have vitamin C, but we still haven't quite figured out the specifics. Like, for example, why supplements and multivitamins don't really work. Everything's there, but for some reason taking them out of the original package, so to speak, lessens or totally negates their impact. And we have no idea why. But because we're so focused on the little things, we ignore that the whole thing is the thing that's best.

He also points out that, as Americans, we have lost our food culture. He circles around this many times - that food culture teaches us how and what to eat, and keeps us healthy. This is one of the great ironies too: the food cultures that look as though they should be killing entire populations have some of the healthiest people. Yet, Americans - we who are obsessed with protein, fiber, vitamin C and all the teeny bits - are growing fatter and fatter and increasingly suffering from diseases like diabetes.

Food cultures taught us what was good to eat (those berries over there) and what to avoid (not those!), it passed down food combinations that were not only tasty but provided us with everything we needed to thrive. They taught us how to eat: in the case of the French, smaller portions and no snacks, and sitting for hours and relishing the tastes and company. Great great grandma Georgina had no idea that by making tomato sauce she was making the lycopene more available; it just tasted good over the homemade pasta. Nobody worried where the micronutrients came from; they just ate it. The kick of it is... they were healthy! In places where cultural eating is still practiced, they are healthy too. In places where a "Western" diet (ie, American) has been adopted, they are all beginning to suffer from the same diseases we are.

I enjoyed this book very much. I didn't find it quite as informative as Omnivore's Dilemma (in fact, some of his research for that book resurfaced in this one), but I found his basic idea and premise interesting. How can an entire country have no idea how to eat? I mean, we as a species have been doing it successfully for several millennia now, you'd think we'd have it down.

Once again, if you are interested in food and how we as Americans relate to and/or fear it - because I think to a certain extent we do fear food - I would definitely give this book a read.

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