In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Certainly good advice, but unfortunately, Michael Pollan should have stopped there.
Ugh...what a huge disappointment. This is a perfect example of why journalists should not give nutritional advice or write these kinds of books.
Pollan starts out by stating the obvious, but then quickly learns what many nutritional professionals and public health advocates do, the obvious isn't sexy and it certainly doesn't make a bestseller. As a result the chapters that follow his iconic slogan are little more than poppy-cock for the masses.
I'm going to break this review down by sections, because in fairness, some were better than others.
Section I: The Age of Nutritionism - 1 star
I guess the first step in any straw man argument is to give it a name, in this case nutritionism.
The problem is like others before him, he argues against an opponent that never existed.
According to Pollan a bunch of questionable studies led some incompetent (if well-meaning) scientists to determine that saturated fat was bad. As a result the government developed anti-fat nutritional guidelines that the public embraced wholeheartedly, but that ultimately made them unhealthier.
He repeatedly points to these "nutritionists" (which he somehow lumps in with greedy capitalists and which almost feels like a derogatory label the way he uses it) that misled the public with their "junk science" and continue to do us all an injustice in their efforts to further our understanding of the nutritional sciences.
Interestingly, I happened to be a college student in the eighties studying, of all things, Nutritional Sciences (and while I usually avoid reading these types of books). As such I can tell you that his characterizations are incorrect at best and dishonest at worst. In the late seventies and early eighties there was a push toward limiting fats to 30 percent of total calories. It was further recommended that less than 10 percent of total calories should come from saturated fats based on the belief that it was related to CHD.
The merits of this recommendation have since come under fire and has spurred more research...because after all that is what science demands (that it constantly improves upon itself). But the important part of the discussion that is left out is that this was only one small part of the guidelines. The USDA also recommended that of the carbs ingested at least half those should be from complex carbs and not from processed sources. And they didn't stop there. They recommended eating one serving of fish at least two times a week. They recommended eating 2-3 servings each of fruits and veggies daily. They recommended limiting salt intake to under 2300 milligrams. They recommended eating a diversity of food. They recommended eating foods high in fiber. They recommended limiting sweets. Okay...so you get where I'm going with this.
However, as is so often the case, capitalists saw an opportunity and the food companies began a massive anti-fat campaign that would help to distort certain aspects of the USDA recommendations to the point that low-fat became the most important aspect of a healthy diet. Of course, even Pollan admits that people didn't cut out fat, they simply ate more low-fat foods in addition to the fat they were already consuming. Mostly ultra-processed foods whose fat had been replaced with sugar and salt.
Bottom line, people didn't get fat because they followed the USDA dietary guidelines of the eighties which by the way with the exception of a few tweaks based on additional research and changing needs of society (and saturated fat has still not been completely vindicated), the recommendations have not changed significantly. People got fat because they became ultra-consumers of the cheap and easy...just like they have become ultra-consumers of cheap and easy everything from clothes, to shoes, to electronics, to home décor. The West is a culture of excess everything.
Pollan further contends that "nutritionists," which by the way is a poorly defined and meaningless term then and now so I'm not exactly sure who he is referring to, were obsessed with isolating nutrients...again, totally not true. In fact, the food pyramid, despite its flaws, was designed to encourage consumption of a wide range of foods to ensure that Americans ingested a diversity of nutrients. Vitamin supplements were also discouraged and seen as inferior to eating real food as nutritional scientists and dieticians have always acknowledged and appreciated the symbiotic relationship of various nutrients within food as well as those that exist between various foods in the diet.
Pollan then blasts the science itself, pointing out all the shortcomings innate in nutritional research, shortcomings that those who actually study nutrition appreciated long before Pollan pointed it out. But just because something is difficult to study doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It also doesn't necessarily invalidate the research. Ironically, Pollan himself has no problem citing these flawed studies later on in support of points he is trying to make. And again, Pollan's misrepresentation is huge. Anyone who attempts to study nutrition understands the difficultly in isolating the effect of any one nutrient. And yet we somehow know more now than we did say 50 years ago. The fact that we aren't any healthier as a nation isn't necessarily a reflection of what we know or don't know. Using Pollan's own argument trying to tease out all the cofounding factors is futile. He seems to suggest that our anti-fat campaign, which led to an increase in the amount of highly processed carbs being eaten is responsible for the rise in obesity and diseases like diabetes...and he may be right...or partially right...or completely wrong. It is widely accepted that the obesity epidemic is probably the result of several cofounding factors.
Anyway, I cringed reading this first section. I expected so much more from Pollan. Ironically, despite disagreeing with his characterizations and the logic employed, I agree with a number of his conclusions. In short, I agree that we need to look at foods as greater than the sum of their parts. I also agree that science can have limitations and can be flawed. In that sense, a recommendation is often a best guess based on what we think we know at any given point, and people need to understand this.
Section II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of - 3 stars
I felt this was the strongest of the three sections. Whatever the culprit, it does appear that the Western Diet contributes to poor health outcomes.
Pollan makes some good points about the food chain and our interconnectedness with our environment. Ironically, the most recent panel of experts that propose changes to the USDA guidelines for the first time ever suggested that the new revised guidelines should take into consideration not only the internal impact of our eating habits but also the external factors. To Pollan's credit, I think his efforts have played a crucial role in this type of thinking.
His argument for whole foods is sound. If the nutritional research to date seems to agree on anything it is that whole unprocessed foods are generally superior.
His argument from quality to quantity also has some merit, though I think there is still some debate about the significance. For example, there are several studies (probably flawed if you bought into section one of Pollan's book) that suggest industrially produced produce is lower in nutrition than its locally grown, organic counterpart. However, the relevance of this in a society where our food options are endless is debatable as it may be a non-factor. The reality is in the US we have access to superior nutrition. We might not always make the right choices, but given a little vigilance 99.5% of us should be able to meet our nutritional needs even if the products we are eating are nutritionally inferior, not organic, and purchased from the grocery store.
The whole omega-3 section is a little weak. He spends the entire first third of the book telling us why these nutritional studies are flawed and can't be trusted and why we should not be isolating nutrients and then seems to put the omega-3s on some sort of nutritional pedestal, repeatedly referencing the science to make his case.
Section III: Getting Over Nutritionism - 2 stars
While I applaud and agree with many of Pollan's recommendations, I have a feeling they were recommendations that could only be made by a man in his unique position.
Unfortunately, I think many of Pollan's ideas are shortsighted and impractical for the average family. They look good on paper but are too idealistic as to really make a difference.
Pollan's plan to buy local in season produce, to cook more and eat together paints a nostalgic picture that panders to our natural bias. But really...
Seriously. I see how the average American eats and it isn't pretty. And I know from talking to them that most of them want to do better. But they are struggling to meet the demands of their job and family. They need real world solutions for their world and while some of Pollan's suggestions may be helpful most don't even come close to reaching the people who need his help the most.
At one point Pollan claims that you wouldn't be reading this book if you already got it...but I would argue he's wrong. This book most certainly speaks to the people who already get "it," but offers little for the people who really, really need it. In fact, I would be willing to bet that the majority of people who bought this book are college educated, or at least educated, do not have diabetes, don't regularly eat at McDonalds, and aren't obese. And if you are, I'm not sure this book offers substantially more than the government's nutritional guidelines he was so quick to criticize.
So by all means...Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
As far as the book...if you already get it and are interested in reinforcing your commitment to eating healthy, then maybe this is worth your time. If you're currently struggling and looking for real life strategies to overcome obstacles, go somewhere else.
I should add, despite not "loving" this book, I am a fan of Pollan and what he is trying to do. His common sense approach to diet is admirable and I think he has done a lot of good and reached a lot of people.