We're still early enough in January that some folks may still be following their resolution diets, so here's another book about food. It's not so much a diet book as a health book. Author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) calls for a return to traditional eating in his new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin, 256 pages, $21.95), which will appeal to dieters as well as people who are just sick and tired of processed foods, fast food and convenience meals.
Here's a review ...
By MICHAEL ASTOR
Food isn’t what it once was. Actually, much of what we eat today may not be food at all. That is the main lesson drawn from Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food, a meticulously researched, self-described ‘‘Eater’s Manifesto.’’
The book, which is very much a companion piece to Pollan’s earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, continues his argument that in recent decades, we have shifted from the traditional diets of our ancestors to what he calls the ‘‘Western diet’’ — industrialized food, reconstituted, repackaged and redefined to conform with the latest whims of nutritional science.
It is a shift that Pollan says has set us adrift in a ‘‘treacherous food environment,’’ bereft of ‘‘cultural tools to guide us through it.’’ All this has brought us increased obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes along with the troubling paradox that ‘‘the more we worry about nutrition the less healthy we become.’’
While The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was a dense tome, incorporating history and science with contemporary culinary culture, Pollan’s latest effort is a slim volume dispensing advice much of which appears to have been gleaned from reporting the earlier book. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he just laid out the facts and let the reader ponder what to do about them. He described the feedlots where cattle up to their knees in their own manure and explained how industrialized farmers have sacrificed nutritional value in the quest of growing crop yields and how much organic foods has strayed so far from its 1960s counterculture roots that they are today little different from their industrialized counterparts.
In Defense of Food tries to answer many of the troubling questions raised by the earlier book. The answer is simple. Pollan boils it down to just seven words: ‘‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’’ It is advice that is not that different from what the United States Department of Agriculture said in its 2005 Dietary Guidelines.
Pollan argues that the industrialization of our food chain has not only robbed us of all sorts of micro-nutrients and ruined the environment, it has also left us adrift in a confusing maze of fad-diets and conflicting health claims.
He traces real food’s fall from grace to 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, in a compromise with the beef and dairy industry, altered dietary guidelines advising Americans to cut down on their consumption of red meat and dairy products to read ‘‘choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.’’ According to Pollan, that change in wording caused how we thought about food and health to undergo a huge shift by changing the focus of health concerns from particular foods to the nutrients inside them.
The problem is scientists don’t completely understand everything that is inside a single piece of fruit or vegetable or even in a piece of meat — let alone the way all the elements work together inside our digestive tract. Pollan quotes several nutrition scientists who freely acknowledge how little they really know and he cites science’s inability to invent a baby formula that has the all the health-giving qualities of mother’s milk, as evidence of how much work remains to be done.
Instead, he suggests we ‘‘eat well grown food from healthy soils,’’ and advises us to reject most of what we find at the supermarket.
Not too long ago, it was almost impossible to go beyond the supermarkets, but Pollan argues that has changed with the number of farmers’ markets having doubled and the rise of community-supported agriculture, which allows consumers to sign up for farm produce. He sees a growing interest in food culture, and more health conscious consumers demanding higher quality food as a light at the end of the tunnel.
But how brightly that light shines for the majority of the population remains an open question. With the Earth’s population topping five billion and growing fast, industrialized food may be the only hope of feeding them all — regardless of the consequences for the environment and our health.