In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

buy In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan at amazon.com

I’ve been a vegetarian (and lately more of a pescatarian) for nearly a decade now, both for health and animal rights reasons. Obviously, I’m not very militant about it at all, as I still sometimes partake of fish, and would have a really, really hard time going vegan (as I love cheese too much), but I consider myself to be someone who is fairly conscious of trying to eat food that both tastes good and is good for me as well.

Over the course of the past couple years, I’ve become a huge fan of the writing of Michael Pollan, a a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism. I read his excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma last year, and was surprised to find that he already had a new title coming out quick on its heels.

His newest book is titled In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, but it’s a clear and logical sequel to his previous book and could have as easily just been called “The Omnivore’s Solution.” Whereas his previous book discussed industrial food production in the United States and the overall instability of it (at least in terms of delivering healthy food to enough people while at the same time not pillaging the environment), this book is more of a look at what we actually should eat.

Broken into three sections, the book first describes how over the latter part of the last century, the emphasis shifted from actual eating of foods themselves to simply getting all the proper nutrients, while also talking about how the modern (Western) diet has led to increases in ailments like cancer, heart disease, and tooth decay.

Those first two parts of the book only lead into the third, which is where Pollan actually talks about what to eat, and it’s here that his three simple guidelines of, “Eat Food. Not as much. Mostly plants.” comes into play.

As a (sort of) vegetarian, the last part of his short guidelines is pretty close to my actual diet, but I found that the first two statements caused me to reevaluate what I was eating a bit. The phrase, “eat food” seems pretty obvious on its surface, but when taken literally it makes one look at little bit closer. I’m one of those people who reads labels and health information on most foods I buy, but that in and of itself was part of the problem. Just about every single packaged item of food these days is made up of ingredients that are technically food, but often so synthesized and processed that nearly unpronounceable names are given to the new compounds created. Even a simple loaf of multi-grain bread often has twenty or more ingredients (and in many cases include high fructose corn syrup).

A more practical guide would be to buy foods that only have five ingredients or less or to only buy foods with ingredients of three syllables or less, but even that is difficult at times. In my own quest of bettering my personal diet, I took an overall look at what I was consuming and tried to find the places where I was ingesting processed food on the most regular basis. Sadly enough, what I discovered was that my first (and some say most important) meal of the day was the biggest culprit. Since I was a kid, I’ve been one of those people who would eat 1-3 bowls of cereal a day (depending on how hungry I was), and despite not going for seriously sugary types (I mostly stuck with honey-nut oat rounds or frosted shredded wheat), I discovered that what I was eating just after waking up in the morning had some of the most processed ingredients of my entire diet.

My solution was to simply switch these refined breakfast cereals out with steel cut oats (cooked in the crock-pot!), with a bit of soy milk and honey (or brown sugar) for taste. If I want to get really crazy, I cut up some fruit and add it to the mixture. As a side bonus, this change cut a good little bit of money from our monthly food budget.

Despite being a fairly lean person (who is lucky to have a fairly fast metabolism), I am also one of those people who at times has a tendency to both eat faster than I should and more than I should. A trip to a local Indian buffet often ends with my nearly needing to loosen my belt, and after short lunch breaks during weekdays my body sometimes tells me that I’ve eaten too much too quickly. A larger part of the Western diet (due to eating larger servings, often in shorter time periods) is that we simply aren’t as in touch with what we eat. The oft-cited French paradox (they tend to eat food higher in fat yet are largely more healthy as a society) is at least partially explained by both smaller serving sizes and more leisurely paces. According to Pollan, it takes 15 minutes for the stomach to tell the brain that it’s full, so if you’re not in tune with your body in a larger sense, it may just be a matter of piling on.

In writing the above, I’ve probably come across as preachy or holier-than-thou, and I certainly don’t mean for that to be the case because Pollan’s book isn’t written in that sort of language either. I am as guilty as any person in that I often don’t care enough about where my food comes from, only that I’m eating it (and to a lesser extent that it’s reasonably priced – which is another smaller section of the book that is tackled).

In the end, the best recommendation of the book that I can give is that as a person who thought they thought a lot about the food they were ingesting, it turns out that I really wasn’t truly looking at things as close as I could (and probably should) have been. The book itself inspired me to make a few small changes in my routines, and with very minimal effort (and no real added cost) I’ve managed to both feel better health-wise and also feel a little bit better about which parts of the industrial food chain I do and don’t support. That seems like a pretty good buy to me.

(buy In Defense Of Food at amazon.com)

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