07 June 2009

Review: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food is the latest from Michael Pollan, whose previous The Omnivore's Dilemma examined the environmental impact of modern food production. In Defense, Pollan sets his sights on the modern Western diet, including some of the thinking that has gone into producing and justifying it. As Pollan lays it out, the modern diet has been shaped too much by the profit motives of large food producers and too little by the needs of human beings. While traditional diets were a product of a culture's trials and errors over centuries, the attempt to apply scientific methods to modern food production has resulted in food that is less healthy.

Pollan has a name for the allegedly scientific framework which has come to dominate the way that we think about food: nutritionism. Nutritionism, as distinct from nutrition, is a quasi-scientific set of ideologies about food which reflect little about the real impact of diet on health. Nutritionsim creates the illusion of being a scientific perspective on eating. And though it would seem that the scientific method, powerful as it is, should be able to determine what foods are or aren't healthy, it has failed for several reasons. In part, this is due to the sheer complexity of any diet, which renders it nearly impossible to look at x nutrient or y food item in isolation.

Additionally, the nutritionist impulse to view foods as collections of nutrients instead of whole units can result in bad conclusions. If a study finds that a diet high in red meat and low in fruit lead to higher rates of cancer and heart disease, what would be the logical conclusion? Through the nutritionist lens, that means that the goal should be to cut saturated fats (and cholesterol) and increase fiber (or antioxidant) intake. But switching to leaner meat and ramping up on oat muffins (and antioxidant supplements) does not appear to yield the same benefits as the high-fruit diet.

What then is the solution to the complicated thicket of competing health claims that present themselves in the marketplace? Pollan's recommendations are elegant in their simplicity: Eat food (as opposed to food-like stuffs). Not too much. Mostly plants. He also recommends a return to more traditional forms of eating, especially preparing food from scratch and eating with people instead of in isolation (and on the run).

It seems there is a growing number of people questioning the effect of the modern diet, a trend that Pollan has both helped fuel and benefited from. I would recommend the book to anyone considering a new look at the way we eat now and how much harm it might be doing. Pollan's non-dogmatic approach to the subject makes it an enjoyable read. His thesis about nutritionism may be stark, but his presentation and advice are not.

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