In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

When Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” was published in 2006, it changed the way many of us think about the food we eat.

His personal narrative of four different “American” meals and the unique journey each ingredient took to get to his plate has received numerous awards and accolades, but I was left feeling a little unsatisfied. Despite all of this new information, I still don’t have an answer to my most fundamental question: What should I eat for dinner tonight?

Here is Pollan’s brilliant, succinct and nuanced answer to this question:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Pollan elaborates, but that summary turns out to be remarkably complete.

One can argue that Pollan isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know. Presumably we at least suspected that if, as he advises, we grew some of our own food, bought the rest at farmers markets, eliminated all foods with high-fructose corn syrup and cooked almost all of our food from scratch, we would live remarkably healthy lives.

The obviousness of this advice is part of the point. He claims only “the authority of tradition and common sense.” So why do we need Pollan to remind us of something so simple that it can be summarized in seven words?

Well, because we do.

Pollan laments that “thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.” That is why Pollan spends a large portion of this book exploring not what we ought to eat, but how we got to the state where we are desperate for a new answer to that question.

For thousands of years humans ate food prepared by one source — their mothers. Then along came the science of nutrition, and the rise of “nutritionism,” a term Pollan borrows for describing a belief system that assumes “that the key to understanding food is … the nutrient.”

Suddenly food was a complicated subject. Your mother could not possibly know what you should eat, unless your mother also happened to have a degree in nutritional science.

We stopped thinking about eating as an activity that could make us more or less happy, and instead saw only the connection between the nutrients we ingest and a reductionist concept of physical health.

Examining the history of nutritional advice over the past hundred years or so reveals a kind of war between nutrients, as each one in turn takes the blame for our ills.

Fat, the most recent villain, is making a comeback as a positive food, and carbohydrates are poised to become the arch-nemesis of 21st-century nutritionists.

He references, and for the most part supports, the work of Gary Taubes, including his recent book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” But he disagrees with the idea that fear of fat should be replaced with a fear of carbohydrates. That’s just nutritionism all over again.

Pollan’s simple rules might seem complicated to us, because in order to understand them, we need to un-learn the rules of nutritionism. Here are some of the highlights:

– Eat food. What is food? Food is that which your great-grandmother would recognize as food. That means no “go-gurt,” no “meal substitutes,” no “protein shakes.”

– When you’re in the supermarket, “avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.”

– Eat mostly plants. Think of meat as a side dish or garnish rather than the principal component of the meal. Eat wild plants when you can.

– Eat less. Spend more — more money and more time.

It turns out that finding food is not necessarily that easy. We may not have to hunt and forage, but it can begin to seem like that. The best ways to find food are to get out of the supermarket and into farmers markets, community-supported agriculture and your own garden.

There is an inescapably elitist component to this argument, which Pollan acknowledges. Not everyone can afford to spend more money and time on food, yet, he’s adamant about the responsibility of those of us who can spend more to do so.

When a book like this comes along, people tend to embrace it as the gospel truth — and in a lot of ways it is. Pollan’s advice is revelatory. No more counting calories, or vitamins, or desperately trying to remember the different between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats.

Unfortunately, there is one fairly obvious problem with this advice: Americans don’t primarily eat food that comes in a box with a long list of “health claims” because they actually think they’re healthier than a home-cooked meal. We do so because we are addicted — to high-fructose corn syrup, soda pop, cookies, fast food and takeout.

Turns out the new story sounds a lot like the old. There is no silver bullet for changing our lifestyles and improving our health. It takes commitment, hard work and a certain amount of self-denial.

But part of what Pollan says really is new, despite also being incredibly old. Changing our national diet doesn’t have to be a story of denial. In the end it can be a story about reclaiming the pleasures of eating and taking control of our own tables.