In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Okay, I’ll say it: If you read one book about food this year, it should be Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s not a diet book in the traditional sense–Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, doesn’t concern himself with calorie counting, nor does he take a narrowly prescriptive approach to eating. He does, however, set out to determine why the so-called Western diet is the unhealthiest in the world; how, despite a full-fledged societal obsession with food and nutrition, Americans have gotten to the perverse point where we are both overweight and undernourished.

Pollan’s conclusions align so completely with the approach to food for which Portland is known that actually reading the book might seem unnecessary. After all, we’re already aware of the benefits of eating fresh, local food–in a town that practically coined the term “farm to table,” these concepts are hardly revelatory.

Pollan builds his case systematically, beginning with a societal shift in the last century toward “nutritionist” thinking (i.e., the idea that foods themselves are less important than the nutrients they contain). Drawing from numerous examples of botched nutrition science (remember when margarine was a health food?), Pollan argues that by removing nutrients from foods, and removing foods from their natural ecosystems, we fundamentally distort our relationship to the things that we eat.

By the end of the book, he has constructed a solid intellectual framework for an intuitively sensible approach to eating: the idea that foods are a system, full of complex components that interact in ways that scientists barely understand, and that the best way to attain the maximum health benefit from what you consume is not by eating “low-fat,” “low-carb,” or “fortified” processed foods, but by eating the whole foods from which the human animal has obtained the necessary nutrients for thousands of years.

Pollan’s tone throughout makes the book a fast, entertaining read: He’s exasperated that he has to say this stuff at all, and bemused that political machinations and a blinkered scientific community have so distorted the way Americans eat that good old-fashioned food needs defending. But it does, and it’s a good thing we have Pollan around do it.