Author: Michael Pollan
Author: Michael Pollan
As promised, I will be reviewing the book, as I will call it, "In Defense". Before getting to the review though, I want to point something out. It's probably relatively unlikely that I'll post many reviews of "bad" books since my reading time is limited, I'm a slow reader, and so I choose books that are very likely to be of high interest to me. If they "suck" within the first few chapters, I'll probably not continue to read them unless I have a really vested interest in the subject matter or storyline. Onto the book...
My overall feeling while reading the book is that the author *may* be a libertarian. I should say that there are many points on which I agree with libertarians. It's just that there are some fundamental principles on which I vigorously disagree with them on and as we all know... "that's OK" on both sides if we're being sane and civil. The only reason I bring this up in the review is because Pollan definitely seems to have a distrust of nearly any authority, but still grudgingly uses their data when it applies. Again, this is not necessarily bad since his entire goal is to completely flip the reader's perspective away from a lifelong acceptance of the western diet as completely fine.
He starts out the book, right on the cover in fact, with his personal eating policy: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants". While that might sound fairly obvious and basic, it's a policy he formed on his own based on a lot of reading and research. So who is Michael Pollan and what gives him the authority to write this book? He's not a doctor, scientist or nutritionist. He's a journalist with a personal interest in diet. He even briefly touches on this fact in the book just to point out that while there are many authorities on diet in different fields, the fact that the western diet has been linked to the "western diseases" since the 19th century has failed us. The western diseases are; heart diseases, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
He points out that the very people who have been largely responsible for creating and shaping the western diet, even today, do not have enough knowledge about dietary needs and how food really works. There is even a statement that nutritional science today is where surgery was in ancient Greece. He said that he probably would not have wanted to get an operation performed by ancient Greek surgeons, so why would he want to eat a diet created by an industry that is at a similar level of understanding? I didn't forget to say that he doesn't really trust authority much , did I? Silly comments aside, he actually may have a point and his book goes a long way to communicating it.
The book is broken up into three sections: The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization, and Getting Over Nutritionism. In the first section of the book he talks about "nutritionism" which is a term that was coined in 2002 by Australian sociologist, Gyorgy Scrinis. The somewhat nebulous definition is, that nutritionism is the view of food as the sum of it's nutrient parts rather than as a whole. A more general way of putting it, is that you don't look at all the possible interactions of every component in a food item, but only focus on the known components. The reason this is argued to be negative is illustrated with the story of margarine and the transfat debacle: "...in a 2002 essay entitled 'Sorry Marge' published in an Australian quarterly magazine called Meanjin. 'Sorry Marge' looked at margarine as the ultimate nutritionist product, able to shift it's identity (no cholesterol! one year, no transfat! the next) depending on the prevailing winds of dietary opinion. But Scrinis had bigger game in his sights than spreadable vegetable oil. He suggested that we look past the various nutritional claims swirling around margarine and butter and consider the underlying message of the debate itself: 'namely, that we should understand and engage with food and our bodies in terms of their nutritional and chemical constituents and requirements--the assumption being that this is all we need to understand".
Pollan spends a good deal of the book in part one pointing to many many studies from the 19th, 20th and 21 centuries, some less well known scientists (who even Pollan asserts have some crackpot beliefs) and plenty of cultures who don't follow the western diet and where the western diseases are nearly unknown. A few of the intriguing bits of information he passes along really captured my interest. For example, at one point he mentioned a few things as an illustration of just why it is that he says nutritional science is primitive. One of those things was a list of all the known chemicals (nutrient or not) in Parsley. He states that nutritional science and the food industry would only single out the carotenes as being the beneficial components of Parsley. Based on that, were they to market a product that contained Parsley and assuming that Parsley became a new nutritional fad (my example not his) the focus would be solely on Carotenes since that is one of the only nutrients that they know well. True or not, they would make astounding healthy claims just to move product, based on arguably faulty science. The startling thing is that all the chemicals in Parsley is actually a pretty long list. It is foolish to assume that only the Carotenes have any value since we don't know what it is about the Carotenes or something else entirely in Parsley as a whole that is beneficial.
Another example he mentions is that most people are not aware of the fact that the GI tract has a large bundle of sensory nerves within it that no one is really sure of the purpose of. (I'd have to check that one deeper to feel confident in stating it as fact) He suggests that if we don't know how food possibly interacts with those nerves, then how can we really have enough science to create safe synthetic food stuffs? Indeed, that is where we are today. The majority of the food stuff that we accept as "food" isn't really food at all. It's mostly made of materials that are highly available (corn, wheat, rice, soy beans) and then "fortified" with unnatural nutrients that the faulty science of nutritionism claims are essential to survival.
There is the example of the quiet 1973 repeal of a fairly important law that the food industry worked hard at eliminating. There used to be a law that any foods that were not natural and were made of chemicals and synthetics had to have the word "Imitation" on the package. The food industry never liked this distinction because it turned consumers off at the thought of buying something that's an imitation. The industry felt that this made their products look inferior next to the "real thing". But, once this law was removed, it opened the door for the food industry to be able to create anything out of chemistry and call it by a natural food name. From there the state of things quickly progressed downhill and our food supply is laden with artificial food stuff masquerading as food. (I know... some of it is damn delicious too.) One example he cites is a particular Sara Lee bread that is 'whole wheat' but 'white'. It is filled with a ton of chemical that really have no business being in a real loaf of bread at all. One of them struck me personally as particularly heinous: a yeast growth enhancer. After what I went through due to a systemic yeast infection back in the 90s and all the hard work I did to get away from yeast and the problems I had, the fact that some of the food I was eating in my 20s may have had this growth enhancer makes me quite suspicious.
He starts section two off with a story about a study done on some Aborigines. The subjects were living on the western diet and had been for some time since leaving their tribal lands. All of them were suffering from type two diabetes. The researchers simply had them return to their tribal homelands and go back to their tribal diet for about seven weeks: "O'Dea drew blood from the Aborigines and found striking improvements in virtually every measure of health. All had lost weight (an average of 17.9 pounds) and seen their blood pressure drop. Their triglyceride levels had fallen into the normal range. The proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in their tissues had increased dramatically. 'In summary', O'Dea concluded, 'all of the metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were wither greatly improved (glucose tolerance, insulin response to glucose) or completely normalized (plasma lipids) in a group of diabetic Aborigines by a relatively short (seven week) reversion to traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle".
He then goes on to the subject of a dentist named Weston Price who had noticed during WW I that the incidence of tooth decay in many non-western cultures was very small compared to westerners. He took that observation and over years of study came up with some very interesting ideas about food production. One thing that he believed was that the science being used for fast and voluminous food production was actually lowering the quality of our food. Price asserted that by feeding our plants just the basic three nutrients, and encouraging fast growth, we were stunting the nutritious value of the food. Roots that don't grow deeply enough into the soil won't absorb as many of the nutrients that come from plants that grow more slowly. Plants that grow from the three basic chemicals (which I can't recall at the moment... only Potassium and Nitrogen come to mind) are missing many other nutrients. Price's eventual conclusion was that we should not be looking at plants as individual items, but that we should be looking at food production and nutrition as an entire ecological system including us as part of it.
He even suggested that by feeding the animals we eat with these stunted foods and inappropriate foods, that we were growing lesser livestock. Livestock that are not as nutritious for us. Pollan takes it further by pointing out that today, we feed our animals grain, where as truly free range animals (not on a farm) eat leaves as well. In a later section of the book he makes the argument that going from leaves to seeds is one of the major shifts in the western diet that may be one of the worst aspects of it. Especially in light of the negative properties of grains like corn when over-ingested. Corn is very high in omega-6's. Omega-6s apparently do nearly the opposite for us that omega-3s do...
Finally in section three he gets on to the question of what to do to get away from the western diet without being a "hunter-gatherer". He agrees that it's impractical and unrealistic to be able to eat and live in a primitive way. So in the last and shortest part of the book he builds up to explaining his personal eating policies. He starts with the one that's on the cover of his book. By "Eat food", he means eat foods that can't be synthesized in a lab. Even more to the point, foods that grow on trees or in the ground. By "Not too much" he means to control our portions, and the speed with which we eat. Earlier in the book he also encourages bringing back the social aspects of eating which are not present in today's typical dinner at home for the westerner, but are still a big part of other non-western diets. By keeping our home meals a social activity for family and friends, we will also slwo down the pace with which we eat, which will signal satiation a little sooner than just gobbling a plate down. That will result in eating "not too much". And by "Mostly plants", he expands on this and emphasizes the "mostly" part. He says that important because it allows for you to eat some things that aren't plants every so often. Again, in reading the book I see "mostly plants" as being even more specific and equating to plants that are leaves.
This is only a very very minuscule sampling of what is in the book. There are a lot of very interesting and intriguing facts and statements about food stuffs and how they affect us in so many ways. The book is densely packed with information about the food industry that many of us are just unaware of. It also has examples of other cultures and how their diets might be "high fat" or "high carb" but they don't exhibit the problems that people on the western diet do. It's not really a diet book at all. It almost feels like a very extended version of a 20/20 "expose" from the 80s but of a higher caliber. Definitely a very fascinating read and one that I mostly take to heart.
The one criticism I would level at the book is that his apparent distrust of authority forces him to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I don't think a lot of the knowledge of the facts in his book would have been possible without some of these authorities. He does acknowledge that, but he also goes a little overboard in discounting certain aspects of the food production, nutrition, and medical professions. Sure, I am pretty convinced that since profit motive is the main driving force behind the food industry, it stands to reason that some less than perfect food stuffs may be on the market because they're cheap to make in high quantities and very popular. But I also think that some, not all, of the advances are positive. I do agree, however, that the western diet is not really the best one for human beings. Personally, I've been tightening up my diet as I've been hit with various illnesses here or there since my early 30s. With my recent bout of illness and other health issues, I'm looking back at my diet again to see what else can change. Even with some flaws in his book, it's still a decent guideline to developing your own personal eating policies. If there's no other reason to read the book, at least consider looking at it for the bits of 'insider information' on the food production industry. It's your right to know where the food you ingest is coming from.