In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan

May 1, 2014

I finished listening to this book on Mike's and my anniversary. It being a Monday, we had planned to hold off celebrating until the weekend. But then my mother-in-law was unexpectedly available to watch the three boys that evening, so we jumped at the opportunity to get away for a couple of hours.

I had just been armed with sound nutritional advice: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I had spent the afternoon making healthy goals for myself.

And then . . . we decided to go out to eat at, of all places, Tucanos (a Brazilian grill), which effortlessly broke every single one of my newfound resolutions in a matter of minutes.

First we ordered Brazilian lemonades, which magically refilled themselves. There went my first resolution: Be conscious of how much you eat (or in this case, drink).

Then I filled my plate at their Salad Festival, a buffet where I probably could have stuck with basic spinach and tomatoes but instead chose cheese bread and fried bananas and crab salad, all of which led me to break my second resolution: Choose real foods with short ingredient lists.

And then the meat began to arrive. Brought out on sizzling skewers, I tried this kind and that kind; my plate filled and emptied and filled again without having to leave my seat; the servers came out in an endless stream: Bacon-wrapped turkey? Garlic sirloin? Mango shrimp? Yes, yes, and yes. And before I knew it, I had effectively broken: Eat meat as a side dish; savor your food; eat lots of produce; eat until you're 80% full.

I think the only resolution I kept was: Eat at a table. I was most definitely at a table. In fact, I could hardly heave myself out of my chair to leave said table.

Whether for good or ill, the contrast between the practical advice of this book and the practical reality of the American diet was striking and, I admit, very discomforting. I was overly self-conscious with how poorly we, as Americans, eat and why our health is failing on so many levels.

From this lengthy introduction, you probably already gained a general feel for the premise of this book. A couple of years ago, I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which was completely fascinating but also a little overwhelming and not easily applicable. This book felt much more hands-on and practical.

In the first part of the book, Pollan talks about why Americans are so messed up in their eating: why we get obsessed with certain nutrients and diets and supplements and why we are constantly trying new things but not seeing any improvement in our health.

Pollan is harsh in his criticism of nutritionists who, he says, are isolating and breaking down the components of food (the beta carotene in carrots, for example, or the antioxidants in blueberries) so much that we're losing the very essence of the food itself. Studies are now showing that such elements in isolation do not provide the same nutritional benefit that they do when combined with everything else to make a complete fruit or vegetable.

He also talked about how we are obsessed with low-fat foods with the result being that we now eat a lot of food that is chemically altered to make it low-fat, and we also feel justified in eating more of it since it is low-fat. Pollan said:
By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular actual food, it was easy for the take home message of the 1977 and 1982 Dietary Guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is precisely what we did. We are always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something, with the possible exception of oat bran.
The United States is in rather a sad place because, unlike other countries such as France or Greece or Japan, we don't have a food culture. We don't take time to sit down and eat our food. We spend quite a bit less on food than other countries. And we want to be instantly satisfied. Basically, we want it fast, cheap, and fake.

In the last part of the book, Pollan breaks down his mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. This was my favorite part of the book because it felt so hopeful to me (and perhaps also a little ridiculous in its simplicity, but hey, that's what I need sometimes). I don't have to go live on a farm in the middle of nowhere and grow or raise everything I need for my sustenance. I can just buy more produce at the grocery store. Or get a CSA box. Or plant my own garden. Even in America, where we are surrounded by lots of bad options, the good options are still readily available.

Since finishing the book three days ago, and not counting my binge at Tucanos, my most noticeable improvement in the eating department has been not eating snacks between meals (a favorite past time of mine). Since I am pregnant, I'm not going to force myself not to eat if my body is telling me I'm hungry, but even being pregnant, I have to say that the majority of my snack consumption happened just because eating sounded like fun to me.

For me, the take-home message of the book was just to be a more conscious, present eater. Consequently, I'm trying to take smaller, slower bites. I'm trying to enjoy and savor each one. I'm trying to pay attention to whether or not I'm full. I'm trying not to eat when I'm in the car or reading or perusing the internet.

In short, I'm just trying to enjoy real food . . . simply, completely, enthusiastically.

1 comment:

  1. I need to read this book. Such great, common sense advice, it sounds like!


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