Review: In Defense of Food

Each Friday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

pollanThis week, I’m going for a severe change of pace from the usual book on personal finance issues. Instead, I’m reviewing a book about food and nutrition – what we eat, why we eat it, and how it relates to our health and – inevitably – our money.

About a week ago, I wrote about the deep connections between food and personal finance and how that connection affects us deeply, both on a daily basis as well as on the scale of our whole lives.

We all need food to live, and we all spend a portion of our budget on food – but what food should we be eating? Should we focus on the convenience aspects of it, eating quickly prepared meals and treating food mostly as a basic energy fuel? Or should we treat food as a source of spiritual healing and entertainment, enjoying well-prepared meals with our loved ones?

Should we maximize our food-buying dollar at all times, looking for the most calories and nutrients for the dollar, saving cash in the short term? Or should we spend extra to purchase foods with a delicate, healthful balance, saving us from health issues in the long term?

Should we avoid everything with even the slightest hint of unhealthiness, adopting a vegan diet and enjoying soyburgers? Or should we subscribe to soul foods, rich in fat but deep in spiritual pleasure?

These are questions that I personally think about a great deal. I am growing a deep passion for preparing my own foods (in fact, as I write this, I just finished a six bean salad with homemade balsamic vinegar dressing for a community dinner and some delicious from-scratch lemon hazelnut dessert bars), but yet that deep passion has made me ask a lot of questions about what I’m choosing to prepare. What’s the right balance between frugality and quality? Healthiness and tastiness? Convenience and soulfulness?

This book is a meditation on these topics from the food writer I perhaps trust most of all. Michael Pollan wrote what was probably my favorite book I’ve read in the last year, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which tracks the source of four meals from the dinner table all the way back to the soil. It really opened my eyes to the political and social implications of the food I eat.

In Defense of Food is something of a companion to that, addressing the balance between what we eat and what we should eat, something I’ve looked at in the past. Does this book come up with some worthwhile conclusions about our food and what we spend on it? Let’s dig in and find out.

A Deeper Look At In Defense of Food

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That’s the phrase on the cover of the book and it basically summarizes the conclusion here, a simple recommendation for a simple diet that works in our complex world. Most of this book simply takes the ideas from The Omnivore’s Dilemma – that the process to get cheap food to our table results in a lot of unhealthy dining options – and carries it forward to an analysis of our diet. What can we eat that balances the short term costs of food with the long term costs of health? In a nutshell, that’s Pollan’s answer.

The Age of Nutritionism
The book opens with a splendid argument against the way we select foods at the grocery store. In a nutshell, Pollan argues that buying foods based on the nutrients marked on the box is actually a very bad way to select foods.

From Foods to Nutrients When you walk down the aisle of your average grocery store, notice that many of the items are packaged to focus on the specific nutritional composition of the food. Polyunsaturated fats. Carbohydrates. Fiber. These aren’t things that you eat themselves – they are merely nutritional aspects of food. The problem is that food is more complex than that – there’s a lot of biochemical complexity in a carrot, for example, and boiling it down to simply saying “carrots are good sources of beta carotene” does a deep disservice to the nutritional value and complexity of a carrot. This transition occured because of government regulation – the contrasting need of the FDA to make healthy diet recommendations and the demands of various food lobbies (the beef industry, etc.).

Nutritionism Defined The first problem in this shift to “nutritionism” (the valuing of individual nutrients over the food as a whole) is that you create some sense of a nutrient “battle.” For example, which is more important – high fiber or low fat? Different nutritionists have completely different opinions on which nutritional aspects of food are most important, and as a result we keep hearing different evaluations of foods. Are eggs good for you or not? It’s not a matter of new research – it’s more of a matter of changing definitions of which nutrients are “good” and which ones are “bad,” when neither judgement takes into account the nutritional complexity of a food.

Nutritionism Comes to Market With the shift towards defining foods as merely being a listing of nutrients, it became much easier for synthetic foods to slip into our diet. For example, margarine is a butter substitute that looks quite good in terms of a checklist of nutritional factors, but it continually morphs to match whatever the recommendation of the moment is. The only problem is, just adding nutrients together results in unintended effects – the complexities of biochemistry means that you can’t just pull four nutrients out of a hat and mix them together.

Food Science’s Golden Age The end result of all of this is that synthetic foods are constantly being made to subscribe to whatever the general consensus on what’s healthy is at the moment. Of course, with the definition of “healthy” being carefully managed by various interest groups, we wind up in situations where potatoes are labeled as unhealthy, while a high-sugar processed cereal is identified as healthy.

The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis Here, Pollan directly takes on one of the most widely accepted “facts” about food – that dietary fats are linked to heart disease. Pollan cites a scientific paper, Types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a critical review, which reviews a giant mountain of literature on the subject and concludes that there’s basically no statistically relevant link between the two. So why is this belief so prevalent? The truth is that the connection between dietary fats and heart disease is primarily marketing – that’s what the scientific literature actually says. This calls into question a lot of established “facts” about which nutrients are actually good for you and are bad for you.

Eat Right, Get Fatter Another problem: when you have such confusion and misinformation being spread about what foods and nutrients are actually good for you, you open a lot of windows for food marketers to slip all sorts of nonsense through. An example of the absurdity? The FDA now endorses health claims from some forms of potato chips because they’re soaked in one type of fat rather than another. That’s not healthy, no matter how you spell it.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle Quite often, healthy foods are perceived as not being tasty. Almost everyone gains a sense that they have to find some sort of compromise between pleasurable eating and healthy eating. Rather than simply finding the foods that they honestly enjoy, they select foods that have some arbitrary balance between “health” and “pleasure.” Rather than selecting foods because of this arbitrary balance, particularly when nutritional balance isn’t really known at all, doesn’t it make more sense to eat foods based upon what brings the most value to your life? Here’s what I mean – one of my favorite foods on earth is homemade salsa. It’s not only healthy, but it also has a lot of family history as well, as my father and grandfather both made it. Why don’t I just make a lot of homemade salsa and eat it – and trust myself? I asked my wife what she would eat if every food on earth was healthy. She said, “After I had my fill of ice cream and chocolate, I’d eat a lot of asparagus.” Why not just trust ourselves and eat what we most deeply enjoy?

The Proof in the Low-Fat Pudding The obvious response is that by just eating what we want, we’ll pay for it with our health. Yet the scientific evidence doesn’t back that up at all. Prevalence of heart disease is strongly linked to smoking and regular medical care, not to diet. Even more, obesity is tied much more to processed carbohydrate-heavy foods than to anything else – processed foods are the problem, not the carbs themselves. Whole grain bread is actually just fine for you.

Bad Science Pollan criticizes nutrition science here, showing pretty clearly several problems with modern nutrition science. Chief among these is that most of the research focuses on individual nutrients rather than looking at whole foods. In other words, rather than evaluating the effects of eating oranges, they’ll focus on the addition of vitamin C. Again, this really doesn’t say that much about the nutritional value of oranges at all, but it does provide “evidence” that a synthetic food using vitamin C is potentially “good” for you. Thus, food production companies like to support this individual nutrient based research, not the research into whole foods – they can make money off of the individual nutrient studies.

Nutritionism’s Children The end result of this is that our definition of what’s healthy and what isn’t is really, really skewed. For example, if you’re trapped on a desert island, you’d be better off on a diet of nothing but hot dogs or of chocolate than a diet of bananas, corn, or alfalfa. The fact that this is so shocking to many is indicative of the anxiety and confusion we all face when shopping for food.

The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
After tearing down the idea of nutritionism and processed foods in the first part, Pollan starts to look for other answers in this section, starting with a look at the hunter-gatherer diet.

The Aborigine in All of Us In a number of studies, when individuals were forced to return to a traditional hunter-gatherer diet (in which they ate what they could forage or kill), their health improved significantly. In the case of a small Aboriginal group, this return to nature actually turned back the effects of Type II diabetes. In other words, even if you eat foods that are starchy and fatty, you’re better off eating raw foods than you are eating processed ones.

The Elephant in the Room So why don’t we eat this way? The typical Western diet is nothing like the diet of a hunter-gatherer. Most of us eat very light on fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains, but very heavy on processed meats, processed foods, and dairy products – in other words, the normal Western diet. The hunter-gatherer diet, on the other hand, is very high on fruits, vegetables, and grains, supplemented with limited amounts of meat – basically the opposite.

The Industrialization of Eating: What We Do Know This section reiterates many of the ideas from The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It focuses the deep, intrinsic role of large-scale agricultural interests in the development of the Western diet – and not to the benefit of the person eating the diet, either. For the most part, these interests seek to maximize the amount of money that can be made from the raw food they produce – and quite often, that path is via being processed into prepared foods for us.

Getting Over Nutritionism
The book ends with solutions – a lot of them.

Escape from the Western Diet Pollan offers up three simple rules for escaping the traps of the modern Western diet – eat food, mostly plants, not too much. The remainder of the book spells out each of these tenets in detail.

Eat Food: Food Defined What does “eat food” mean? Basically, it means avoiding synthetic foods. In a nutshell, Pollan recommends avoiding anything that you can’t pronounce or that you don’t know what it is, as well as avoiding any food that makes a health claim on the package. He offers a litany of thumbnail rules, but the easiest thing that you can do is to buy most of your food in the produce section of the store or, even better, do a lot of your food shopping at the farmer’s market. Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, but not necessarily exclusively.

Mostly Plants: What to Eat For starters, eat vegetables, especially leafy ones. Recognize that when you eat something, you’re also eating whatever that thing ate, so when you buy meat, know what it ate as well – if it’s something you wouldn’t eat, don’t eat it. One good way to do that is to eat things like free range chicken or grass-fed beef. Pollan stops just short of recommending organic foods, but does recommend buying foods from people who care about the food they’re producing – another urge to shop local by hitting farmer’s markets or getting involved in a co-op. Also, don’t worry each day about perfectly balancing your diet according to someone’s arbitrary definition – take supplements and don’t worry about a perfect food balance each day. Just try to eat a variety of things. Best of all, Pollan recommends a glass of wine with dinner – something I really value as well.

Not Too Much: How to Eat Basically, Pollan recommends that you take the time each day to sit down and eat meals instead of grabbing it and going (which encourages bad eating habits). He also gives a big nod towards buying high quality foods and spending more – and balancing that by eating less at a time. Eat slowly, and eat with others – have some nice dinner conversation, which will accomplish both.

In a nutshell, Pollan says to ditch the processed foods and hit the raw vegetables and fruits. Sit down and eat these foods together, with your family, and set aside the time to eat right – a family meal is a great way to bond with them. The amazing part is that, at least at my own grocery store, this process is usually cheaper than eating processed foods and is unquestionably healthier.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

It’s difficult to separate In Defense of Food from its predecessor, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Together, the books present a powerful discussion of where our food comes from and how it affects us, both in the short term and the long term. Pollan goes beyond the primary effects (the dollars we spend at the supermarket) and the secondary effects (the dollars we spend on health care as a result of a poor diet) to look at many of the tertiary effects, such as environmental factors and so on.

If you take away In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma doesn’t really offer any clear solutions to the problems that people can implement. On the other hand, if you take away The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food seems to provide solutions to problems that aren’t fully fleshed out.

In a nutshell, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food are very much worth reading as a pair. Together, they present an eye-opening view of the complexities of the roles that modern food production plays in our lives and offers solutions for a more healthy diet, both in terms of our money right now, our costs over the long term, and the effects on the environment. However, taking either one of them away weakens the other – The Omnivore’s Dilemma presents the problem without a solution, while In Defense of Food presents solutions without a clearly defined problem.

Read them both in the order they were published – The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then In Defense of Food. You’ll be glad you put in the effort.

Better yet, use that time to just go home tonight, bust out some fresh vegetables and fruits, and have a simple meal at the dinner table with your loved ones or your friends.

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