Updated on 02.15.08

Review: In Defense of Food

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Wow. That’s quite an involved post. I think about this alot. I’m the first generation -not- to grow up on a farm. And at first glance, it seemed my parents ate worse than I did. More fat, cream, whole butter, etc. but they were healthier and lighter weight then than now. My theory is because it was all fresh, non-preserved, and they physically worked harder.

    I don’t think our bodies can deal with the types of preservatives and ‘junk’ that goes into preparing foods for supermarket. The Western Diet is so entrenched in our culture, I’m not sure if real change would ever be made outside of introducing more organics.


  2. Aimeé says:

    I loved the Omnivore’s Dilemma as well – I’m waiting until this book is available at my library to read it (I’m on the waiting list). We eat junk food more than we should at my house, but we also have a garden in the warmer seasons, shop at the farmer’s market and belong to a local-food coop to buy grass-fed meat. The meat isn’t any more expensive that at the grocery store, and it’s fresher and better tasting than anything I’ve bought at a conventional store. I think if you plan your meals right, you can eat well for a good price – sure it’s not the cheapest diet, but the benefits of enjoying your food and feeling great outweigh any savings from cheap junk. Thanks for reviewing this one!

  3. AlainaOfArc says:

    The thing that ALWAYS bothers me about ‘healthy eating’ is the push for consuming low fat items, including low fat cheese, milk, and margarine instead of butter. That’s not real food! People have been eating these full fat foods for years without any significant problems.

    And, what studies have shown, is that eating full fat dairy products is HEALTHY – because you need the fats to fully absorb certain types of vitamins! So eating broccoli with low fat cheddar is actually WORSE for you than eating it with the full fat version! So make your veggies tasty by covering them in real butter or cheese (in moderation, of course)! It’s what’s best for you, and you’ll actually enjoy eating them.

    Also, there’s too much emphasis on eating ‘fresh’ and raw fruits and veggies. Though they are good for you, you should eat a variety of fresh, frozen & canned, and cooked.
    Frozen & canned fruits and veggies (and their juices) are often frozen or processed right after they are picked – peak time for their nutrient values. ‘Fresh’ fruit in the supermarket is often picked days before it gets to the store, and each day it sits harvested, precious nutrients are being lost.
    And for cooking, we’ve all heard that spinach is full of iron. But what most people don’t know is that to get the full benefit of the iron in the spinach, you have to cook it first. Our bodies can’t extract the iron from spinach very easily when it’s raw.

    Clearly this is a topic I feel passionate about, and I could go on forever (if you really want to see me go on forever, make a post about the HPV vaccine).

    Thank you for sharing this/these book(s) with us! I’ll have to check them out.

    Oh yeah, and eggs are healthy for you! There’s been a study done in which men consume a ridiculous amount of eggs each day, and their cholesterol is negligibly affected… So eat as many eggs as you choose!

  4. Heidi says:

    I have “In Defense of Food” on reserve at the library as well!

    I have really begun to get into the “real food” and “slow food” movements – thanks to Michael Pollan and the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    Yesterday I found out that I into a CSA! I’m very excited about cooking with new veggies – like fresh beets and interesting greens.

    Nice review.

  5. Anne says:

    My husband is strict ovo-lacto vegetarian; I had to relearn how to cook. We don’t eat processed food much at all and I eat very little meat (which is due to laziness, I can’t be bothered to make two separate dishes for one meal). My cholesterol levels dropped by more than half, same with triglycerides, and I feel better. He feels better because he’s not eating pasta and pizza all the time like when he was single- and it’s cheaper because he’s not ordering out daily. The second part of this…we recently decided to stop eating in front of the tv, and now eat at the table. The food somehow tastes better and we’re not shoveling it in. It’s nice talking to my husband without waiting for commercials. Another plus is that we’re not constantly bombarded with commercials and product placement in shows; eating produce means I’m not mindlessly reading a box of something and looking at more advertisements for the brand. We’re not enticed to spend more money.

  6. Mrs. Micah says:

    Clarification question about this paragraph:

    “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.”

    Do you mean to say that while we’d think bananas, corn, and alfalfa are the healthiest things to eat, a diet of chocolate or hot dogs would be better?

    Or do you mean to say that, given the nutritional ideas we’ve come up with, we’d give preference to chocolate and hot dogs over things like bananas, corn, and alfalfa?

  7. Ogden says:

    Good review, “In Defense of Food” will be added to my reading list. It’s nice to hear that it tackles the saturated fat issue. If people are interested in more information on this issue and the roots of the modern ADA recommended diet, I would suggest “Good Calorie, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes.

  8. Ty Brown says:

    Sounds like a good read. The problem I am starting to have with nutrition experts and their followers is that they are getting religious about their ’cause’.

  9. Lisa says:

    Unfortunately, the food stores have caught on to the Leafy veggie benefits… I live on an Island and there are only three food stores: Shaw’s, Stop and Shop (Stop and Scam) and a upscale private market that has good quality foods and a deal now and then.

    Last week the cheapest lettuce I could find at S&S was bunch red leaf lettuce for – get this – $5 a pound!! They disquised it by saying it was 2 bunches for $5, but when I weighed the bunch it was only 8 oz. There was not a single lettuce under $5/pound. So, instead I got broccoli, RED ORGANIC PEPPERS (even they were cheaper than lettuce), cabbage and kale all for under $5/pound. In the end, it was a good deal and I got lots more color into the diet. But next week they will raise the prices on the other yummy veggies so they will be out of reach, too.

    There was ONE unprocessed single meat, cheese or fish product that under 3.99 a pound – pork sirloin. I bought that and chickpeas for protein last week.

    By the way, always weigh the prepackaged stuff and select the one that weighs more if it comes in a unit price. If you are buying a “pint” of blueberries, weight each container and select the heaviest one. This makes the produce guys crazy, but I do it anyway. It is not allowed to fill up the container, but if I could get away with it, I would – a pint container is a pint container and whatever you can fit into it is a pint!

  10. HebsFarm says:

    I can tell how much you care about this topic by the number of times you used the word “deep” . Thanks for the thorough review, and, as always, for sharing your thoughts and insights.

  11. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The book indicated that people would continually believe that the vegetables were the best choice for long-term health, where the truth is that hot dogs and chocolate provide more well-rounded nutrition than vegetables alone. That’s why later on he suggests eating vegetables, but eating vitamin supplements along with it.

  12. cv says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book, since I loved The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I found Pollan’s article in the New York Times Magazine about nutritionism thought-provoking (the article came out maybe a year ago and has the same basic thesis as this book). I have to say that I find the fact that he recommends a vitamin supplement to be bizarre in light of his views on the complexity of the nutrient balances we get from different foods.

    I also think Pollan is too quick to dismiss the benefits of the science of nutrition. The discovery of vitamins and other nutrients and how they affect health has saved many lives and improved health worldwide. Just consider folic acid supplements for pregnant women, the iodization of salt, vitamin C for those in danger of scurvy, the fortification of flour and milk, etc. I agree with Pollan that science hasn’t completely mapped out all the micronutrients in our food and what amounts of them we need, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the effort entirely.

  13. yipyip says:

    The only reason we need to fortify flour is that, in the process of making it white, we remove *all* the nutritional value in the whole wheat grain. We turn a complex, nutritional whole food into something about as nutritional as table sugar.

    If you eat the whole grain, you don’t need to fortify it.

    One justification often used for vitamin and mineral supplementation, even on an organic diet, is that our soil today is so depleted that produce is simply far less nutritious than even 30 years ago. Many studies have been published on the topic — a minute of googling turned up http://www.truehealth.org/ahealn31.html, but if you spend some time searching you can find the original journal papers. From memory, some fruits today have only 10-50% of the vitamin content of the same fruit as measured in the 1970’s. So much for the Green Revolution.

  14. Kris says:

    For further reading, Pollan wrote a fantastic NY Times Magazine article last year (“Unhappy Meals” January 28th, 2007) on this very subject. My favorite part: “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” It’s up on the New York Times site, if anyone’s interested.

  15. Michael says:

    A book called “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon takes this theme further. The first part of the book is a series of essays on traditional, healthier eating vs. the errors of the “Diet Dictocrats.” The second part of the book is about recipes and food preparation. The book’s logic is built on sound premises, but the writing is polemic and the book talks about un-modern foods and methods, like putting animal blood in soup and pre-chewing food for babies. The recipes I have eaten are simple and taste good enough.

  16. Michael says:

    To clarify, I have not eaten any blood. I meant there are plenty of recipes Americans would like, and the ones I tried tasted good enough for being simple.

  17. !wanda says:

    If you look at the food of various different pre-farming groups, you’ll find that they have very different diets. The traditional Inuit diet, for example, has very few vegetables. For myself, I figure that if I get enough micronutrients and neither too few nor too many calories, as defined by what I weigh after I eat things, it’ll be fine. Beyond that, things are not worth stressing about.

    I’d like to defend science, too. Before research into the health effects of micronutrients, many, many people around the world were eating generally nonprocessed, nutritious diets lacking a micronutrient and still getting very, very sick. Science has been excellent in defining the minimum we need for decent health. For a long time, that was the problem scientists were seeking to solve! Now that we’ve established the bare minima necessary for health, the issues have gotten more complex and less amenable to animal testing (because rats have a higher metabolism and different nutritional needs than people) and controlled scientific studies.

  18. typome says:

    I loved both of Pollan’s books. I do agree that science has made great strides in our health over the years. After all, it’s extended our life spans despite our crappy Western eating habits. But at the same time, nutritionism can focus on the wrong things. For instance, there shouldn’t be a need to fortify white flour if people actually ate flour naturally: as a grain.

    I think what stuck out to me most in Pollan’s book was to focus more on culture and cuisine. There’s a reason why certain cultures eat certain things. Other than their ingredients tend to be local to the people who made them, you can consider cuisines as tried and tested combinations of food that’s been handed down for centuries. We don’t have to focus on whether we should lessen our fats, limit carbs or is sweet and low better than regular sugar. Just eat what people have been eating for centuries, and you’ll probably be better off for it. Hence why the French can eat cream and the Italians their pasta and still be healthier than the American diet.

  19. PF says:

    Something doesn’t make sense to me. Where would hunter-gatherers get grains? Grains are cultivated, and if a group is cultivating, they are not hunter-gatherers. Who cares? Well, grains are a relatively recent invention and I’m not sure that they are really all that healthy for us even in their whole form.

  20. caryn verell says:

    i am planning to get this book..sounds really interesting. not long ago i decided to just eat meals like my mom and dad served me while growing up…we did not eat out unless you count the occasional picnic, we were dirt poor, we worked harder and had fewer modern conveniences. because there were six of us at the table we were all given serving sizes on smaller plates…if there were alot of leftovers we took them for packed lunches to school/work. dad always got first dibs on second helpings cause he was the breadwinner. if we were lucky enough to have donuts/rolls or special treats no one took their eye off of their own plate (blink and it might disappear).

  21. caryn verell says:

    i am planning to get this book..sounds really interesting. not long ago i decided to just eat meals like my mom and dad served me while growing up…we did not eat out unless you count the occasional picnic, we were dirt poor, we worked harder and had fewer modern conveniences. because there were six of us at the table we were all given serving sizes on smaller plates…if there were alot of leftovers we took them for packed lunches to school/work. dad always got first dibs on second helpings cause he was the breadwinner. if we were lucky enough to have donuts/rolls or special treats no one took their eye off of their own plate (blink and it might disappear). anyways, i am beginning to lose my spare tire around my middle and i can now breathe when i bend over to tie my shoes. i am feeling alot better getting the vit. and minerals my body needs and getting rid of the extra weight my body does not need.

  22. Fran says:

    Thank heaven for a breath of sanity. I will probably get this book next time I go a-Amazoning. No food plan fits the needs of everyone, and I know I did damage to myself and actually contributed to weight gain. I stopped dieting three or four years ago and am now 100 lbs lighter than I was in high school. I’d also recommend French Women Don’t Get Fat for more words on unprocessed food and eating for pleasure.

  23. Mrs. Micah says:

    Thanks, Trent! I thought that was what you were saying, but I couldn’t quite tell.

  24. Corrie says:

    I have this one on hold at the library — thanks for the great review, now I look forward even more to reading it! Another great book, along similar lines, is Real Food by Nina Planck. It really challenges some of the nutrition/health beliefs that I had (such as “saturated fat leads to heart disease”). You may enjoy it if you like Michael Pollan’s other books!

  25. ngthagg says:

    I’m really surprised at the recommendation to take a supplement. I can’t think of anything that goes against the “eat food” principle more than a supplement pill. Consider:

    “avoiding synthetic foods”
    “avoiding anything that you can’t pronounce or that you don’t know what it is”
    “avoiding any food that makes a health claim on the package”

    Supplements are synthetic, unpronounceable, and make numerous health claims. How does this fit in with the rest of the book?

  26. tabletoo says:

    Here’s what he actually says about vitamins o page 172 of the book. I think I can quote the two paragraphs in the context of a review.


    “We know that people who take supplements are generally healthier than the rest of us, and we know that, in controlled studies, most of the supplements they take don’t appear to work Probably the supplement takers are healthier for reasons having nothing to do wuth the pills: They’re typically more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent. So to the extent that you can, be the kind of person who would take supplements, and then save your money.

    “That said, many of the nutrition experts I consulted recommended taking a multivitamin, especially as you get older. In theory at least, your diet should provide all the micronutrients you ned to be healthy, especially if you’re eating real food and lots of plants. After all, we evolved to obtain whatever our bodies need from nature and we would not be here if we couldn’t. But natural selection takes litle interest in our health or survival afetr childvearing years are past, and as we age our need for antioxidents increases while our ability to absorb them from food declines. So it’s probably a good idea, and certainly can’t hurt, to take a multivitamin-and-mineral pill after age fifty. And if you don’t eat much fish, it might be wise to take a fish oil supplement as well.”

  27. yvie says:

    I haven’t read “In Defense of Food” but I have read “The Omnivore’s Dilemna.” It is a book that changed forever the way I look at food. I will never look at a corn field or a piece of meat the same way again.

    Excellent recommendation.

  28. tabletoo says:

    I agree with a previous poster that you might want to check out Pollan’s article(s) in the New York Times. You might also find Gary Taube’s articles on fat (also in the NYT) to be of interest.

    Nina Planck’s ‘Real Food’ is another interesting book. She has an occasional newsletter, and it was in her newslatte that I found out that “In Defense of Food” was being published soon.

    Pollan is a good writer and I’ve read all his other books, and recommend them. He’s not exclusively a food writer.

    I was lucky enough to be first on my library’s wait list for this book. After reading it, I immediately returned it and went out and bought a copy (at a discount at CostCo).

  29. Even as an avowed carnivore, I’ve actually been considering more and more how my food choices affect our environment. Primarily because my second job (night) involves web research concerning environmental health.

    Just the fact that raising meat contributes so much more to greenhouse gases and climate change (if you believe in that sort of thing—I’m sure there are some who are still skeptics) makes me question whether I really need to purchase meat at all for home cooking.

    Added to this, I just watched a horrific video shot by the Humane Society, in which sick cattle are basically tortured into standing up and walking into the slaughterhouse—so the owners can get their money. Aside from the inhumane treatment, this also means that there is some rather questionable beef getting into the grocery store. . . .

    Since I’m also trying to live more frugally, something I discovered is TVP (textured vegetable protein), which which I just made my first “meat”loaf. Not bad. Not GREAT, I’ll admit, but definitely edible!

    I hope to be able to read some of the books you mention above, Trent, over the next few months, as I further develop a philosophy of food and nutrition that works better for the planet and for my budget!

  30. valletta says:

    My husband and I just sold our restaurant and are so excited to be relocating to the wine country where I’m planning the veggie garden of my dreams. The plan is to grow about 80% of our intake. Let’s just say the seed catalogues are better than shopping for shoes for me:)

    My family came from Spain and my husband’s from Italy, Everyone had a garden, even if they had to squeeze it onto a balcony in the Marina!

    Good food is a lifestyle. As is good exercise. The more you can integrate that kind of lifestyle (with all the benefits of the internet :) the better off you’ll be.

  31. rhbee says:

    I work in the Farmer’s Market industry. Quite often, I can see that the food being sold as locally grown is actually been brought from the LA Produce market and reboxed to look local. A person selling asparagus in the off season is quite likely selling produce from Chile or Peru. Much of the time, because there isn’t much of a markup, it just makes sense financially to buy Mexican grown berries and sell them as local, too. I know that this probably isn’t such a problem in parts of the country where small farm ag still is available but here on the coast we seem to have given up all our land to houses. So I guess what I am saying is just because the package says Farmer’s Market doesn’t mean it always is organically grown.

  32. A in NC says:

    Trent, thanks for this. Really resonates with me.
    It ties in with something I’ve been thinking about for while now, the concept of things being “Easy”.
    From a nutritional standpoint, that would be “mainlining glucose” into our systems. We get our fuel and it is Easy. But to get what we need, we need more work. We need more variety, we need to sit down and slow down. We can’t just grab-and-go with the highly processed foods.
    Then I applied it to other areas:
    Like, reading. Your review of the “how to read a book” ties in. If I am just skimming a book, that is the Easy approach. But if I want something out of it, I need to study it, take notes, look things up. As a result, I get more out of it. I exercise my brain. I bring depth to my thinking. I get all the different elements working together in my mind like all the different nutrients work in my foods when I eat whole foods.
    There is more work and effort but I get so much more out of it.
    Exercise is another element.
    When I do something complex like learn to rock climb or even master roller skating, I’m using my body in connection with my mind. My skills are stretched and honed. Dancing is supposed to help ward off Alzheimer’s. Have you ever taken dance lessons? You feel so awkward and stoopid because it is really challenging. Yet when you get it is so deeply satisfying.
    But we keep looking for Easy. Quick.
    Jobs that in the past required 3 or 4 years of internship are snubbed. No one wants to be an intern for so long. How demeaning. Yet to learn and hone so many skills necessary in valid work, it requires you learn from a master for a long time. The satisfaction of really learning and knowing a skill is great for self esteem. Good for character building.
    Maybe so much of our cultural issues are more to do with not being willing to do things that actually give us genuine pleasure. Because they aren’t EASY.
    We all know that the sex that comes after courtship and simply long periods of time where you want it but don’t get it is so much satisfying than a one night stand. But the one night stand is Easy .
    Life used to be hard. REALLY hard. Think famine, black plague, etc. Life is not that hard now for most Americans. Yet we are not designed to have “glucose mainlined” into our systems. When we make all the easy choices, we get sick, probably even drepressed. We want challenge, effort, results, and satisfaction. We are designed to work, move, and REALLY use our brains. When we do, we are happier and healthier.
    Thanks for your posts. I enjoy them and they get me thinking. So I’m satisfied.

  33. Sharon says:

    This is getting entirely out of control! People, we are walking, talking CHEMICAL FACTORIES! ALL of the food we eat is simply chemicals. Check out the ingredients list from the typical Thanksgiving menu. http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.103/pub_detail.asp

    I bet you can’t pronounce all the ingredients in this menu, but they are perfectly good CHEMICALS that our bodies need.

  34. Kelly says:

    I recall a post not so long ago where you jumped to the defense of Splenda. That seems a far cry from TOD and IDOF.

  35. Vic says:

    Great post, Trent. Thanks for writing such an excellent review of this book.

    This is a topic I am just now starting to research for my own family. I consider it one of my jobs as a sahm to keep our food on a strict budget. But every single week, I am faced with the dilemma of “cheap vs. best quality.” I can’t wait to read these two books.

    A in NC… excellent comment, and you really got me thinking about ‘easy.’

  36. J. says:

    Brilliant, Trent, thank you. I’d also like to join the posters who endorsed Nina Planck wholeheartedly and Sally Fallon with reservations (I agree that her writing is full of polemic & innuendo that undermines otherwise sound arguments).

    They all agree that eggs are good for you, that your best bet is to eat around the perimeter of the supermarket (or anything you’d find at a farmer’s market), and that most of us probably need very little in the way of supplements though a multivitamin probably can’t hurt and fish oil seems like a good idea for those of us who don’t live next to a fresh fish market.

    rhbee>> one of pollan’s suggestions is that your best line of defense against that stuff is to actually talk to the people you buy food from. the best place to do that is a farmer’s market. can people there lie? yeh–but they have to look you in the eye & do it. nobody at the supermarket even knows where most of the food is coming from, except stuff with origin labels, and then you’re back to trusting a label.

  37. LS says:

    For anyone interested, here’s the link to Pollan’s article in the NY Times:

    Unhappy Meals
    Published: January 28, 2007

    I have this book on my “to be read” list. After reading your review, I think I’ll move it up a few spots on the list :)

  38. mahesh says:

    I am from India and I have been a dedicated follower of your blog from 6 months or more.I beleive your blog has so many followers within US and across globe as well. It would be nice if you could have some of your articles addressing broader audience from asia as well.

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