In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

by Michael Pollan

“Most nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half century has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter…[Americans] suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity than people eating any number of different traditional diets.”

One factor is industrial farms, which breed for quantity rather than nutritional quality. Another is processed food. Many nutrients are destroyed in the processing.  When our bodies are still craving nutrients, we remain hungry and consume more calories.

The author introduces the term Nutritionism, the focus on nutritional components in a diet (such as protein, Omega 3, Vitamin B12) rather than the foods. “People don’t eat nutrients; they eat foods, and foods can behave differently from the nutrients they contain… A whole food might be more than the sum of its nutritional parts.”

Margarine is a good example of the hazards of engineered food. “The food scientists’ ingenious method for making healthy vegetable oil solid at room temperature–by blasting it with hydrogen–turned out to produce unhealthy trans fats, fats that we now know are more dangerous than the saturated fats they were designed to replace.”

Pollan’s advice: don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

The good news is, it is not too late to benefit from improved eating habits.  The book includes a fascinating story of 10 middle-aged Aborigines who left the bush and became diabetic and overweight.  They returned to their homeland, accompanied by a researcher. After seven weeks of eating their traditional diet, blood tests “found striking improvements in virtually every measure of health.”

Pollan’s summary is: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But Pollan doesn’t demonize meat eaters. In fact he cites research by Weston Price from the 1930s. “Price identified no single ideal diet–he found populations that thrived on seafood diets, dairy diets, meat diets, and diets in which fruits, vegetables, and grain predominated. The Masai of Africa consumed virtually no plant foods at all, subsisting on meat, blood, and milk… The Eskimos he interviewed lived on raw fish, game meat, fish roe, and blubber, seldom eating anything remotely green.”

This is a well-written, highly informative book.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2008. Buy from

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