In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

As promised, here’s a bit more on Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto (click here to view all my posts about this book).

Most of the contents of this book can be found from other sources by Michael Pollan — his articles in the New York Times, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan on C-SPAN, and Pollan on NPR several times.

What’s new is mostly his lists to help us decide what to eat (and even this can be learned from Pollan’s talk on C-SPAN):

Eat Food

  • Don’t eat anything your great grand-mother wouldn’t recognize as food: Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible: Shake the hand that feeds you.

Mostly Plants

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves: did you know that the average American eats 200 pound of meat per year?
  • You are what what you eat eats too.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer.
  • Eat like an omnivore.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils: “it stands to reason that a chemically simplified soil would produce chemically simplified plants.”
  • Eat wild foods when you can: lamb’s quarters and purslane, wild game meat, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are good bets.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements.
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet int he traditional diet.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner.

Not Too Much

  • Pay more, eat less: Okinawan’s say hara hachi bu, eat until you are eighty percent full.
  • Eat meals: didn’t there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between meal snack?
  • Do all your eating at a table: your desk is not a table.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Consult your gut.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.

Well, that’s it. Pretty simple huh? We should all be slimmer and healthier in no time.

There are a couple of other things I found interesting from this book.

First, since Pollan makes several references to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I’m glad that I finally read it. And like Devra Davis in The Secret History of the War on Cancer, Pollan also posits that the health industry (as a business) has had much to gain from the unhealthiness of Americans — Pollan mentions fast food companies while Davis mentions large industrial companies. It’s always interesting to see how books by different authors seem to converge.

And did you know that the average American today spends less than 10% of their income on food and less than thirty minutes each day preparing meals, and about an hour each day enjoying them; in 1965 the average American spent 44 minutes prepping meals and 21 minutes cleaning up. This lack of cooking, Pollan postulates, has something to do with our unhealthiness.

And check out these calories per day contributions to America’s per capita food supply:

  • Corn: 554
  • Soy 257
  • Wheat 768
  • Rice 91

That totals 1,670 and these four crops acccount for two thirds of the calories we eat. It makes me sick just thinking about it. According to Pollan, “humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, and three thousand of those have been in widespread use.” And now we eat mostly just four species, just because they are among the most efficient transformers of sunlight and chemical energy into carbohydrate energy??!

And if that wasn’t enough:

  • Half of all broccoli grown commercially in the US is the Marathon variety, known for its high yield.
  • Most of the chickens raised for meat in America are Cornish cross hybrid.
  • More than 99% of the turkeys raised for meat in Americaare Broad-Breasted Whites.

A typical Iowa farm in the early 1900s would have “raised more than a dozen different plant and animal species: cattle, chicken, corn, hogs, apples, hay, oats, potatoes, cherries, wheat, plums, grapes, and pears” and now that same farm would produce just corn and soybeans.

All of this lack of complexity has resulted in a substantial decline in the nutritional quality of produce in this country — and that’s as determined by the USDA.

And here’s an interesting quote for you:

The increases in world [omega-6] consumption over the past century may be considered a very large uncontrolled experiment that may have contributed to increased societal burdens of aggression, depression, and cardiovascular mortality.

Hmm, maybe Baltimore would be less violent if it’s drug-dealing residents ate a lot more omega-3 fatty acids?!


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