Thursday, June 3, 2010

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Title: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Author: Michael Pollan
Genre: Non Fiction, Health

Publisher: Penguin Press HC
Publishing Date: January 1st 2007
Hardcover: 205 pages

The companion volume to The New York Times bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan's lastbook , The Omnivore's Dilemma, launched a national conversation about the American way of eating; now In Defense of Food shows us how to change it, one meal at a time. Pollan proposes a new answer to the question of what we should eat that comes down to seven simple but liberating words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pollan's bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we can start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives, enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy, and bring pleasure back to eating.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

As the summary says, this book is the companion to The Omnivore's Dilemma. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't aware of that and decided to give this book a go after it was recommended by someone. While I do plan of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, I don't think it's necessary to enjoy this book.

In In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto Pollan starts with a basic rundown of how we got to this point in the first place. From the enthusiastic embracement of faulty nutritional science to the unequivocal rejection of fat, Pollan takes you on a train ride of massive government inadequacy, food lobbyist the bully us all, to our obsession with eating healthy. Pollan does a great job of pointing out how we are no longer eating for the pleasure of eating. We've instead become "Orthorexics," people obsessed with healthy eating. And while there is nothing wrong with eating healthy, this collective obsession has not in fact made us healthier. Few and fewer of us are actually eating food. Instead we keep shoveling processed foods loaded with high fructose corn syrup and stabilizers into our mouth. We seem to have shut off the part of our brain that does our thinking and instead rely on industry claims of "heart-healthy" and "all organic." Unfortunately for us, those claims are dubious at best ans Pollan points out the ever changing opinion of nutritional science (fat is evil, cholesterol is evil, now carbs are evil).

As Pollan says, “30 years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.”

The thing I love most about this book is how non-judgemental Pollan is. I never got the impression that Pollan thought I was to blame for eating garbage all these years (though I am partly of course). Far too many books about food and diet are a bit holier-than-thou in my experience, but Pollan instead focuses on the often ignored but immensely powerful food industry.

Anyone reading this book should know that the science is not perfect (it rarely is). Pollan also takes a kind of anti-science approach to this book that may put some people off. For me though, I think Pollan points out the obvious. If science was the answer to our diet/eating problems in this country then we should be healthier now since we've embraced nutritional science. But we're not. And that is a point that can not be ignored. Pollan's point isn't that science has nothing to offer us, but that science is not the answer to our problems.

"Vitamin fortified" soft drinks are not going to make us healthier.

Pollan's approach is basically that people have been feeding themselves for thousands of years without the help of dietitians and nutritionists. Even though these people may have some things to offer us, we should keep in mind that “a whole food might be more than the sum of its nutrient parts.” Pollan makes the argument that our real goal should be to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By "food," Pollan means real food. Not "edible food-like substances" that have been processed and dyed with artificially coloring. (He, as people have been saying for years, says to focus on the outer perimeter of the super market.) Pollan also points out that the French eat less then we do, but take longer eating. Under his "not too much" recommendation Pollan focuses on that difference. He recommends that we stop eating alone in our cars and in front of our televisions. Instead eating should be part of an experience we share with other people (obviously this isn't possible, but you get my drift hopefully). Lastly, we need to eat more plants. Pollan suggests looking at meat as part of the flavoring of your food instead the main part of it.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

I hate to give the game away right here at the beginning of a whole book devoted to the subject, and I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a couple hundred more pages or so. I’ll try to resist, but will go ahead and add a few more details to flesh out the recommendations. Like, eating a little meat isn’t going to kill you, though it might be better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to “eat food,” which is not quite as simple as it sounds. For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims, which brings me to another, somewhat counter intuitive, piece of advice: If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

You can see how quickly things can get complicated.
You can read the rest of the introduction here (pdf).


I cannot tell you how excited this book made me. There was just something entirely special about this book. I even found myself talking to strangers about it and thinking long and hard about my food choices (though I actually eat a lot better then most people since I cook about 90% of our food from scratch...though I am addicted to Dr. Pepper). After reading In Defense of Food I realized that the cereal, yogurt, bread, and apple sauce Holden had each day had high fructose corn syrup in them. Our bread alone had over 30 ingredients in it (and this was one of those "healthy" breads). Do you know what it takes to make bread? Flour, water, yeast, and salt. I just couldn't believe it.

This book may not be perfect, but the enthusiasm I experienced reading this book made it a ten in my opinion.

Rating: 10. One of the best books I have ever read and you’re crazy if you don’t run out and get the book immediately.


  1. I've been spending a lot more time thinking about what I put in my body, and have really turned to a lot of plants, with meat and dairy on the side. I splurge on other things from time to time, but I'm avoiding corn syrup as much as possible and sticking to natural options.

    I'll have to check this out.

  2. This books reminds me of Food Inc, a somewhat recent documentary on our food industry. His advice was something along the lines of: if your ancestors wouldn't recognize it as food, then it's not really food.

    Here's a link:


What's on your mind?