Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food

October 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

I had half an hour to kill between meetings earlier this week and that was how I came to be browsing the food and cookery section in University bookshop Blackwells on Oxford Road.  I was thinking of adding a glossy coffee table book on the food of Venice to my already too-large collection of cookery books but decided to choose instead Michael Pollan’s slim paperback  “In Defence of Food” .

I am so pleased I did.   I’d heard of  the book before when listening to Radio 4’s Food Programme but wasn’t sure what to expect.  What I got was a compelling and well written read on the subject of what we should eat now to be healthy and escape the problematic elements of the Western Diet.

Pollan condenses the answer to the question he poses at the very beginning of the book:  Eat Food.  Mostly plant based.  Not too much.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  And the point Pollan makes is that it is simple and that we should learn to go back to what we already know about food, trust our instincts and not be swayed by the over-simple one-track nutrition messages.

The low fat message is an example Pollan singles out for attention in the chapter he calls “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis”.  He concludes that the 30 year public health effort focusing on a single dietary goal – the reduction of fat in our diet – may well have made our health worse.  This is because the hypothesis on which the dietary advice was given – that dietary fat is responsible for chronic disease – is at best simplistic and at worst just plain wrong.  I’ve always instinctively shied away from the advice that we should eat fewer eggs – after all what could be wrong with choosing a boiled egg (supposedly bad because of its cholesterol levels) for breakfast rather than a bowl of high sugar high salt cereal (but of course able to make the magic low fat claim). And I have never willingly eaten margarine because I think butter tastes better, naturally distrusting the health claims made by margarine manufacturers.

So it is gratifying to read Pollan dissecting the lipid hypothesis, delicately pointing up the scandalous irony that it is the trans fats in margarine, the so-called “healthy alternative” touted to us all these years that is the real villain.  Pollan summarises this idea as follows” the principal contribution of thirty years of official nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one”.  Hear hear!

So what does he mean by Eat Food?  Pollan distinguishes between real food and food -like substitutes and gives tips on how to distinguish between them.  As a guide, he suggests that we should avoid eating food products with more than five ingredients on the label.  To illustrate his point he lists in full every ingredient in a loaf of Sara Lee Soft & Smooth White Bread – all 37 on them! It reads like a rather scary kind of poetry.

What about his advice that diet should be mostly plant based? Pollan runs through the by now familiar evidence that a healthy diet should be plant based but is objective enough to admit that we don’t necessarily know all the reasons why that should be the case.  The good news is that some meat in the diet is OK, especially if we choose meat and dairy product from grass fed animals.  One of Pollan’s points is that everything is linked  – yes, you are what you eat, but what you eat is also what it eats – so an egg from a free-range hen eating a mixed diet is a very different thing from a battery product.

Pollan delivers his advice in a light and funny manner.  Who wouldn’t smile on being told “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does”?  He recognises the irony of an American lecturing the world on how to eat better.  He’s never high-handed and earnest, yet his book is nevertheless soundly researched and based on good science as far as I can tell.  Blimey, he even manages to get the Daily Mail on his side as a review on the back cover indicates!

This is essentially an optimistic book as Pollan reminds us that the best choices for our health also happen to be the best choices for the planet.  As he says “That these also happen to be the most delicious choices is very good news indeed”.

With that thought in mind, I’m going to enjoy a boiled egg and real bread soldiers for breakfast now!

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