Real food for thought

When Michael Pollan advises his readers to eat “food,” he doesn’t mean Twinkies—or other “edible foodlike substances.” The author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto doesn’t mean we should go out and eat “foodish products,” so often full of ingredients we can’t pronounce. And he doesn’t mean that we should eat anything our great-grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food.

The fact that eating food is an idea worth defending might not be obvious, but Pollan, whose previous books include best sellers such as The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, sets out to do just that. He claims that most of what has crept into the Western diet no longer qualifies as food and that real food—the kind that we should be eating—stands in need of a defense from nutrition science and the food industry, both contributors to the confusion.

Besides defending what we should eat, Pollan defends the practice of eating itself. He points out that instead of eating food, we are more often simply consuming it—in the car, in front of the TV and at our desks, alone. In this way, we are eating within a culture that has divorced food from its social context, and in the process of doing so, we’ve forgotten that eating can be a pleasurable activity.

So what should we do? Pollan’s simple advice—a mere seven words—becomes this manifesto’s mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan defends a definition based on whole rather than processed foods and considers the ecological practices that produce well-grown foods. By the end of this slim volume, readers will realize why much of what is packaged and sold in the traditional supermarket would not make Pollan’s grocery list.

Pollan offers what he calls “eating algorithms” that can guide our nutritional choices instead of giving us sample menus or a detailed list of dos and don’ts. He advises readers to “eat wild foods when you can,” for example, and to “get out of the supermarket whenever possible.” It’s difficult, in turn, to buy a product that contains high-fructose corn syrup at a farmers’ market. The simplicity behind each of Pollan’s recommendations is liberating. Nowhere in this book does he propose weighing portions of food or creating a spreadsheet to monitor caloric intake.

Even though Pollan’s recommendations sound simple, he grants that making lifestyle changes can be difficult—and sometimes expensive. Because our society values having large portions of food available at a low cost, quantity has replaced quality. To reverse the trend, Pollan suggests that “if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week—and eat less of it.”

The strength in Pollan’s writing style is that it is as simple as the ideas he shares. Pollan breaks down complex thoughts without being condescending, and his tendency to summarize an argument after talking through its main points helps readers remember key ideas so that they can put them into practice.

In Defense of Food is important because it brings a common-sense approach back to the table and reminds us that we don’t have to be nutrition scientists to make good eating choices. Without endorsing a radical new type of diet or making bold weight-loss claims, this book helps us realize that change is possible and that it can be sustained. Pollan, after all, remains hopeful, and that makes his practical advice easy to digest.