Whether you eat low fat, low carb, or follow some other diet plan, Michael Pollan, a journalist and author of bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma
, has news for you. It's not working. Despite our obsession with diet and health, we're becoming more overweight and less healthy than ever before. What's going on?
Seven Short Words
While many of us are quick to buy the latest diet book, most of us are unwilling to shell out for a book on nutrition. This is partly because such books are thick tomes that are too heavy on the science when all we're looking for is a fast way to lose weight.
In Defense of Food, which comes in at a svelte 200 or so pages, is not a weight-loss book, but it is a highly readable, eminently reasonable look at what ails us nutritionally. In seven short words, Michael Pollan offers us a way out of our diet woes, and his advice is disarmingly simple: "Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants."
The Changing Culture of Food
What does he mean, "Eat Food?" Pollan makes the case that most of what we eat isn't really food at all, certainly not in the way our great grandmothers would understand it. Meals made from scratch have given way to convenience foods with long lists of unpronounceable ingredients. Plus, the way we consume what we describe as food -- in the car, in front of the TV, or as I write this piece at my desk -- isn't really eating at all.
An American Paradox
Eating has become less about food and more about its constituent parts. Food has ceased to be pleasurable; it's become, as Pollan puts it, merely "a delivery system for nutrients." This has led to an American paradox: an increasingly unhealthy population that's obsessed with nutrition and healthy eating. We've lost our way, thanks to a multi-billion-dollar food-marketing industry and the ever-changing views of nutritional scientists, who spend too much time examining nutrients out of context, and not enough time figuring out how these nutrients work in combination.
And so Pollan gets to the real point. It doesn't much matter whether you eat low fat or low carb, our whole dietary pattern - the Western Diet - remains largely unchanged. We've become fatter and more unhealthy than ever, and our leading causes of death are all diet related.
We need to think completely differently about food and where it comes from.
As diverse as we think our diets are, it turns out that two-thirds of the calories we eat come from four crops: rice, soy, wheat and corn. It's hard to imagine we can get all we need from those four crops. Much of what else is grown is produced in single varieties, thus robbing us of true diversity, and depriving the soils of an array of nutrients.
Vote With Your Fork
So how do we follow Pollan's prescription?
- Avoid products that make health claims.
- Stick to the outer areas of the supermarkets, where less processed foods tend to be found.
- Buy local, organic produce from farmers markets. It may cost more, but you're paying for better, responsibly grown food.
- Eat wild fish, especially salmon, but also wild game if you can, as it has a healthier nutritional profile than domesticated animals.
- Eat less food. This may be easier if we have to pay more for the foods we eat, and if we stay away from refined foods that fuel our appetites rather than satisfy them.
- Eat slowly. If we eat meals in a communal setting, we're more likely to be able to put this into practice.
- Cook meals from scratch.
How realistic is all this? Pollan's message will resonate with many, especially those who are already pretty health-conscious, and who read up on diet and health. But whether or not the message will reach those who need it most, and who can least afford to make these changes, it seems likely that the food industry and the culture of nutritionism will, alas, prevail.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan is published by The Penguin Press.