In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto – Michael Pollan

Investigating the trends of the Western diet across the past century, Pollan speaks with concern in which we have radically diminished our general health by replacing the ideology synonymous with our eating habits – that we no longer have a relationship with food, but that we have a relationship with nutrition. Rather than eating like our ancestors, we have begun to worry ourselves too deeply with the nutritional labels and vitamin contents of supposed “foods,” referred to as nutritionsim. The diet that Pollan describes is one of packaged foods with unnatural ingredients with hardly pronounceable names, appearing more as laboratory experiments fine tuned for nutritional health rather than satiation.

For Pollan, health comes with a great deal of misunderstanding. What is a healthy diet? Is there a perfect balance in regards to macros, meat vs. veggies, organic vs. non-organic? Perhaps, are we over complicating our eating habits and harming ourselves in the process? Examining the inner machinations of the collective diet and food industry, Pollan attempts to provide thoughtful answers to these questions.

The “science” and business/political doctrine attributed to a society who eats with an infatuation based upon ‘nutrients’, as Pollan describes, is one that has detrimentally affected the collective physical health of Western nations. He argues that rather than worrying about eating a simple diet, rife with balanced portions, we have tended towards nutrient-rich diets that have led us astray from actual food, instead settling for useless food, created by bunk science, leaving us with deleterious effects.

At no point in the book does Pollan prescribe a perfect diet, he instead seeks to show the reader the chief wrongdoings of nutritionsim. Most notably, nutritionism does not seek to effectively feed individuals, it instead seeks to sell them a product. The industry standard is preoccupied with the notion of a “quick fix,” touting the idea that with a supplemental vitamin, nutrient, or food item that you can cure a specific ailment and achieve a better state of health. However, with all of these supposed answers being provided, we are living in an age rife with epidemics of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. The data shows that, as a society, we are facing critical health concerns due to dietary consumption. Why isn’t the industry working?

The answer that Pollan provides is not one in which you remove all carbs, eat like a caveman, eat vegan only, eat organic only, etc. it instead focuses on a diet of mindfulness and moderation. As the motto of his book states – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Rightly so, Pollan institutes a set of rules that he believes will make for a more healthy way of eating for any person (one in which healthy is synonymous with both mindfulness and moderation, similar to the ideas of Eastern religious ideology).

Some notable rules that Pollan institutes are as follows –

  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle – envision your most visited supermarket with this in mind and you’ll find that the peripheries are th areas in which the coolers and freezers are placed – milks, yogurts, meats, vegetables, and fruits. The center of the supermarket are where the overly produced “food” lives – the sugary cereals, snack foods, bleached breads, etc. Avoiding these foods, as much as possible, makres for regular consumption that won’t be as filled with non-natural food items.
  • Sweeten and salt your food yourself – Ever pick up a can of soup and be shocked by the salt content of one serving? How about the sugar content of pre-made smoothies (not even mentioning soda)? Understanding how much salt or sugar that is in your food is easier to grasp when you are adding it and seeing it for yourself.
  • Stop eating before you’re full – as studies have shown, people will tend to eat whatever is put in front of them, and the signal that signifies fullness within the stomach can take nearly 20-25 minutes to reach the brain. More simply, we tend to eat more than our bodies actually need, so we need to retrain ourselves in regards to our portion sizing.
  • Try not to eat alone – Eating with others tends to lead towards conversation (at least, among some people). If you’re eating with others, not only will you be more conscious about how much you are consuming, but you’ll be less likely to overeat, since you will be talking in between forkfuls/spoonfuls, thus giving your body and brain more time to recognize how much you have consumed during the meal.
  • Cook – Straight forward. Preparing your own food not only enriches the experiencing of eating, having known that you have arranged your dish to your tastes and preferences, but it gives you more appreciation for what you are about to put into your body, especially when compared to a meal torn out of a package.
  • Break the rules once in a while – Furthermore, don’t take these rules to seriously. Every once in a while, we deserve to eat as we wish – to overindulge. Worrying too much about what we are consuming can lead to further issues, such as disordered eating. A handful of popcorn, some tortilla chips, or a candy bar won’t ruin you – just don’t consume them daily or in such large portions.

Pollan’s simple rules to generally live by are ones that we must actively work towards if we wish to break away from the commercialized structure that eating has become within the Western world. Eat a balanced diet, not one concerned with specific nutrient and vitamin contents, rather one that is mindful and moderate in portions and the types of foods eaten. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be fed by industry interests, who are more interested in creating lifelong customers than creating healthier individuals.

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