4 weeks ago
Monday, May 19, 2008
Be a Bookworm: "In Defense of Food" Review
I really, really wanted to love In Defense of Food. I adored The Omnivore's Dilemma, and to say it changed the way I eat would be an understatement. The Omnivore's Dilemma changed the way I looked at food, thought about food, ordered food, ate food, and how much I savored food. So, in a sense, I feel inclined to give Michael Pollan a pass. How many life-style altering books can one person write?
Still, the truth of the matter is In Defense of Food is sloppy. And I wouldn't want anyone to read In Defense of Food first and then decide to forgo Omnivore. So I say this to you as a public service of sorts. Read The Omnivore's Dilemma. Relish every word. Then skip In Defense of Food.
The full title for In Defense of Food is In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, and that is exactly what the book is, but not in a good way. Although Pollan makes a valiant attempt to give the book structure, this is a rambling manifesto moving from subject to subject without a cohesive thread. Because the reality is, Pollan ignores essay writing 101. He gives us a thesis of sorts (Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants) but then fails to really provide support for said thesis.
In fact, the argument he seems most concerned with making is that the Western diet is a mess, and that all other ethnic/indigenous diets are better. I'm not going to disagree that the Western diet has its problems, but I've got to level with you: the Indian diet, though rooted in culture and tradition, isn't the healthiest one for you either. The truth is, our diets evolved from a time that food was somewhat scarce, and human beings needed quite a lot of calories because we engaged in calorie-burning activities. I understand that the book is not "An Exerciser's Manifesto," but we cannot talk about our well-being, we cannot talk about diet, if we completely ignore the exercise quotient. While eating chapatis with plenty of ghee probably served my ancestors well, it's not the best diet for a woman who sits in front of her computer for 10 hours a day.
Pollan does address the fact that most Westerners eat too many calories, but he never fully acknowledges that when other cultures have started adopting a more calorie-filled, sedentary lifestyle, their health has slipped even though they might still be eating traditional foods instead of Bagel Bites and french fries. This is a deeply personal issue for me. My father died at 54 of a massive heart attack, and South Asians in general are at a high risk for heart disease. By making a monster out of the "Western diet," (and what does that mean, really?) Pollan does himself and his readers a disservice.
Because Pollan is so intent on demonizing the "Western diet," his thesis, "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants," gets neglected. At times, even, Pollan completely contradicts his thesis when he mentions various indigenous groups who are perfectly healthy even with very few plants in their diet. It turns out that the truth is not so simple. Many of the problems with a Western diet stem from our move from a leaf and seed based diet to a seed-based diet. Nutritionists now believe we need a proportionate ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3, but because seeds contain mostly Omega-6 and very little Omega-3, most of us have too much Omega-6 in our diet, and too little Omega-3. Paradoxically, because many "leaves" as such are not really part of the human diet (grass, algae, etc) one of the best ways to boost your Omega-3 count is to eat more fish and more grass-fed beef. In other words, eat more grass-eating meat. And eat more plants, but try to eat more of the leaves, and fewer seeds. Although when I started the book, Pollan's thesis "eat mostly plants" made good sense, his book actually convinced me that I personally need to eat more of the right kind of meat.
I don't mean to entirely write-off In Defense of Food. There certainly was some important information that I learned, especially about the value of Omega-3. But I find it a little ironic that a book that sold itself as an "escape from nutritionism" actually spent most of its time resorting to said nutritionism. (To his credit, Pollan admits this himself.) I guess the unfortunate truth is, the question of what to eat is simply more complicated than we would like. Even for Michael Pollan.