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.

15 comments:

Joyce said...

My daughter-in-law (Masters in Dietetics) had the same impression as you of the two Pollan books. I was going to borrow In Defense of Food from her and she discouraged me from it. Her take: it's boring.

eco 'burban mom said...

Thanks for the review... I am so book-fickle that if it doesn't grab me, I am likely to leave it behind. I am not sure if this one will be for me. I am not very focused with 4 boys running underfoot! Although, you make a great point about eating more leaves than seeds and more grass fed meats. WHEW! Now I don't have to read it! :o)

Green Bean said...

I did actually enjoy IDF but, like you, my take away was more limited than with OD, which for me personally was life altering. I still walked away from IDF with the rules that I should pay more attention to what I eat (e.g., not eat in front of the computer - I didn't say that I actually follow these rules), eat what my great grandmother would consider food, and make more of my own food. I think Pollan did a service to society by reminding us to read ingredients - that something as innocuous as bread may contain a lot of stuff we don't actually want in our bodies.

That said, I do agree with you. The book was sloppy, no match for Omnivore's Dilemma and contradictory in many parts.

Thank you, Arduous, for the thoughtful review. Concise and to the point, as always.

Donna said...

I second your recommendation to read OD and skip IDF! I thought the best ideas in IDF could have been summed up in an essay and the rest was a boring read. Good job on the review!

arduous said...

Joyce, seems like many people had the same impression I did. But if you haven't read "Omnivore," borrow that from her! It's a great read.

EBM, heh, I made it a point to bring that up in my review because I thought that was the most important thing Pollan discussed in "IDF."

GB, you're right. Part of the problem is, I already read all those rules in essays Michael Pollan wrote, through Crunchy's book club, through your write up, etc. So when I read IDF, the most salient points were ones I already knew.

Donna, in fact Pollan did put the important parts in an essay for the NY Times. Read "Unhappy Meals" here if you want to get the best parts of IDF in twelve pages.

CindyW said...

Oh, that's too bad. I love Michael Pollan and love OD.

I am almost a groupie. Whatever interviews I could find online in podcast format, I would download and listen.

Perhaps IDF overlaps with OD?

Melissa said...

I haven't read the book, but it's interesting what you mention about chapatis and ghee not being appropriate for a modern diet. We have this conversation often in our home...white rice is probably fine, if you don't eat it at the rate of two cups a day - which is how much we can afford to eat now, versus probably a fraction of that a hundred years ago. We're working on making adjustments in how we prepare some traditional favorites in combination with keeping a closer eye on portion size.

organicneedle said...

Adding Omnivore to my ever-growing library hold list!

Chile said...

Interesting that you post this now. I apparently put the book on reserve at the library some time ago as I got an email this past week to come get my copy. Eh. I started reading the intro last night and didn't even make it through it before deciding I wouldn't be reading this book.

I'm sorry, but why the hell should I listen to a journalist tell me what food is healthy and what is not? In the intro, he made several statements I think are incorrect, but it's just because I've been brain-washed by my doctor on what is healthy. So, apparently I should trust Pollan over a board-certified internist with over 30 years of experience getting people well and off medication. Uh, no.

Rant over. Book goes back today. I'd rather poop in a bucket.

Beany said...

One of the reasons I haven't made it a huge priority to read Pollan's books is because some of the reviews made his books sounds like it was written by a ponderous old bore. As I've mentioned before his articles have been life changing...but his books don't sound very compelling. I like books to be informative nor some screed on whatever the author is P.Oed about. I want something more and newer than what is in his articles. That being the case, I do have Second Nature checked out after Sue from the Great W. recommended it.

I thought that "Eat to Live" had some really valuable information on nutrition and diet. I've absorbed many of Dr. Furhman's ideas and we'll see how that turns out 10-20 years down the line.

You made a good point about the blind demonization of western diets vs. other diets. I grew up eating really rich foods only on special occasions so to this day I cannot eat heavy foods on a regular basis. I just get too lethargic.

arduous said...

Cindy, I think they do overlap. Honestly, see my comment to GB. If you've heard the podcasts, read his essays, read OD, you're not going to find much that is new in this book.

Melissa, my mom at one point switched to eating dahl with quinoa. Might be something to think about.

Orgie, I know, my list is miles long. And I still have to read a book about a serial killer for my book club.

Chile, yeah, this bugged me. The thing is, Pollan claims he has as much authority as anyone because well, he spends a lot of time arguing against science. But then he spends a lot of time using science to back up his claims. That's part of what I meant when I said it was sloppy and contradicted itself.

Beany, I think if you read his essays you've got the gist. Omnivore's Dilemma is really not boring though. I thought it was quite good especially the first section.

Jay said...

I agree that the NY Times article pretty much said it all. The book didn't actually need to be a book.

That said, I loved OD. OD had meat on its bones. It was journalism - both of the food industry, and of the author's efforts at making his own meals from the ground up. IDF came across as a moral screed.

OD is also, ironically, the book that eventually made me a vegan. And that's part of why Pollan's rant against the Western diet didn't sit well with me. First, it discounts the science of nutritionism too heavily. I see his basic point: by dissecting food into its components, we're turning a blind eye to all of the nutritious components of food that our science can't see. But just because our science is imperfect doesn't mean it's useless - a conclusion Pollan leaned too heavily toward for my tastes. As a vegan, e.g., I'm quite glad that those awful nutritionists have realized I need B12 supplementation.

Second, as you covered excellently in your review, we DO have more information than our ancestors. We have a variety of nutritional, environmental and ethical considerations that our ancestors didn't have. This is going to influence how and what we eat. Just because the French only eat three meals a day, e.g., is no reason why switching to five or six smaller meals a day isn't an equally valid option. That's my own eating pattern, which I picked up years ago based on the advice of those awful nutritionists. And it works well for me.

Whoo. Didn't mean to rant. :) I'll shut up now. Thanks for listening!

arduous said...

Jay, I agree with you completely. I too loved OD, which is why I found IDF disappointing. Also, you're right. It's ironic that Pollan spends so much time discounting nutritionism, while he himself ends up spending pages telling us why omega-3 is important. I'm with you on the more smaller meals too. I tend to eat several small meals, and it works for me too. Otherwise my blood sugar drops too much and I get cranky. ;)

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