Book 48: In Defence of Food – Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of the essential ‘Food Rules’. The book is a short collection of ‘rules’ or guidelines to help people make better decisions around food. It’s a wonderful little book but it turns out that ‘Food Rules’ came from a more detailed book. Pollan wrote ‘In Defence of Food’ prior to ‘Food Rules’ and it gives a level of detail not found in the follow up.

In Defence of Food’ is an ‘Eating Manifesto‘ — a guide to diet in three parts.

  1. Eat food.
  2. Mostly plants.
  3. Not too much.

These three parts make up Pollan’s essential (and memorable) advice:

‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.’

Each part is built around clear, straightforward advice (‘Don’t eat anything you’re grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’) that combines current scientific understanding with traditional food wisdom from around the world.

In the first part, he describes the many ways that the food industry has subverted our concept of what food is. He talks about the rise of ‘nutritionalism’ — a paradigm in which complex foods are reduced to simple nutrients (which are then redesigned into whatever food scientists declare most healthy at the time.)

Take margarine — the lipid hypothesis of the 70s (all but debunked now) demonised saturated fat, so food scientists created a low-fat alternative. It seemed like a good idea at the time but both the research and science was shonky — the transfats in good old margarine were deadly. Nevermind though, margarine was simply tweaked in the lab and re-marketed with whatever nutrient was currently in vogue (no-trans fats/low salt/high omega 3s) only to transform again when new research appears. In this way, nutritionalism has been a boon for food corporations and their profits but mostly detrimental for us. It turns out that the complexity of whole foods is not easily reduced to nutrients and reconstructed in a factory.

Pollan argues for a return to a more traditional diet. Far removed from the research labs, nutritionists and food scientists — he offers up highly practical ‘eating algorithms’ to help everyday people make healthier, more wholesome food decisions. A big part of the manifesto is also reintroducing a joy back into our relationship with food to replace the low-grade anxiety that typifies many people’s relationship to their diet.

‘In Defence of Food’ is a valuable book and a potentially life-changing read. I can’t help but think the shorter ‘Food Rules’ might be the better book — I’ll re-read it soon and report back. In the meantime this is a wise book that unravels a lot of confusion and circular debate around food and nutrition.

Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “Book 48: In Defence of Food – Michael Pollan

  1. You’ve piqued my curiosity. There’s such a debate these days on which diet is best, what you should or shouldn’t eat for xyz, that I’m convinced that any statistic can be used to support any dietary argument. It sounds like the book goes into better details on the why and hows of the money making food industry.


    1. Yeah he kind of sidesteps the whole debate by returning to what worked in the past…but he’s a serious journalist who considers the science and current state of research. He points out that the long term studies of diet across populations are essentially impossible to get right so you’ve got financially invested groups cherry picking data points and going all in with them for profit- more or less. Anyway! I enjoyed your post

      Liked by 1 person

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