In Defense of Food Summary

Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food

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In Defense of Food Summary

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When is the last time you went on a diet? Read a nutrition label and scanned for fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and protein? When is the last time you enjoyed a meal while doing so? For many eating a Western diet, these questions plague the dinner table, according to Michael Pollan. In his nonfiction book, In Defense of Food, Pollan provides an answer to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which he wrote two years prior. That question is, at its most basic, “What should we eat?” In Dilemma, Pollan discusses how for much of human history, the food people ate was largely tied to their culture. In a global culture, with so much variety available, the answer to this question has changed, and Pollan attempts to answer it in In Defense of Food.

Globalization is not the only factor in muddling our innate knowledge of what we should—and shouldn’t—eat. Marketers in the food industry have played a part, appealing to consumers’ subconscious desires in order to peddle their clients’ foods, regardless of whether or not those foods are healthy. Nutritional scientists are also to blame, telling society in one moment that a certain food is a great choice, and then a year later condemning it as the most dangerous thing a person could ever dare eat. Pollan also lays blame at the door of journalism, claiming that journalists have as much to gain from confusing the populace about nutrition as marketers and scientists.

Because of this confusion, Pollan says that humans have lost the knowledge of how to eat well, something that until recently was passed down from generation to generation. This leaves us with harmful advice and “food” that isn’t really food. Pollan suggests that not only do these foods, packed with so-called nutrients, destroy our health, but they also ruin our meals. The answer? Pollan recommends avoiding any food that your great-great-grandparents wouldn’t eat. If they wouldn’t consider it food, then neither should you.

In Defense of Food is as much about finding truly healthy eating habits as it is about enjoying food. The path to accomplishing this is not only to buy less food, but to ensure that food is of better quality. In other words, we need to buy more “real” food. Real food can be more expensive, but buying less not only mitigates monetary cost, but also enforces portion control. Pollan suggests that we shouldn’t follow scientific trends and consume food based on which nutrients are currently all the rage. Rather, we should focus on ecology and tradition to inform our dietary choices.

In Defense of Food is not a diet plan. It’s not a list of foods that will promote health. Rather, it is a treatise that examines our philosophy toward food. Pollan suggests that our approach to what we eat is far too complicated and that we could enjoy eating more (as we eat less) if only we would think about food the way our ancestors did. Doing so is the only way to prevent further deterioration of our relationship with food.

While In Defense of Food answers the questions Pollan posed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it actually stemmed from an article he wrote in 2007 called, “Unhappy Meals.” The article was published in The New York Times. In it, Pollan highlights the way we’ve stopped eating food and have shifted to eating nutrients.

One of the examples Pollan uses in In Defense of Food to prove his point is the “low fat” craze. The problem with this fad is two-fold. First, fat isn’t dangerous. Second, in order to make food products palatable after removing fat, manufacturers began to add more sugar. Too much sugar is dangerous and can lead to complications such as diabetes. Beyond that, sugar is addictive. Fat is not. The brain actually craves sugar the more you eat it. This low fat craze is just one example of the many nutrient-based fads that have, according to Pollan, damaged our relationships with food and our approach to health.

After providing history on the shift from food to nutrients, Pollan describes how we can break from this cycle. Quite plainly, Pollan suggests eating mostly a plant-based diet. He doesn’t recommend abandoning our omnivore ways, but rather suggesting that we should approach our diet with the moderation of our ancestors.

In Defense of Food saw almost immediate success, maintaining a six-week run following its 2008 publication on The New York Times’ bestseller list. Pollan is the author of several other works regarding the food industry, and has also appeared in interviews and documentaries, as well as his show, “Cooked.”