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Monday, March 31, 2008

In Defense of Food

Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food deserves every bit of the praise that's being heaped on it. It's a natural follow-up to last year's blockbuster, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Much of what he says you already know intuitively: The Western Diet (bad). Nutritionism, defined as eating based on "nutrients" alone (bad). Traditional ethnic and aboriginal diets (Mediterranean, Japanese, Greek, Indian, even French (good). Eating in the car (bad). Sitting down to enjoy meals with friends and family (good). Packaged, processed foods (bad). Packaged food that makes health claims (bad). Fresh fruits and vegetables (good). Farmers markets and CSA plans (better). Growing your own food (still better). Fast food (bad). Cooking at home and from scratch (good). And so on.

But there's plenty here that was new to me. I finally understand, for example, why it's important to look for grass-FINISHED meats. And eggs from chickens that have been "pastured". Did you know that the ultimate best source of the all-important Omega-3 fatty acids is green LEAVES? Fish, yes, but it's because the fish eat seaweed. And that one of the best sources of Omega-3 is purslane - that weed I go after with such a vengeance! It's all about food CHAINS, it turns out.

This isn't a diet book, or a recipe book. It's not at all preachy. And you won't find any specific recommendations about what to eat. Rather, it's a highly readable history of the mess the scientists and nutritionists and yes - the government - have gotten us into, and a hopeful message about how we can, individually, make more informed choices. Reading it will make you want to rush to the store and load up on produce. At least that's what I did.


Blogger Superdad said...

I always feel conflicted when I read about the evils of corporate farming and manufactured/processed foods. I completely understand the arguments against them and I mostly agree with them and as a family we shop, cook and eat in avoidance of these evils. But there is one great big argument in favor of them – people in this country do not routinely starve to death. For all its evils, corporate farming and mass produced foods have made food accessible to everyone.

Anyway, I have been hearing great things about this book. I’ll have to add it to my list.

1:51 PM  
Blogger SuperMom said...

I realize where we live probably isn't representative of the majority of America, but I have noticed more and more people concerning themselves with the same things Mom always talked about which was, basically, eat food in its most pure state. Unprocessed, whole grain choices are more widely available now than I ever remember them being in the past, it seems farmer's markets are popping up more and more places and finally people are awaking to the evils of high fructose (and others) corn syrup.

But I blame the govt for most of the ills. Corporations just want to make money. If tariffs are removed and it's cheaper to use pure sugar than a processed syrup, they will and healthier choices will be more widely available.

And don't even get me started about these d*&% ethanol mandates that are screwing up our entire food supply.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

sounds like an ideal source for a double crostic.

4:18 PM  
Blogger DoTheResearch said...

I have heard Michael Pollan speak in person about this book, and also on NPR, and he always points to omega-3s as one of the big problems. However, I think his argument is misleading. Fish do get omega-3s from eating algae in the ocean, but the type of omega-3s they get are called EPA and DHA, which have dozens of very well-documented health benefits. However, in plants, you get ALA, which is a different kind of omega-3. ALA gets converted in the body into EPA and DHA, but it can be an inefficient conversion if you are eating a western diet. Western diets are full of an omega-6 fatty acid called LA, which also gets converted into another omega-6 fatty acid called ARA. A key enzyme is required for LA to be converted into ARA, and ALA into EPA/DHA, and they compete for this enzyme. If you are eating a lot of LA in a western diet, then very little of the ALA will be converted into EPA and DHA that eating fish gives you. I know this sounds complicated, but that is why Mr. Pollan's argument that you can get the omega-3s in fish by eating leafy greens is not accurate.

I also like Superdad's point about people not starving. There is a similar point, in that people today live much longer than they did a couple hundred years ago. I have never seen anyone advocating going back to a traditional diet fully address this point.

12:12 AM  
Blogger sixty-five said...

Interesting point, about the enzymes. Though it sort of smacks of the kind of "nutritionism" that came across to me as the the more important thrust of the book. You can get so caught up with all the ARA/LA/EPA/DHA stuff that you forget to enjoy your dinner. Pollan does advocate taking vitamin and Omega-3 supplements, and eating small oily fish (sardines, eg). But the "haiku" on the cover: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" really sums it all up. It seems difficult to find fault with this deceptively simple advice.

12:46 AM  

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