Defending the Dinner Table

Sep 05

Book Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan


A collective sigh of relief swept across the country this week as parents whisked their kids off to school and replaced careless summer days with new routines that will be rigidly in place before the leaves turn red.  It is an ideal time for new resolutions and specifically, a return to healthy habits that have evaporated in the summer heat (think daily slushies and ice cream cones.)  It won’t be long before the parental cheers give way to grumblings over tedious daily rituals – among the worst of them the packaged lunch preparation.  As a mother, I know the desire to ‘just get’er done’ is strong motivation to fill lunch boxes with single-serving cellophane-wrapped food products.  All the better that so many of them tout nutritional power – “low-fat” “contains vitamin C” “made with real fruit.”  But before stocking up on a year’s supply of , consider the arguments set out by Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food .  With summer beach paperbacks out of the way, it’s a great time to bite into an engaging read that will benefit the entire family.


Eat Food. Not too much.  Mostly plants.  These are the first three sentences in Michael Pollan’s book.  If you grasp the meaning of these words and believe you are able to act on them, then you needn’t read further.  But, you might want to anyways.  Pollan masterfully dissects why and how North Americans have adopted what is described as the “Western Diet” using wit and casual prose that is neither preachy not textbook-like.  The author, a Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley, humbly admits that he writes with the “authority of tradition and common sense” – but don’t be fooled, his common sense statements are backed by thorough research (the list of sources is more than 20 pages long.) He contends that what we consume today is not really “food”, nor the way we consume is really “eating” (i.e., alone, in the car, ahem…blogging) and explains how these munching habits have created “a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be overfed and undernourished.”


Pollan blames much of today’s eating woes on two influences: the rise of nutritionism and the industrialization of food.  Nutritionism, he explains, is an ideology (versus a science) that the key to understanding food is knowing its nutrients.  Therefore, it follows that such nutrients, when isolated from their foods, are as effective as the food itself.  In other words, “foods are the sum of their nutrient parts.”  One early example of nutritionism’s flawed reasoning, he asserts, was the proclaimed link between heart disease and saturated fat that led to the low-fat craze.  Suddenly consumers shunned red meat and did what they were told: eat more carbohydrates.  They continued to eat meat (white only, please), but lowered the proportion of meat by eating more “low-fat” carbohydrates, resulting in – surprise – more obesity.  It didn’t matter that these carbohydrates were made from refined grains and sugars – they just had to be low-fat – just as the nutritionists ordered. 


Nutritionism, however, was a boon to the growing industrialization of eating, says Pollan, because the food industry had only to latch onto the latest nutrition craze and re-package a food to make it marketable.  White bread, for instance, was found to cause major deficiency-related diseases in people during its early days because the grain had been robbed of all its nutrients during the refinement process.  The solution was to re-fortify the bread with vitamins and, voila!  No more deficiencies.  Pollan cites different studies that undermine this thinking, including one that determined there are additional benefits to eating whole grains that no nutrients alone or combined could provide.  He then explores the effect of industrialization on the food chain beginning at the most basic level – the soil.  Their fertilizers diminish the diversity of the soil which in turn reduces the nutritional quality of its crops that are then chemically preserved or refined for the final product.  Although some vitamins and minerals are added back, Pollan says, science does not “know enough to compensate for everything that processing does to whole foods.”  This science, however, enables industry to grow high-yielding varieties of crops that are most suitable for mechanical harvesting and processing, pushing aside hundreds, if not thousands of types of produce that once flourished on American farmland.  Today, four crops – soy, wheat, corn, and rice – account for two-thirds of the calories we eat. 


Now where does that leave the diner?  Surely, more confused and alone than ever.  Not only has the menu dwindled, so has our pleasure of eating.  But don’t despair.  Pollan offers numerous strategies to improve our dining habits.  Some are easy to follow, like: avoiding food products that make health claims; do all your eating at a table (“No, a desk is not a table.”); and shop along the periphery of the grocery store.  Other options may be more difficult to abide by, such as growing one’s own garden, and eating weeds whenever possible.  Similarly, his advice to pay more and eat less may be impossible for parents raising ravenous teenage boys – but there are at least a few tips that everyone can implement in their homes.


In Defense of Food is an enjoyable read that, at the very least, reminds us that food convenience has its costs (despite how cheap it is at the cash register.)  While parents will likely continue to buy granola bars or soda pop for their kids, Pollan’s book will help provide a more balanced approach to their children’s menus and remind them of the need to appreciate the value and flavour of whole, unprocessed food.  And above all, parents will remember that eating is as much for pleasure as it is for nutrition.  After all, at the end of a school day, there’s no better way to connect with your kids than at the kitchen table eating a home-cooked meal.  Even if it means listening to them complain about the smelly steamed broccoli.



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