Truth time: This book wasn’t as compelling as I expected it to be. I bought it years ago, and because of my habit of buying books (much) faster than I can read them, it sat on my shelf until just a couple weeks ago. I bought it not long after it was first published, when this idea – that how we were being told to eat might not be the best way to eat – first became popular. We clearly still have a long way to go in terms of changing the accessibility and affordability of whole foods in our society. But I like to think that at least a little bit of what Pollan talked about in In Defense of Food has taken hold. Organic fruits and vegetables are a tiny bit more readily available; farmers’ markets have risen in popularity; trans fats have disappeared; more and more discussions are being had about sugar and good fats and whole grains. Some progress has been made.
What I found most fascinating, if not a little too in-depth at times, was the history behind how the Western diet came to be. And how food science and nutritionism aren’t necessarily the best ways to decide how we eat. Some of my favorite tidbits:
- How much each individual’s makeup can affect how your body processes certain foods. (pg. 63)
- The entire reductionist theory, especially that nutrients by themselves provide the same benefit as when eaten in the food in which they’re found is actually false. I consider myself to be fairly aware of what to eat/not to eat, but this surprised me. Although, when you think about it, it makes sense. For example: “The typical reductive analysis of isolated nutrients could not explain the improved health of the whole-grain eaters.” (pg. 110)
- Learning WHY organic fruits and vegetables are better was like a lightbulb went off in my head. All this time I thought it was mainly because ingesting pesticides wasn’t a good idea. But one of the bigger reasons is the difference in soil and growth time. “It stands to reason that a chemically simplified soil would produce chemically simplified plants.” (pg. 115)
- “USDA figures show a decline in the nutrient content of the forty-three crops it has tracked since the 1950s.” (pg. 118)
- The food we eat today, since it is nutritionally less beneficial (see above), means we’re eating more but getting less essential nutrients. “Clearly the achievements of industrial agriculture have come at a cost: It can produce a great many more calories per acre, but each of those calories may supply less nutrition than it formerly did.” (pg. 121)
While I struggled through the information-dense first half of the book, I found the second half much easier to digest (ha!). My favorite thing about Pollan is how understanding he is that eating as we should has become extraordinarily difficult in our current culture. The suggestions he provides in the last part of the book are fairly reasonable, and made me feel like as long as I tried to follow them to whatever extent possible, it was better than nothing.
I may have had a hard time reading what was a relatively short book, but I’m glad I did. I felt like I learned quite a bit about how we eat has changed over time, and what we can do to rectify it. Now let’s go eat some plants!