by Michael Pollan. Penguin 2008.
Since reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma last year, I’ve been trying to avoid processed food (loosely defined by Pollan as packaged food items containing more than five ingredients). I’ve had some successes (supermarket moments where I have put something back after scanning the ingredient list) and a few failures (Country Crock tastes so good on a matzoh!), but it raised my consciousness. In Defense of Food goes further in telling us how to eat more healthily while enjoying it more; Pollan condenses his personal eating advice into a small number of general guidelines, the first and most general being EAT FOOD. NOT TOO MUCH. MOSTLY PLANTS. The rest of the book is an elaboration on these three ideas, which, if we succeed in implementing them, should make us healthier by enabling us to stop eating what Pollan calls “the Western diet,” but which is perhaps better called “the American diet,” as many Westerners (the French, the Italians, and the Greeks are all mentioned specifically) do not eat it.
Part Three of the book, “Getting Over Nutritionism,” provides some specific guidelines, including the no-more-than-5-ingredient rule. Here they are, in Pollan’s words, with a bit of commentary from me:
1. EAT FOOD.
- Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Mine wouldn’t recognize canola oil, which is supposed to be good, as oils go. But as it is made from seeds, maybe it’s best to go easy even on that.
- Avoid food products containing ingredients that are (a) unfamiliar, (b) unpronounceable, (c) more than five in number, or that include (d) high-fructose corn syrup. I’ve been working on this one for a while now.
- Avoid food products that make health claims. (“For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food…. Meanwhile, the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute.”)
- Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. Hey! I still need to buy flour, sugar (not too much! I know), dried beans, rice and pasta, oil and peanut butter… but I get the general idea.
- Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Shop at farmers’ markets or subscribe to community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms instead. I want to try the CSA idea if I can find a farm around here, but I don’t like our local farmer’s market. It’s inconvenient to go to [only Thursday afternoons] and has only about 4-5 vendors offering little variety.
- Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. (Grains, which are seeds, are too nutritionally rich; too much makes us fat, and they have the wrong kind of fat, omega-6 fatty acids instead of the healthier omega-3s in leaves.)
- You are what what you eat eats too. This advice is basically for meat-eaters but also applies to those like me who consume dairy products, eggs and fish.
- If you have the space, buy a freezer. Use it to store fresh local produce and grass-fed meat.
- Eat like an omnivore. The more diverse the better
- Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. It doesn’t have to be labeled organic, although it might be.
- Eat wild foods when you can. The only rule that sometimes conflicts with what is good for the environment, because some wild foods are endangered. But wild greens such as purslane and lamb’s quarters are particularly nutritious. And the vlita so beloved by my Greek friends are a great example.
- Be the kind of person who takes supplements. But don’t take them, necessarily.
- Eat more like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. or the Indians. Or the Greeks. In other words, eat a more traditional cuisine. All of them have stood the test of time, and the people that developed them are still around.
- Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
- Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet. Go for the whole kit and kaboodle. We don’t really know what it is that makes these diets healthier, and it doesn’t really matter.
- Have a glass of wine with dinner. I don’t think I can do this one. I really dislike wine.
NOT TOO MUCH.
- Pay more. Eat less. Get better quality food and enjoy it slowly.
- Eat meals. Don’t snack, don’t eat in the car or at your desk.
- Do all your eating at a table. See above.
- Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does. Avoid convenience store food.
- Try not to eat alone. Many of us eat more when we eat alone.
- Consult your gut. Don’t eat when you have satisfied your hunger. Be aware of how much you have consumed.
- Eat slowly. Enjoy food more.
- Cook, and if you can, plant a garden. Easy for him to say! He lives in Berkeley. As I write, snow is falling outside my house in Maryland. But the advice to cook is definitely good.
The great thing about all this is that as consumers, we have it within our power to make better choices. For most of us, it is not difficult to find alternatives to the diet foisted on us by the food industry and nutritionists. But actually making the switch is challenging. Old habits are hard to break, and American food is so cheap and available in such quantity that we have forgotten how to eat in a healthy way.