Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December, 2009

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Posted by nliakos on December 19, 2009

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:


  • 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.


  • 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.

Posted in Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 2 Comments »

French Women Don’t Get Fat

Posted by nliakos on December 2, 2009

by Mireille Guiliano. Abridged on Audio Adventures, read by the author. Random House 2005.

When I lived in France from 1970 until 1973, I observed that the statement “French women don’t get fat” is indeed true, for the most part. I can’t remember meeting or even seeing any fat men, women, or children while I lived in France. In fact, I picked up a nice French habit (or maybe I shed an American habit) while I was there that kept me relatively slender for years after I returned: never eating between meals. I don’t remember deciding not to snack; the opportunity just never came up. I also observed that French people tended to have rather small portions of many foods (rather than large portions of a few foods), and they never had seconds (unlike the Swiss, who, if you ordered a fish in a restaurant, would insist on bringing you two fish). Moreover, those fancy pastries were not a daily thing with them but were only brought out for special occasions, and even then–only one per person!

Mireille Guiliano, married to an American and living now in New York, confirmed my observations and added many of her own. None of what she advises is new, but taken all together it constitutes a very rational and reasonable approach to food (eat wholesome food, organic if possible, and take pleasure, not guilt, in it; and if you overindulge at one meal, then compensate by cutting back on another) and exercise (don’t worry about joining a gym or getting sweaty, but build additional activity into your daily life). One can easily see that by following her advice, one would be able to maintain one’s weight at a comfortable level.

Guiliano spends rather a lot of time singing the praises of wine (especially champagne; she is the CEO of Clicquot Inc. in New York), which I don’t like and never drink if I can avoid it, and (high-quality, dark) chocolate, which I am very fond of. If you need to justify your consumption of either, this is the book for you.

The audio narration is well done and I enjoyed listening to Guiliano’s accent, but am not sure if someone unfamiliar with French would be able to understand everything she says, as she pronounces some English words the French way and sprinkles the text with plenty of French phrases, not all of which she translates (most would be obvious from the spelling if you were to read the book, but if you were only listening to it and did not know any French, you might not understand).

A nice book, lots of good advice. It makes me want to have a copy so I can refer to it from time to time. In the meantime I am trying not to take shortcuts to save steps.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »