In Defense of Food is Michael Pollan’s look at how the Western diet is damaging our health.
- Nutritionism, or looking at ingredients one by one, is a bad way of choosing our food
- Avoid processed food
- Eat more natural and whole food, more plants and more leaves
In Defense of Food starts by making a great case against nutritionism (or the science of looking at ingredients one by one).
The Nutritionist Drift
Michael Pollen says that in the last 50 years we switched from food to “nutritionism”, such as an approach to nutrition that is based on nutrients.
Today we have processed foods that are modified, stripped of original nutrients, add some vitamins and sell it as “healthy”.
And to understand the labels, we need nutritionists to explain us what we’re actually putting in our shopping cars -and in our bodies little later-.
The rise of food science ushered a new era that allowed processed food to become healthier than natural, whole food. Simply by adding “healthy” ingredients, marketing was leading many people to believe that they were eating good stuff.
God reading this part of In Defense of Food hit me hard.
I could vibe with what Pollen is saying here.
Sadly I come from a family where there was little knowledge of food. The first generation to experience modern comfort, my parents had the feeling that industrialization and modern standards were improving our nutrition and that packaged food were either healthy or “couldn’t be too bad”.
I grew up eating crap, super crap. For example, huge bowls of Kellogg’s cereals while I was reading the label. I thought all the added vitamins of my Coco Pops were going to make me stronger and bigger.
I wish someone could have told me I was poisoning myself.
Pollen says that nutrition to day is a bit like a religion with preachers and followers.
We ascribe to that diet or this other diet and listen to this guru instead of that other one. They tell us which foods are bad and which are good and how much B12 we should consume each day.
The problem of seeing food in a dualism, as in “bad food” VS “good food”, “protein VS carbs” or “omnivore VS vegetarian”.
Nutritionism is Misleading
Nutritionism is based on slogan that most of us don’t understand.
Imagine you are at a supermarket and see a pasta brand with written “low carb pasta” and “imitation of pasta”. You would probably think that “imitation of pasta” is bad and “low carb pasta” is healthy.
But they are both the same: they are both highly processed imitations of actual pasta (and by law the producers don’t have to label it as “imitation” anymore as long as it’s not nutritionally inferior).
The problem of focusing on nutrients is that a processed food might brag a stronger nutrition label than a real, natural food. But that doesn’t make it better.
The Low Fat Blunder
In 1977 the Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs discouraged people to limit their intake of saturated fat. It was based on two unconvincing studies and on hypothesis instead of strong science.
The hypothesis, called the Lipid Hypothesis was that saturated fats and dairy products caused chronic heart diseases.
From then on, processed foods started becoming more popular as peopled loved the new labels of “low fat”, “low cholesterol”, or “high fiber”.
Western Diet is Making Us Sick
The western diet based on processed foods and based on flour and sugar is making us sick. And the lack of fruits, whole grains and vegetables.
The good news is that switching from the western diet and eating more natural and whole foods can also revert the effects and make us healthier.
What Makes Food Healthy?
Pollen says that fresh foods from animals and plants from nutrient-rich soils makes for a healthy diet.
We have no idea these days about what food grows on nutrient soils, but we do know about fresh. And our food is less and less fresh.
What’s exactly processed food, or refined food?
Food producers want their food to taste better and to last longer. To do so, they remove and simplify its composition. Some nutrients are added, but those are up to the producers and sometimes based on what science recommends in that specific period (and we’ve already seen how wrong that can be with fat).
Nutritionism Shields and Protects Processed Food
But whenever the food industry got it wrong -such as with trans fat and low fats-, there has never been a “return to the origins” to natural and whole food.
It’s always been about “the bad nutrient”, and fixing it by adding the latest new good ingredients.
The food industry needs nutritionism. It can hide behind and keep hammering out new repackaged and re-branded food. Maybe along with the new supplement pill.
The Solution: Simple & Natural
The solution for Pollan takes a leaf out of his other book Food Rules:
- Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t have eaten (great-grandmother if you’re young)
- Stay away from products with more than five ingredients (you’ll stay away from processed food)
- Don’t pick food with big health claims
And here’s what to eat:
- Plants (especially leaves, and as long as they don’t come from high fertilized soils)
- Many different things (keep it varied)
- Cooked food (another great way to get rid of processed food)
Real Life Applications
Pick Food With Less Than 5 Ingredients
I loved this rule of thumb to stay away from processed food. Indeed even lots of bread loaves today are highly processed and with this rule of thumb you’ll stick to more natural products.
Always Be Dubious of Food Marketing Labels
Stay on the alert for all dubious marketing labels on the food you consume. Keep in mind that this box here got a stamp of approval from the American Heart Association.
Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants
Three key tenets also similar to Food Rules
Deterministic Vision of “Nutritionism”
Michale Pollen explanation of why we shifted from talking about food to nutritients doesn’t convince me. He says that we started talking about nutrients since the US committee chose the wording “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake”.
I think that when we talk of major, industry wife shifts, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single moment and say “that’s where it all started”.
Nutritionism does not make us healthier?
The author says that nutritionism, as in the scientific approach to food, is not making us healthier. The evidence he uses is that of the low-fat products we have been consuming for years.
But that’s a very biased point of view in my opinion. The problem was not nutritionism, but the bad science it was based on.
Let’s not mistake the moon for the finger pointing at it.
Great View on Nutritionism
Pollan’s view of nutritionism in In Defense of Food is quite groundbreaking.
And it makes a lot of sense when nutritionism is applied to food making. Human’s hubris of being better than nature at engineering food has failed countless times by now -and damaged our health in the process-. Of course, it’s not just hubris but also profit seeking.
I really enjoy Pollan’s work as he tries to inject objectivity in a field where too often dogmatism trumps science and research of truth.
In Defense of Food taught to look less at labels and more to where the food comes from. And that was golden to me.