Sunday, March 09, 2008

Review: In Defense of Food

When Michael Pollan visited Google to give his talk, he explained the motivation behind this book: folks would come up to him and say, "I read half of The Omnivore's Dilemma and then stopped." When questioned as to why, the answer that came back was: "Every time I read a chapter, I found another thing I couldn't eat. I was afraid that when I was done I'd die of starvation."

In Defense of Food then, was Pollan's attempt to resolve this problem. Well, to begin with, the book is definitely much shorter and faster paced, to match American's lifestyle. Pollan himself sums it up in 7 words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." There's a hidden subtext though, which is: "Spend more time and money on your food."

The book is divided into 3 parts. The first part is an explanation of what he calls nutritionism, the modern tendency to reduce food to its nutrients and try to construct a diet in that fashion. He argues that we know too little about food to try to do this, though he grudgingly admits that this form of research (reductionism) is truly the only hope we have in the future of truly understanding how our bodies work and interact with the food we eat. The second part of the book is a tirade about how the modern Western diet is really responsible for most of the chronic diseases we see today. The last part of the book is prescriptive, where he elaborates on the 7 words presented and explains how to achieve your goal of eating healthy.

Those who know me also know that I'm an unabashed foodie. I love eating, I love food, and I enjoy all of it. I exclude very little from my diet, and will visit multiple cafes to eat what I like. Yet I am skeptical of this book. First of all, to extract the food and diet from a culture without regards to its origins and the environment that culture it came from reeks to me of the same kind of reductionist mistakes that Pollan criticizes in his tirade against the food industry and nutrition science. For instance, he spends a page or two praising the small Parisian portions --- yet when I visited France, that was not where I found the best food --- the best food was to be found outside the big cities, where French farmers will feed you like a farmer, and if you're a hungry cyclist you will be more than satisfied. It seems to me that to extract food as the only source of chronic disease out of a lifestyle is also reductionist, and food can't be the only answer when the real problem is that Americans sit in their cars to go places, refuse to walk or bicycle, and think that the Wii is the solution to exercise. His approach to solving the problem also leaves those of us who aren't great cooks (I'm a reasonably good one, but I would never call myself great) stuck.

So read this book if you must, though I don't think it's nearly as good as The Omnivore's Dilemma. But in the grand scheme of things, I don't believe it provides any more of a solution than its predecessor.
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