In Defense of Food (CBR4 #6)

“The problem starts with the nutrient. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, a seemingly unavoidable appraoch that even nutrtionsist who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.” (p. 62).

I’m taking a small break from the Parasol Protectorate (no worries if you’re following along – bless you – I’ll be back with Heartless sometime next week). 

My reading habits are odd. Well, at least to me they seem odd in contrast to the other readers I know. I basically have two speeds: things that are light and fluffy and fun for the imagination and things that are about information. (I lump biographies, which I love, into the second category.) It’s probably the same reason I really enjoy watching Master Class and Visionaries on the OWN network, but I diverge. This is a review of the second kind of book, but first some background on where I am, as an eater, reading this book.

I grew up a pudgy kid in a fat family. Only my little sister was skinny, and unfortunately for her, that didn’t really survive puberty. When I was young my mom did what she could to keep me, her eldest daughter, physically active. There were gymnastics lessons (which I flunked out of), ice skating, and girl scouts. But the most important thing for me by far was swimming. I swam on two different competitive teams until I was nine years old. And then we moved. No more teams, no more intense physical activity for a kid who had terrible eating habits and a propensity to be on the plump side. This plus puberty’s arrival at age 11 and, violá, we have a weight issue.

I was also one of those picky eaters that parents have nightmares about. I’m not kidding. There was a time where I would only eat chicken nuggets, macaroni & cheese, applesauce, plain fast food cheeseburgers, and French fries. Oh, and bagels. Otherwise I would eat whatever the minimum number of bites required was and go to bed hungry. I just didn’t like the taste of most foods. My mom, bless her, would ‘hide’ vegetable in things and eventually got me eating what looked like a regular diet by the time I was in middle elementary school, but it was always a challenge. It also involved invoking the ‘you will eat everything on your plate’ rule which has absolutely ruined my ability to tell when I’m full. I didn’t want to be a bad kid, I wasn’t doing it to be obstinate; I just didn’t like many foods.

As I got older I gained weight, and then more weight, took some off, gained back even more. This is an unfortunate cycle for many people, and not just the fruit and vegetable phobic such as me. (Yes, I don’t really like fruits either.) A few years ago I hit my all time high weight for a second time, this time without the excuse of grieving the death of a parent and the depression meds that went along with the initial gain and decided I could not do this anymore. Since then I have taken steps to correct my relationship with food on both an emotional and consumption level. I’m certainly not where I want to be, but I’m moving in the right direction.

This brings me to the book at hand.

As someone with a negative relationship with food I simply love and was in desperate need of the straightforward nature of Michael Pollan’s writing. This is also a book with no guilt for the eater. The general feel of the first few chapters is of course you don’t know what to eat, society has stripped  us of the cultural norms of eating and filled everyone’s head with nutrient based eating and the convenience foods of the Western Diet. The Western Diet isn’t good for anyone, so let’s break down what you should be eating, you hungry little omnivore. But more masculine.

The eater’s manifesto is simply this: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Pollan drops this information on the cover, and again in the very first line of the book. It is that important. He then proceeds to spend the next 200 pages explaining why this would be so hard for someone to come to on their own.  He tracks the history of the way we think of food, the climate of nutritionism (a term for viewing food only through the lens of its component chemicals), and how the things we think we know- such as fat is bad for you and leads to heart disease- may not be true. Or that they may not be completely accurate. There is a lot about food that we just don’t know, but the evidence is piling up that the things we think we know just aren’t so.

Pollan comes to writing from a journalistic background and therefore is not hesitant to give the readers the studies he read in the footnotes. Even better, there is a Source List at the back of the book which is broken down by section as well as an Index for easy hunting of information. Ideas are unpacked, clarified, and explained. While I do not call this a book that I read for fun, and sometimes I certainly caught myself wanting to skim, it is a well written work.

 It is also a well organized book. Pollan has divided An Eater’s Manifesto into three parts. The first “The Age of Nutritionism”, works to explain how the Nutritional Industrial Complex (the food industry and their lobbyists, nutrition science, and journalists) have upended the way we interact with food. And how what we eat barely meets the definition of food, and how we consume it isn’t really eating in the historical sense. The second part of the book, “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization”, works to chronicle how dramatically the way we eat has changed since the arrival of agriculture and what the western diet is doing to us. There is also a lot of time spent discussing the roles of chronic disease in our day to day life. The third and final section, “Getting Over Nutritionism” lays out and firmly unpacks the manifesto. Food, real and proper food, is defined, guidelines for what to shop for and what to eat are laid out, as well as suggestions for how to go about eating.

These guidelines aren’t rules, but suggestions from a friend who cares and has done the research. You may be thinking why do I need to read this book, but if you’ve ever wondered why people are practically begging you to go to a farmer’s market or what the problem is with the boxed foods in your pantry really are and why people harp on the benefits of leafy vegetables and are looking for someone to answer those questions but not force radical change on you (I have a fear of being told to go vegan) than this is a book for you to consider reading.

Even if you only read to find out why I will try to never eat margarine again.

About Katie

Museum professional, caffeine junkie, book lover, student of history, overall goofball.

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