Tuesday, December 08, 2009

In Defense of Food

I've enjoyed the writing of Michael Pollan in the past, mainly his column in the New York Times Magazine. He writes eloquently and interestingly about food. In Defense of Food is my first experience with his book-length writing.

The book itself is summarized succinctly on the cover: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It sounds like reasonable advice, and inside he makes the case for the pithy slogan. He argues that much of what we eat is not food and attacks the Western Diet and the nutritionism movement that focuses on individual compounds and not on whole foods. He describes what he calls "The American paradox": despite a preoccupation with health and nutrition, the US increasingly unhealthy, and proposes some dietary changes to address that fact, elaborating on the cover's mantra. (There's no reason to think this doesn't apply to Canadians as well)

Unfortunately, this book got under my skin right from the start. From the beginning, there is an anti-science tone, even putting the word in scare quotes, "advising you to reject the advice of science and industry" and arguing that current limitations of scientific understanding mean it's not enough to go by when deciding what to eat. Well, if not science then what? "Tradition and common sense" is the answer. That sounds good, and may even be a reasonable starting point but outside scientific rationalism, tradition and common sense can lead down the path to pseudoscience. And we see this fairly often with unproven traditional medicines that "have been used for thousands of years!"

In fairness, he's mostly speaking about science in a narrower sense and uses some science to back his arguments, but the opening tone feels otherwise. The real science he's attacking is reductionist nutritionism, the kind of thinking that gives us 'trans-fats are bad', 'eat more omega-3s', etc., distilling food down into more basic elements. It's not hard to be frustrated by reports of what's good or bad for you changing seemingly daily, and he makes a reasonable case for rethinking that approach. Unfortunately, this poses another problem for Pollan. He attempts to debunk nutritional science but at the same time depends on it to support his own arguments about what kind of food we should be eating. The inconsistency is obvious, and Pollan himself is aware of it. He does attempt to address this problem, but never really succeeds at doing it satisfactorily (at least for me).

This isn't the only logical flaw in his thesis. He appeals to tradition, but what gets traditions started? How did our ancestors know what works and what doesn't? How do we figure it out to start new traditions? Trial and error is one way, and historically possibly the main way, these things have been worked out. For example, one complaint is that our bodies aren't used to the new Western diet and its manufactured foods, we get sicker because of it (eg. increased rates of obesity and diabetes) and we should move back to eating "real" food. This may well be true, but as he also notes, the same thing happened when cow (and other animal) milk was introduced to the human diet. Now, milk seems as natural and wholesome a food as any other, but would Pollan have argued against milk as a food if he were around back then? "We've adapted!" seems like a probable defense, but how do you adapt or learn or improve without trying new things?

While this all seems quite negative, the book was interesting and easy-to-read, even if some of the support for the thesis had holes. Despite some flawed argumentation, In Defense of Food does offer some food for thought regarding our philosophy towards food - what it is and how to think about it - even if you walk away not agreeing.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan


Bayman said...

"The best thing to eat is what great-great grandmother calls food"???

My great-great grandparents grew up on the British mariner's diet of salted pork/cod, butter biscuits, pickled cabbage, molasses and Jamaican rum, (all with extra butter and salt). Relatives I know who still live on this diet tend to suffer from high blood pressure, obsesity, cardiac arrest and liver failure.

I think it's important for culture to adapt to changing environments.

Rob said...

I tried to get through that book but the contradictions you mentioned between his criticism of nutrition science and then his reliance on it to prove his point, sometimes within the same paragraph, annoyed me way too much.
Unfortunately, I never got to the point where you say he addressed this problem.
I disagree with the fundamental thesis. The problem with our food is, like many other problems in this world, is a result of big profit-driven business, not nutritional science.
BTW I'm not super anti-business, I just think that business creates some problems, just as it is able to solve some problems. Food is really cheap and plentiful right now, it's just not particularly healthy.

Anonymous Coward said...

I agree with the premise as far as pointing the finger at the lack of food culture in the United States (and to a lesser extent, because of multiculturalism, Canada ). Basically he says that the Mediterranean diet is very healthy, but people there have had thousands of years to shape it, settlers in North America had to deal with new conditions, fewer crops, and thus a much simpler diet. Because of this vacuum it has been easy to adopt all the modern fat-rich, corn-syrup filled, salty junk that the agrifood industry fills our supermarkets with. Honestly for the most part I only visit the fruit/veggies and fish/meat sections, which surprisingly constitute a minority of the area in there. But give it time...

Kamel said...

Rob, I actually don't really think you and Pollan are that far apart. He uses a non-traditional definition of food (see Bayman's, quote, which is only part of his 'prescription'), but the implication is that big profit-driven business, is the reason we eat more food that doesn't fall into his definition and why it's not particularly healthy. This is something he talks about in much more detail in his previous book The Omnivore's Dilemma, but he does make reference to various food lobbies shaping the eating landscape in the USA in In Defense of Food.

Regarding nutritional science, Pollan does devote a good part of the book to discussing food culture (and lack thereof) as AC mentions. Part of the argument is that nutritional reductionism erodes any sort of food culture. The other, and more problematic, part is that it has limitations, focusing on one aspect of food at a time without looking at the whole. Of course, limitation is no reason to discount it all and his writing does reek of the naturalistic fallacy.

In the end I see the book sort of like a summer blockbuster movie. If you can turn a blind eye to some of the plot holes there is some good stuff in there, which I guess isn't really a ringing endorsement.

Bayman said...

I think he's right to focus on the importance of culture, this is interesting to discuss. I have to disagree that there's some kind of problem due to a LACK of American food culture.

America has a very definite food culture, which Rob kind of alluded to. But it's not just about corporate culture. McDonald's and Walmart strongly exemplify deeper American values I think.

American food culture is all about bigger, more, faster. Just a part of the general American cultural scence - produce more, consume more, do it all as quickly as possible. It's a culture that's well adapted to an environment of infinite space an natural resource, which up until lately, America has been. And it's worked exceedingly well within that environment. It's built the world's strongest economy through depressions and world wars. Within this context, the approach to food has fit in well with the goal of promoting population growth to fill the available space, and keeping a largely manual-labor based workforce maximally energized for resource mining and manufacturing.

It's only lately that Americans have become richer, more sedentary and oil-less that our food culture(and other tendencies) have started to show signs of maladaptation.

Eventually, American culture will adapt to changing environmental realities. I don't think there's any need to force a reversion back to some even more outdated cultural practices of bygone eras, or to try to copy what happens to work well for people in Greece or Japan or something.

J.Garlough said...

What I took from this book was not an anti-science tone per say, but more an attack the profit-driven industries (food processors, distributors, etc…) who turn scientific understanding first into headlines and breaking news stories, and then into the boxes/bags/bottles which we find in those “middles isles” of the supermarket.

My grandparents ate many different varieties of plants, woodland creatures and domesticated animals.

When the Bayblabers of yore decided that it was important for everyone to have some iodine in their diet the method of administration was carefully reviewed, researched , debated, discussed before, during (and well after) it was added to salt.

Today when a research is done around a nutrient such as Omega 3 oils, it seems that the headlines take priority over any summer blockbuster movie and in less than a month I’m seeing “Omega 3” on the packages of HUNDREDS of different supermarket SKUs.

I enjoyed last year’s post on Bill C-51 and wonder if it applies to deep-fried, omega 3 fortified Twinkies which just *happen* to appear at the check-out counter beside People Magazine’s headline on the health benefits of omega 3?

Hopefully not. I could make millions selling those Twinkies.

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