Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book 273: In Defense of Food

"What would happen if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in systems we call food chains, or food webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species coevolve with other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of interdependence:
I'll feed you if you spread around my genes."

Dates read: November 3-7, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times Bestseller

Some of the weirder things about me are my food quirks. A dedicated lifelong picky eater, I have lots of what I refer to as my "weird food things". I don't like my food to touch. I have never liked milk in my cereal. I hate condiments of all kinds. Cilantro tastes like soap to me (this one is genetic). I've been a vegetarian since I was fifteen. As much as I know they're weird, I get touchy when people question them. The choices about what food to put inside your body are some of the most personal ones of all.

But also, the choices we make about food are influenced heavily by the processed food and nutrition industries. They're the ones who advertise our foods to us, who tell us what's "good for you". But what if those people are ignorant at best, or deceitful at worst? Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food examines the powers-that-be related to eating, and proposes his alternative to listening to the many voices who'd like to get our attention about what we're putting in our mouths. He sums up his philosophy right at the beginning of the book: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. He then proceeds to explain what exactly he means by each of those three tenets.

The bulk of the book is focused on the definition of "food". Pollan asserts that it's not what we might instinctively think, which would consist of pretty much everything we eat. Instead, Pollan rails against processed food, which he considers unworthy of even bearing the label. He also describes his issues with food science, which he criticizes as overly concerned with individual nutrients, too closely tied to the business of food, and for its history of inaccuracy. The latter two parts of his philosophy (not too much, mostly plants) are much more straightforward: we eat too much, both because our bodies do not recognize what we eat as actual food, and also because our rituals around eating have drastically changed. And plants are easily identifiable as real food, and very healthy for the body.

These are not bad ideas to keep in mind when thinking about one's own diet. More foods with little or no processing, more time and energy put into meals made of these "whole" foods, more fruits and vegetables. And there's no question that American diets are, as a whole, failing to keep Americans in good health. Obesity rates continue to rise, as do rates of diabetes and cancer. Clearly, something about the way we eat isn't working, and Pollan's suggestions make a lot of instinctive sense.

But I found this a troubling book in its own way, to be completely honest. Pollan gleefully dismisses science related to food and nutrition, leaving him free to assert whatever he wants without any pressure to support his positions, because after all, food science is bunk (he does use science to support some of his positions when he can find it, which is hypocritical). As science as a whole feels increasingly under threat, this is concerning to me. Also problematic is the amount of privilege reflected in Pollan's suggestions. The ability to access a place where fresh, whole food is sold, the ability to afford that same food, the ability to find the time to make that trip and spend that money, and then turn around and prepare the food, assumes a great deal about what people's lives look like. While he might tell readers to not eat anything that our grandmothers wouldn't recognize as food, I live a life that neither of my grandmothers would recognize as at familiar. So while the book did inspire me to think more critically about my own consumption patterns, I feel very comfortable in not taking it especially seriously. There are some decent ideas here, but I can't affirmatively recommend a book so dismissive of science.

One year ago, I was reading: Brother of the More Famous Jack

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Three years ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato

Four years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Five years ago, I was reading: The Guest Room

No comments:

Post a Comment