This past Monday I finished reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. I had at one time borrowed his The Omnivore’s Dilemma from the library, but was unable to finish it before I had to return it (the hold list was quite long). Then I saw the video of him at Authors at Google and thought I’d give this book a try since I did enjoy what I read from Omnivore. Again, there was a long wait list, so much so that I forgot that I had put a hold on anything!
I think this book is another case of common sense that just ain’t so common anymore. Like he writes, his book really boils down to seven words “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. If you truly understand that then you probably don’t need to read his book. But if you’re like me you may be wondering what he means by those few words, and that is what he explains.
Pollan isn’t too fond of nutrition science – he says it is too flawed and that everything is very reductionist – looking at one or two elements instead of a whole food or meal or food culture. He writes that this is one of the reasons that over the last several decades nutritionists and food scientists come out saying one thing then change their mind, or change their focus. Is margarine better or worse than butter? (Which off topic, but Québec just voted to repeal law that disallowed yellow margarine in the province for the last 20 years.) Is a low-fat diet better than low carb or high protein or…? All these specialists have been telling us what’s good for us but in general Americans and Canadians haven’t really improved our health. This is just one of the issues that Pollan tries to address in his book while he guides us through steps to take to make better choices about our food.
While reading this book I’d discuss a few things with a friend, who hasn’t read it. She would sometimes respond with wary or negative comments, but I understand now because she already IS doing what he suggests she wasn’t thinking like me. She eats real food, she grows her own herbs, she cooks fresh every day, she likes to eat with others, she eats mostly plants. It wasn’t so much that she was disagreeing with anything so much as she still feels there’s more to it than all that. She still also believes in nutrition (and she was reading the Thrive Diet which focuses on whole raw foods).
For me though, I am the stereotypical Westerner eating a ‘Western’ diet. I grew up on prepackaged foods and can barely remember a time when we didn’t have a microwave. In fact, I used to think TV dinners were special! If you look in my high school yearbook you’ll see that ‘wrinkly peas in TV dinners’ was my pet peeve. I don’t remember when my family stopped eating dinner at the table – maybe when I was around 10? So since I was 10 I’ve been eating dinner in front of the t.v. I think that was also around the time I stopped eating breakfast. Mom rarely ever cooked from scratch (and she wasn’t a good cook anyway). I do remember two things: baking peanut butter cookies with her, and making pizza from scratch with my dad (he was and still is a better cook than mom).
So this whole ‘eating fresh, whole foods’ thing is new to me. Even up til a year or so ago I would regularly buy a bag of frozen french fries each week! And microwave dinners? I just stopped buying those this year when I moved to Montreal (I used to get them for work). One of Pollan’s ‘guidelines’ is that if it makes an health claim, it’s probably no good since it’s been played with by food scientists adding, removing and adjusting ingredients (natural and non), so don’t buy it. Well, doesn’t that just fly in the face of everything I’ve been told till now? Sure recently I’ve become aware of concerns with aspartame so I change from diet soda to regular…well until I cut it completely from my habits (Yup, used to drink at least one pop a day until, again, I moved to Montreal – now I have maybe one a week if that).
I may not fall for all the ideas in this book totally hook, line and sinker, but it certainly has helped me a lot. For the last few years I’ve been thinking about diet and health and that it would require a lifestyle change that seemed like the largest challenge of my life, but becoming aware of what people are saying about food, even those in discord, has helped me to start making small changes in my eating habits which I can only hope are benefiting my body and mind. Well, if anything I’m sure I’ve lost several pounds since coming to Montreal (an estimate since I don’t own a scale, but clothes fit differently now – smaller size needed.) All the small changes – no pop, rarely chips, no fries, bringing lunch or going home, and more walking have added up! (oh and the occasional breakfast; that’s still one of my greatest challenges.)
Now, I just need to learn to cook better!