Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This triad of phrases is the central argument Michael Pollan makes in his new book, the successor to his 2006 best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Pollan begins his quest to “reclaim our health and happiness as eaters” by explaining how we’ve come to see food as a mere concoction of food groups and nutrients. Pollan laments that we look straight through our meat, fish, poultry and vegetables and, instead, see a buffet of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, omega fatty acids and what have you.
In Defence of Food: Penguin, 256 pages, Rs492.
First of all, we have no clear idea how these elements and their combinations impact our well-being. Secondly, in spite of this ignorance, we go on to manufacture foods based on whatever ratio of these nutrients contemporary science tells us is prudent. In the course of this process, which has dictated human eating habits for some five decades, we’ve begun to lose touch with our ancestral eating habits. The result is for all of us to see. In mirrors, mostly.
Much of the blame for this global corruption of food falls on the Western diet. Pollan traces the roots of the Western diet to post-war American nutrition policy and industrialization. Throw in a little political lobbying and bad science and you have the evil, heartless abomination that is the Western diet: “Lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything—except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains”.
In the second part of the book, Pollan describes how this Western diet slowly began replacing traditional diets all over the world. And how, with this new diet rich in refined flour, sugar and other packaged food, new maladies began to propagate. The book is peppered with several research findings that Pollan uses to strengthen his ideas (many of which are worth a little Googling). Much of this research is used to make a key point: All around the world, people have lived healthily for centuries on radically different diets. There is really no one miracle diet that works. “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.”
It is ridiculously easy to get preachy in a book such as this. Pollan could have easily positioned himself, narratively, on a pedestal and belted out research, anecdotes and wisdom. The book is full of all of those things, but his style is more like that of the intelligent friend chatting away at the café while you listen a little jealously. There are a few subtle wisecracks here and there, though they slowly disappear as the book progresses.
Big bite: Pollan blames Western food for dietary malfunctions.
In the third and final part, Pollan encapsulates the book into a set of “eating algorithms”—dietary resolutions for you to stick to while you shop, cook and eat food. He makes no promises to help you lose weight, find love or reclaim self-esteem. But they will, he says, help us devise several healthy dinners that we will enjoy eating.
One, for instance, asks you to avoid food products that make health claims. My personal favourite is the tip about having a glass of wine with dinner. Then there’s the one about eating mostly plants (duh!) but especially leaves (ah!).
But then my grandmother told me most of those things years and years ago. Which, I think, is the larger point Michael Pollan is trying to make anyway.