Gems from Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

Favorite Takeaways from Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" | Weight loss, fitness, health

An Eater‘s Manifesto

(And an eater I am.)  Just like the people we love and interact with often—many of us have a dysfunctional, love-hate relationship with food. Most of this is borne of societal pressures and gender roles; commercial and capitalistic incentives; and an unhealthy obsession with status, stability, and the illusion of control. That’s a whole other manifesto.

But since we can’t just, like, avoid it for the rest of our lives, why not start to rectify our relationship with food, for real? [Enter Michael Pollan, stage left.]


I was introduced to Michael Pollan by The Man, aka Nick, my freaking awesome boyfriend, who’s been implementing the (research-backed) philosophies of Mr. Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a few years now.

In Pollan’s “defense,” he reminds the reader that food is meant to be our friend—it’s built to treat us well, and vice versa (this latter part in important). He also harps that our disordered and corrupt relationship with food—especially in America, and more recently the majority of Westernized society—lends more to our disease than to our nourishment. Okay, so I don’t have a way with brevity like Pollan does. Just, bask in these words of wisdom, from the horse’s mouth:


Food is meant to be enjoyed! My favorite takeaways from Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" | weight loss, fitness, health, clean eating

Savor and Celebrate Your Food

“He showed the words ‘chocolate cake’ to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. ‘Guilt‘ was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: ‘celebration.'” 

“Nutritionists pay far more attention to the chemistry of food than to the sociology or ecology of eating. All their studies of the benefits of red wine or foie gras overlook the fact that the French eat very differently than we do.”


“But I contend that most of what we’re consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we’re consuming it—in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone—is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term.”

Eat with others, Takeaways from Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food | weight loss, fitness, eating right

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” 

“We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity. Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.”


“When you’re cooking with food as alive as this—these gorgeous and semigorgeous fruits and leaves and flesh—you’re in no danger of mistaking it for a commodity, or a fuel, or a collection of chemical nutrients. No, in the eye of the cook or the gardener … this food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on each other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight.”


Recognize What Food is Not

“That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea—destructive of not just the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well. Indeed, no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans—and no people suffer from as many diet-related problems. We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.”


“The sheer novelty and glamor of the Western diet, with its seventeen thousand new food products every year and the marketing power—thirty-two billion dollars a year—used to sell us those products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and government and marketing to help us decide what to eat.”

“…This brings us to one of the most troubling features of nutritionism, though it is a feature certainly not troubling to all. When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. “If foods are understood only in terms of the various quantities of nutrients they contain,” Gyorgy Scrinis wrote, then “even the processed foods may be considered to be ‘healthier’ for you than whole foods if they contain the appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”


“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”


Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics, not even the last one, is necessarily harmful in and of itself, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed to the point where they may no longer be what they purport to be.  They have crossed over from foods to food products.


“Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”

“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food…You may need to go back to your great-or even great-great grandmother.”


Get Back to Basics

“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and “value” or they can nourish a food chain organized around values—values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote—a vote for health in the largest sense—food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.”


“You are what what you eat eats.”

“That is, the diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and the healthfulness, of the food itself, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.”

“For most of our food animals, a diet of grass means much healthier fats (more omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid or CLA; fewer omega-6s and saturated fat) in their meat, milk, and eggs, as well as appreciable higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.”


“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

“But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet. (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or environmental reasons to do so.) That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantities we do (each American now consumes an average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.”

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Anything But Western

“Okinawa, one of the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world, practice a principle they call hara hachi bu: Eat until you are 80 percent full.”


“Eat more like the French or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.”

“People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet.”


Here’s to eating delicious, organic, whole, responsibly raised, real foods, most of the time.

Who’s hungry now, am I right?

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