At first, it seemed as if Michael Pollan showed his whole hand with the first few words of his last book, which appear on the cover as well as at the start of his introduction: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s a thesis statement that seems, momentarily, to make In Defense of Food’s entire case. What else was there to say?
Plenty, it turns out. Pollan — who has broadened the discussion of food and food production in the last few years with his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (WSU’s “Common Reading” book for fall 2009) and numerous articles in The New York Times — has taken his interest in how and what we eat and shifted his focus somewhat. Where Omnivore’s explored different lines of food production, from industrial to small farm to hunting and foraging one’s own dinner, In Defense of Food looked at the opposing forces that have shaped the American (and, increasingly, world) diet in the last century. And once he took those forces apart, Pollan put food back together again — or at least put it back in perspective.
And he continues his exploration of the topic in his newest (and shortest) book, Food Rules, published just last week. After the release of In Defense of Food, Pollan heard from doctors and others who were looking for a way to summarize its ideas and turn them into simple, straightforward rules for healthy eating. He solicited commonsense rules from readers and compiled them into a slim paperback volume of 64 rules, each with an explanatory paragraph. (Among the rules: “Avoid foods you see advertised on television” and “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.”) Food Rules is designed to be a pocket reference, rather than an in-depth reporting effort like his earlier books.
The newest book continues in the spirit of In Defense of Food, especially the former’s railing against nutritionism — the way people often look at food as the sum of its nutritional parts. In Defense is a long and fascinating trip through government regulations and lobbies, “macronutrients at war” (Fight carbs! Fight fats!) and the life of processed foods. (One of Pollan’s funniest and simplest suggestions assumed that the more nutritional claims a food product has on its packaging, the less likely it is to be actual food.) In his patient, engrossing style, Pollan found the fascinating threads of narrative in the various claims, studies, trends and missteps of nutritionism and food science, gradually building a compelling argument for not fussing over carbs, fats and proteins, vitamins and minerals, supplements and ratios.
When he’s done with nutritionism, Pollan moves on to Part Two of his argument, “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization.” The Western diet, he shows over and over again, is unhealthy, regardless of exactly what makes it that way; traditional diets are healthier, which should be somewhat obvious when we consider that people have been living on them for many years. But sometimes it takes a book — and a captivating one, at that — to tell the story in a way that makes the full picture stick in one’s head. For the large part, in this country, our crops are monocultures, our food overly refi ned, our consumption of whole foods down, our eating habits discombobulated.
Of course, to some people none of this is news, but Pollan’s not necessarily writing for those of us who already subscribe to CSAs and get our produce from the farmers market (though even if you are already so enlightened, there’s plenty of fascinating detail and history of the food industry in his books to keep you reading). His accessible style, healthy dose of skepticism and nonjudgmental tone seem designed to lure in new readers with every page. And Pollan doesn’t simply report on what he’s learned; the fi nal section of In Defense offers basic suggestions for how to put into practice the kind of eating that doesn’t rely on nutritional data or overly processed items — a conversation that continues in Food Rules. This, then, is where those fi rst seven words come back into play, but elaborated upon. Some of his suggestions will require a certain amount of available cash, but others have more to do with mentality — with making and taking time to care about what we’re eating — than with funding. Eat food — whole foods, real foods, foods that your great-grandmother would recognize. Eat more leaves than seeds. Choose quality over quantity and eat actual meals, at a table, preferably with others. By eating things that are food, not “edible food-like substances,” he argues, we don’t have to worry about whether or not what’s in them is good for us; the health is built in.
“To reclaim this much control over one’s food,” Pollan writes, “to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing your own food qualify as subversive acts.”
Let’s get subversive.
Michael Pollan discusses his Obama-touted “Sun Food Agenda” at WSU’s Beasley Coliseum (as part of the school’s Common Reading series) on Wednesday, Jan. 13, at 7 pm. Free. Visit commonreading.wsu.edu. This article originally appeared in Eugene Weekly. Additional reporting by Ann M. Colford.