Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The good times are killing us

Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma was my favorite read of 2007, so I had to get his new book, In Defense of Food. The new book starts where the old one stops. The first book talks about the origin of American food and the new book argues that Americans should eat food. That strange argument is a set-up for a larger discussion about the idea that Americans actually don't eat food, but instead eat nutrients.

The focus on nutrients is problematic for a number of reasons. The most important is that the understanding of the health benefits and detriments of various nutrients is misunderstood. What's more, the benefit comes from the combination of multiple nutrients (in a food) and not from an individual nutrient. Because these nutrients cannot be understood by the non-specialist, Americans come to rely on experts, who unfortunately don't seem to have a firm grasp on the subject. The example of margarine, once supposed to be better for us and now understood to be bad is just one example. The worst effect of the focus on nutrients over food is the switch is the crowding out of healthy delicious whole foods, by processed foods which principally benefit shareholders in food companies.

Going further Pollan argues that the Western diet, which includes an overabundance of processed foods and a paucity of whole foods, encourages unhealthy eating in the form of snacking and the disregard for the culture of food which comes from cooking and eating meals together. He argues that our great wealth (and the pursuit of it) has led us into food choices of a dubious quality) He is aware that changing this is a tall order, but he does provide some basic advice about how to realign your relationship with food.

This a much shorter book than Omnivore's Dilemma and because of that it lacks much of the detail that made that book so great. That qualm aside, this is the sort of book that is incredibly motivating. People want to enjoy food and Pollan helps you see how this can be done.

You can read the intro to the book here.

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