Disclaimer: After seeing him on the Colbert Report a few months ago, I totally have a crush on Michael Pollan. He is not a bad looking older dude. And his environmental values are right in line with mine. SWOON. Yes, I know he’s married and has a 16 year old son. It’s not going to happen anyhow. But my crush is not biasing my book review. His books bias my crush.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
These are the first words of Michael Pollan’s brilliant book, In Defense of Food. I got it on audio book from the library and it was so good, I listened to it twice.
This book is sort of a sequel to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I haven’t read yet. I don’t think you need to read it to appreciate this book. Pollan starts out the book talking about the history of nutrition science and what its results have been for our health as a nation. Of course everybody knows that we have massive health issues in our country, not the least of which are obesity and diabetes epidemics, but I guess I never put two and two together before. For decades, we’ve been receiving advice about how to eat from nutritionists, food manufacturers and the government, and it hasn’t made us any healthier. In fact, in almost every respect, we are less healthy than we were before the nutrition scientists started advising us.
The part that blew my mind entirely was when he criticized the official dietary sanction put out in the 70’s to eat a low fat diet. Apparently, there was little to no scientific evidence linking dietary fat to heart disease, obesity, or any of the other diseases of civilization. What there is evidence of is that in cultures where the people lived on a traditional diet that was low in animal products, diseases of civilization (as they are called) are almost non existent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the fat in animal products were causing the problem. Perhaps, as Pollan points out, the problem is something else in the animal products, or perhaps its that in diets heavy in animal products, we tend to eat less plants, and plants prevent the diseases of civilization. We simply don’t know. But what we do know is that the advice to replace animal fat with hydrogenated fat (trans fats) is perhaps the worst piece of health advice anyone could ever follow, because hydrogenated fat is the only fat that has been scientifically proven to cause heart disease. We also are relatively sure that the advice to cut out fat led to adding more refined carbohydrates to our diet, which is very likely at the root of rising obesity and diabetes rates, and to a nation wide deficiency in Omega 3 fatty acids, which can have a disastrous effect on brain and nervous system function, in addition to lots of other health problems.
When I stopped to think about the period after having Elijah, I remembered that as soon as my milk production was well established, about six weeks after his birth, I proceeded to go on a low fat diet. I lost a minimal amount of weight, almost had to quit nursing because my milk supply went way down (and never fully came back), and I suffered from post partum depression and something I could only describe as brain problems. I could not remember anything (seriously, there was a time I had to call my mom to ask her how old I am), I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I couldn’t figure out how to do new things, and I often would be listening to someone speak to me, but be unable to process what they were saying. It basically felt like the connections in my brain had been cut, and even more than a year since I had pretty much abandoned the diet, I was still feeling that way. Pollan proposed something in the book that made it all make sense to me. The brain is 60% fat. The greatest concentration of Omega 3s in the body are in the brain. If I was deficient in fat, it seems reasonable to assume that it might have had a negative effect on my brain, an organ that is primarily fat. I immediately went out and bought some almond butter and flax seed oil, and then I set to researching the links between fat intake and PPD (in between spoonfuls of almond butter and flax seed oil laced fruit smoothies). Apparently, there is much talk about this subject out there, but I was only able to find two actual studies, one confirming a potential link between Omega 3 deficiency and PPD, and one that found that increased fish consumption (fish is high in Omega 3s) did not seem to have any kind of affect on PPD. Some of the doulas I knew emailed me siting other studies that confirmed a link between healthy fat intake and PPD, along with a slew of personal experiences.
But Pollan cautions against following any food trend in which one nutrient is demonized (low-fat, low-carb, etc.) and one is glorified (protein, Omega 3s, etc.). The whole point of the book is that the value of food cannot be measured by amounts of known nutrients. Food is complex, and there is always some new nutrient being discovered and hailed as a miracle nutrient, or a toxin. Often, the nutrients go in and out of vogue with nutrition scientists so quickly that we don’t even know what’s supposed to be healthy and what’s not (the history of the egg is a perfect example). Instead, Pollan says that we should consider foods over nutrients, and eat a well balanced diet without worrying about the nutritional content.
Thus the rule, eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
There are some sub rules, to make the primary rule more clear. For example, don’t eat anything your grandmother (or great-grandmother, or great-great-grandmother, depending on how old you are) wouldn’t recognize as food. He targets GoGurt while explaining this rule, which made me smile, because GoGurt is a product that grossed me out from the minute I first saw a commercial for it.
Other rules include don’t eat anything with unpronounceable words or things that you don’t know what they are in the ingredient list, especially high fructose corn syrup (I would add aspartame and hydrogenated oil of any kind to that list). Cook your own meals from scratch, always eat at a table, of the plants you eat, most of them should be leaves/fruits/vegetables (as opposed to grains), and eat slower. That’s not all the rules, but it gives you an idea of where he’s going. I don’t think he says a damn thing that any doctor could really argue with (who can argue with a varied diet based primarily on fruits and veggies, then whole grains and nuts, then animal products?), although nutrition scientists and government officials might take offense at his review of the work they do.
I have not eaten the same since reading his book. I have found it easy to abstain from I Can’t Believe Its Not Butter Spray and Skinny Cow Ice Cream. I have been eating a lot more veggies throughout the day (I can’t give up snacking, like he suggests, but I don’t think it’s so bad if you snack on fruits and veggies, right?). He has convinced me to try anchovies (as soon as I find a good recipe for them that might make them seem more palatable). The changes I made to my diet haven’t been that dramatic, but I’m hoping that I can report a positive difference once I’ve been doing them long enough. I’ll keep you all posted.