Feb 112010

Michael Pollan is the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. He is also one of the most interesting and persuasive writers about food, nutrition, agriculture and nature available.

I first ran into Michael listening to the Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m not sure quite why I picked the book up, but I’m glad I did. What Michael does in that book is trace the history of four different meals from their origin to the table. In the process, he explores topics of agribusiness, food processing, advertisement and natural resources. As one reviewer put it, no one else except perhaps Stephen King can make a corn field seem so sinister. Michel is also one of the minds behind the movie Food Inc.

Readers loved the Omnivores Dilemma, but the reaction he got was “Ok, so what we eat is terrible for us. What SHOULD we eat?” His response to that was to write In Defense of Food, and Food Rules, which investigate nutrition and food science and try to come up with a workable answer to our eating dilemma based on traditional culture.

All of Pollan’s writing is richly researched, but written in an entertaining style. You’ll have trouble putting his books down, as he leads you from one unexpected fact or discovery to another. And he will inspire you with a desire to eat food that is more natural, traditional, locally grown and healthy. Apply his principles with dedication and you may just save your own life AND the planet.

Below is a brief clip of Michael answering questions about his book, Food Rules.

Feb 102010

In writing his latest two books, Food Rules and the earlier In Defense of Food, author and professor Michael Pollan had a surprising revelation. With most of his previous (well-researched) books, he found that subjects that seemed to be simple on the surface turned out to be more complx and ambiguous when you looked into them deeply. But when

investigating the question “What should we eat?” Pollan was surprised to find just the opposite. For all the complex and contradictory diet advice coming out of nutritional and food science, all the parties agreed on two very simple facts.

1. The traditional Western, highly processed diet will kill you. It causes obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and a host of other troubles. Every culture that adopts it suffers drastic increases in these diseases.

2. Cultures that do NOT eat a Western diet manage to live on a wide variety of traditional diets, ranging from high-carb to high-fat to high-protien – all without high rates of these chronic Western diseases.

And a related truth:

3. When Westerners stop eating a Western diet – their health improves quickly and dramatically.

You would think that agreements on these points would make diet choices easy and nutritional research simple. But instead of focusing on dropping the Western diet, nutrition and food scientists spend all their time squabbling about exactly what  isolated nutrient or lack of it is the issue. Is it processed carbs? Omega 6 vs Omega 3 fatty acids? Dairy? High fructose corn syrup? Artificial colors and sweetners?

Why this confusion over a simple subject? In a word, money. Food manufacturers don’t get rich by selling you a few cents worth of corn. They get rich by taking a few cents worth of corn, processing it into high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, xanthan gum, malto-dextran – combining it into some unnatural monstrosity of a breakfast cereal, squirting the latest “fad” ingredient into it,  and then selling it to you for four bucks a box. They want to isolate the “good” things in a traditional diet so they can artificially add them to their processed foods, slap health claims on the label, and still make enormous profits. And the health industry isn’t doing too bad either selling us expensive maintenance drugs for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and the like.

So, putting aside the deliberately confusing and self-promoting diet “recommendations” of food “science”, Pollan reaches back into traditional cultures and produces a book of “rules” for how to eat well. They are actually more personal policies. This is an expanded version of the rules he outlined in his previous book, In Defense of Food. This book doesn’t have all the meticulously researched history and science of the previous book. It’s a short, simple guidebook that you can read in an afternoon, full of wisdom that will stick with you.

The rules are divided up into three sections – What to eat (food), what KIND of food to eat (mostly plants) and HOW to eat (not too much). Here are a few examples from each section.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.

…so much for xanthan gum.

Don’t eat  breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

…no, “Fruit Loops” are not fruit.

Do all your eating at a table

…no, a desk is NOT a table.

You get the idea. A lot of the rules are deliberately redundant. Pollan hopes that of all his rules, a few from each section will be memorable enough to stick with you. All it takes is a few rules from each category to drastically improve the way you eat.

This is the shortest book you will ever read on diet, but it’s all you need. Carry it with you. Memorize as many of the rules as you can, and this small book will make huge changes in your health.

Jan 202010

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. I first ran into Michael Pollan’s work reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan is a Berkley professor of science and environmental journalism. That book made me a fan.  His work is well-researched and absolutely facilitating. In Defense of Food is equally compelling.

After investigating what Americans eat in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan turned his attention to the question that was pouring in from his readers: What SHOULD we eat? Pollan’s answer is deceptively simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. He then spends a number of chapters unpacking that simple advice and using it to construct a set of food rules. I mentioned Pollan’s rule earlier in my post on The Most Important Nutritional Rule. “Eat Food” , for example, isn’t as easy as it sounds nowadays. There are a lot of products out there in the supermarkets and restaurants that may LOOK like food, but that contain ingredients that no human being has every consumed in history – until now.

If it has high-fructose corn syrup in it, it’s not food. If it has ingredients in it your grandmother wouldn’t have recognized – it’s not food. If it arrives through the window of your car – it’s NOT food. Food is made from whole, natural products with as little extra processing as possible.

Along the way, Pollan also takes us on an eye-opening tour of the history of nutrition and food science and their efforts to boost sales and profits by tricking us into eating highly processed junk.

In the last part of the book, Pollan provides a set of rules for how to eat. This includes rules on what to eat as well as how to eat (at a table, with family, etc.) Pollan turns for his rules and his nutritional wisdom to traditional cultures and cuisines that have nourished humanity for thousands of years. Pollan’s book is a potent and convincing defense of common sense and wholesome food in a world where we have lost our way.

Recently, Pollan released a book called Food Rules, which consists primarily of the “rules” part of In Defense of Food. Pollan felt compelled to add a few rules, such as “Never buy any food that you have seen advertised”.  I hope to get a look at this book soon. But if you’d like a more complete treatment of the topic, In Defense of Food is the book for you.

Below is a clip of Michael Pollan discussing some of the ideas in his book.

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