Having recently read and enjoyed Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his newer book caught my eye this morning. I had seen a review contrasting it negatively with his prior work, but decided to take the plunge anyhow. I am glad I did. While there is less value added in terms of general knowledge, it is a much more practical guide to how the realities of contemporary food production affect the choices of conscientious modern omnivores.
The book does an excellent job of combining a good breadth of consideration with the production of manageable advice. Opening with “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” it elaborates those simple sentiments into a pretty good set of suggestions. Critically, ‘food’ refers only to things that would be recognized as such by people from a few hundred years ago. After going through the decidedly unnatural list of ingredients for a loaf of bread, Pollan declares that:
Sorry, Sara Lee, but your Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread is not food and if not for the indulgence of the FDA [in not longer requiring the use of the word ‘imitation’] could not even be labelled “bread.”
Pollan does an excellent job of critiquing food science and the ‘nutritionism’ that reduces the complex chemistry of food and eating to simple affirmation or condemnation of individual chemicals and chemical classes, such as saturated fats. He provides a compelling description of the nature and evolution of the Western Diet, as well as the societal and economic reasons for its emergence and the health consequences that emerge from it.
In addition to discussing what to eat, Pollan provides some good tips on how. Basically, he suggests that people return to forms of eating more rooted in culture. Constant snacking, eating alone, and consuming massive portions are problematic even if the foodstuffs in question are relatively good. He also endorses gardening and cooking from scratch as ways of weeding out non-foods while also gaining more appreciation for the relationships involved in growth and eating.
Pollan provides a list of 24 bits of concise (and sometimes counterintuitive) advice. He provides some good tips on where and how to shop (avoid the centre of supermarkets – stick to the unprocessed foods at the edges). I was particularly delighted to learn about the strong case for how a glass of wine with dinner can do a fair bit to promote cardiovascular health. Since reading his previous book, I had already made some pretty significant dietary changes. Barring the occasional pot of Knorr soup, I have eaten virtually nothing that wasn’t “food” as he defines it. I have also been thinking a lot more about what I eat, where it comes from, how I prepare it, and so forth. Overall, the process has been meaningful and enjoyable.
It is pretty rare for me to buy a book and read it though in a day. The fact that I did with this one demonstrates both how engaging and accessible it is. For those wanting some sound dietary advice, rather than a more extensive discussion of the nature of various food systems, this book is well worth examining. I am planning to foist my copy onto as many people as possible.