Sunday, March 2, 2008

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Okay, I hate to sound like I belong to the church of Michael Pollan, but I just started reading his most recent food book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, and I'm having trouble thinking about anything else. There's so much in the book to pun intended, of course. I'm in the first of three sections right now, where he's covering how we as a country came to believe the myth that eating animal fats causes heart disease. "What!?" you ask? Yes, I did say myth. He's also discussing why cholesterol is seen as evil despite an utter LACK of scientific evidence that it causes health problems. In contrast, cholesterol is known to be a crucial part of our bodies. Without enough of it we would, literally, die. Our brains would cease to function and every cell in our bodies would go limp. When our cholesterol levels are "dangerously" high, it usually points to some other problem that our body is attempting to fix, and cholesterol is the best way our body can fix it. Sort of like when we have a high white blood cell count, it's because our immune system is working to fight off a bug of some sort. You wouldn't try to get rid of the extra white blood cells, right? I don't know how accurate that metaphor is, but it's the best I can come up with.

I think my favorite thing about this book so far is the way that Pollan proves, over and over again, that we think too much of ourselves. We humans (and especially Westerners) really believe that we can break down real food (the stuff that grows in the ground or the animals we eat) into all of the nutrients that, combined, form that real food...and then create something better. We really believe that spinach is equal to the sum of its parts and that if we break spinach down into its smallest parts, we can use those parts (combined with the best parts of blueberries and flax and maybe beef) to create something better. When did we become so egotistical? How did we come to believe that we are smarter than nature or that we can even totally understand nature? How can we believe that we are smarter than evolution? Smarter than God? (And, by the way, I do believe that God created evolution and uses it to improve our species and all those around us.) The hubris exhibited by the human species in regards to what and how we eat makes me sick. As Pollan mentions in the first section of the book, the fact that we do not know enough to know how to recreate or improve what is provided by nature should be clear from something as sad as the history of baby formula. How long have we been trying to create an alternative to breast milk that is as good for babies as breast milk? How many times have we failed? Maybe a better question is, have we ever NOT failed? Is it even possible to recreate breast milk or will non-nursing moms always be stuck with the next-best thing?

I realize that I'm already jaded and have a really negative view of pharmaceuticals, our government, and our food culture, so reading this book isn't doing much to make me into a happier or less critical person. It's really just confirming and expanding what I've learned in the past year, and especially the past six months, about how screwed up we are politically, medically, and nutritionally. But, I'm optimistic that as I get to the end of the book, Pollan will offer hope for us and encourage me that, even as just one individual consumer, I can make a difference in the direction that our food culture is heading. Yeah, that probably made no sense to you if you haven't read one of his books. So go. Look one up on Amazon, put it on reserve at your library, drive to Barnes and Noble. Do what you have to do.


  1. I'm actually almost halfway through reading this book too! It has already changed the way I look at food and the politics behind food labeling/nutrition guidelines. It amazes me how far our culture has strayed from consuming something so simple as real food!

  2. Isn't our culture crazy? If you like this book, you'd definitely like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, too...if you haven't read them already.

    I was out to dinner last night and one of the specials was a fillet mignon with a side of new potatoes and asparagus. Yum...would have sounded SO good before reading these books. Now I know that the beef was almost certainly corn fed and from a CAFO, so that was not an option. And then there was the asparagus, which must have come from someplace other than North America, since asparagus shouldn't be growing anywhere on our continent yet. I don't think I'll ever eat asparagus out of season again. It seems too ridiculous.

    These three books have ruined me...for the better. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

  3. you all have tempted me to ruin myself for the better too...

  4. Hillary,

    Maybe try more than one source when learning about nutrition.
    Researchers have recently discovered that a chemical in red meat, L-carnitine, may up the risk of heart disease in people and mice in frequent red-meat eaters. Our bodies (mostly the liver) make cholesterol, it isn't like a vitamin you have to ingest.


    1. Hi, Cathryn. Thanks for joining me on my journey. Keep on reading -- we're nearly vegan now.


Thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say.