In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

I recently completed In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan, and what a mind-boggling, insightful and enjoyable read it was. I read frequent quotes from the book to my husband and we were both astounded at how far the food industry has fallen in providing healthy nutritious food.

In just 200 pages, In Defense of Food gives you a guided tour of 20th century food science, a history of “nutritionism” in America and a glimpse into the union of government and the food industry. It provides the reader with very helpful step by step tips to guide them in food shopping.

“Nutritionism prefers to tinker with the Western Diet, adjusting the various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place.”

With the age of industrialization, we have more heart disease, obesity, and diabetes than any other period of time. And these diseases are only so common in Western societies. Why? Corn, soy, wheat and rice is the majority of what we are eating!

“Corn contributes 554 calories a day to America’s per capita food supply and soy another 257. Add wheat (768 calories) and rice (91) and you can see there isn’t a whole lot of room left in the American stomach for any other foods. Today these four crops account for two thirds of the calories we eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some eighty thousand species, and that three thousand of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the human diet. Why should this concern us? Be humans are omnivores, we need somewhere between 50 and a 100 different chemical compounds and elements in order to be healthy. It’s hard to believe we’re getting everything we need from a diet consisting largely of processed corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat.” (page 117-118)

Why are we eating so much of these products? Because it grows fast, is cheap to grow, and the government pays farmers to grow corn and soy! Most of the corn and soy winds up in the feed of our food animals (and then we pump them up with antibiotics because they get sick on it), but the rest goes into processed foods. Thus it results in cheap food; unfortunately, food that is depleted in nutrients because it has grown too fast to get what it needs. Then it is processed and refined so that there are no living organisms in it that would cause it to spoil over the long distance that it must travel to get to the supermarket. People are more worried about what to eat then ever before. Health claims are smacked on every packaged food on the market. Is this really advancement? Americans now eat more calories resulting in being overfed and yet undernourished.

Food quality has declined since the introduction of industrialization with the depletion of soil nutrients from chemicals and pesticides. “To put this in more concrete terms, you now have to eat three apples to get the same amount of iron as you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple, and you’d have to eat several more slices of bread to get your recommended daily allowance of zinc than you would have a century ago.”

I love how this book doesn’t supply us with a new diet plan! It is just a gentle reminder to return to the way our ancestors ate. A more traditional, whole foods diet of REAL food. As Dr Weston Price discovered in his research studying the diets and health of various traditional cultures around the globe: “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.” It’s a new look at encouraging readers to avoid processed, packaged so called “food” and return to the basics: produce, dairy, real fat, whole grains and meat.

How do we find real food? Michael Pollan offers these helpful guidelines:

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

2. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) Unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More than five in number or that include D) High-Fructose Corn Syrup. The main idea here is if it has a package, there is a significant increase in the possibility that it is not really food. Always check those ingredient lists. Even “whole grain” products can just be a combination of refined and fortified ingredients with the addition of HFCS.

3. Avoid food products that make health claims.

“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

4. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. Processed foods dominate the center aisles, whereas whole foods can be found among the meat, dairy and produce.

5. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Find those local sources in farmer’s markets, CSAs, etc.

Overall, I highly recommend this read, if you overlook some of the evolutionary thought that jumps out here and there. If you are new to the whole foods way of eating, or even if you are like me and been on the journey for a few years, but don’t know all the history and truth behind it, this is a must read for all! It was very fascinating to me!

About Lindsay

Lindsay Edmonds is first a lover of Jesus, wife, mother of four, homemaker, and writer. She loves inspiring women around the world toward simple, natural, and intentional living for the glory of God.

24 Responses to In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

  1. Lamont Tata August 2, 2010 at 7:57 am #

    this article is exactly what I was searching for! I found your blog bookmarked from a friend. I will also bookmark it. Thanks again!

  2. Maggy October 15, 2009 at 9:52 pm #

    I just read this about 2 months ago. I highly recommend “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which preceded this book and really put Pollen on the map, as far as being at the forefront of the Real Food Revolution (as it is sometimes referred to). However, I also recommend two other books of his that I read that have to do with gardening. The first is “Second Nature” which is a collection of essays about gardening. The second is “Botony of Desire” which is about how we humans and our historical journey has been more influenced by plants than we’ve ever really realized. Both are fantastic. You can see in both the idea of how something is wrong with our food germinating in both books.

    Seeing as how you garden I thought that you might enjoy both. Libraries usually have more than one copy of both. Thus not to much waiting to get them from intra-library loans.

    Happy reading, should you choose to persue Mr. Pollen’s fine work.

  3. Rebekah October 14, 2009 at 6:54 pm #

    I recently read this book and LOVED it as well! It made me so much more aware of how I shop and how dependent we are as a society on processed foods that get branded as “healthy.” Eye-opening!

  4. Tanya October 14, 2009 at 6:26 pm #

    This is definitely food for thought. Information is key and I appreciate you sharing this.

  5. Hannah October 14, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    I will have to read that book. It looks very interesting. I recently read The China Study and I highly recommend it. Thanks for all that you do! I love readying you blog:)

    • Gillian November 11, 2009 at 7:55 am #

      I’ll 2nd The China Study recomendation!:)

  6. Bec October 14, 2009 at 1:03 am #

    I am so pleased to be finding more and more people that are following Nourishing Traditions! Thanks for your review on Michael Pollans book, I will have to go read this now!

  7. Kristen October 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    Oooh – I’m adding this one to my list! It’s scary to think of what we are eating – hubby and I try to shop with local farmers whenever possible, and also grow a small garden full of yummy veggies. I never really thought about what I was eating until the first time I bit into a tomato I grew and realized I didn’t even really know a tomato could taste that good!

  8. Lindsey O. October 13, 2009 at 3:27 pm #

    I read that book not too long ago and found the writing to be so witty and funny! It’s almost like he’s pointing out the obvious to us! I have to admit I’m surrounded by people who see one promising claim on a box of junk food and call it healthy! Loved the part about the cereal screaming about it’s whole grain goodness while the produce quietly sit at the front of the super market silent as stroke victims! Good book. Everyone should read. I also have read parts of the Schwarzbein Principle books which also bring up a good point: lowering our fat intake by eating “no fat” or “low fat” foods only made diabetes and heart disease worse in our country. She goes on to explain reason for this medically and it’s very interesting. A must read for anyone with heart problems, Diabetes or Cholesterol issues. And frankly everyone should understand how our bodies process foods and use fat and nutrients. We shouldn’t be relying on product packaging and magazine ads to let us know what we should and shouldn’t eat! Worth checking out. Liked your post a lot!

  9. Katie October 13, 2009 at 2:38 pm #

    Thank you so much for this review! I have read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and am about half way through “Nourishing Traditions”. I struggle with many health problems and through reading these books I have learned how much of my issues may just be caused by the food I was raised on and now continue to eat.
    An interesting point made in “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” is that we shouldn’t eat anything our great grandma wouldn’t recognize as food. I have the pleasure of being in possession of my great grandmother’s notebook from her home-making classes in high school. The recipes hardly resemble ‘food’ eaten today. Maybe I should take a hint? :)

  10. Shannon October 13, 2009 at 2:13 pm #

    Thanks for your reccomendation! I have enjoyed his “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” immensely, although I’m not quite finished with it. Another great resource for eating in season is the cookbook “Simply in Season” I’m can’t remember the author off the top of my head, but its from the same line as “More with Less” and is associated with the Mennonites. It’s beautiful and has some awesome recipes.

  11. Donna October 13, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    I am anxious to read this book, funny that it mentions the excessive amount of corn, wheat, and soy that we are getting. My youngest son suffers from severe food allergies…he is allergic to the following: corn, wheat, soy, eggs, milk, and peanuts. They say that one of the reasons sooooo many children are suffering from these allergies is because of the over abudance of them in our diets. It is so difficult to avoid all six of the things he is allergic too..but it has pushed me to try and grow my own food and eat more wholesome fruits and veggies.

  12. Karen October 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm #

    As I finished reading this review (which makes me want to get the book, it’s hard having no money. Maybe my library has it) I was reminded a a documentary I watched on several weeks ago. It’s free to watch. It’s called “The Future of Food.” It’s is very eye opening about the GMOs and industry behind them. I just thought I would pass that along.

    Thanks for the review. It’s time to start hunting for a deal on the book.

  13. Kelley October 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm #

    I just purchased the book and the DVD “King Corn” and “Food INC”! Thank you for sending me that way!!!

  14. Katie T. October 13, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    Great recommendation, Lindsay! I will have to put this on my to-read list. I recently finished Real Food and the Vegetarian Myth. I am making the transition from vegetarianism back to omnivore after realizing just how much my diet was made up of carbs (processed and whole-grains) with few nutrients. I will definitely have to check out those sites for seasonal shopping!

  15. Rachel October 13, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    I picked this book and Nina Plank’s REAL FOOD this summer at my library. I devoured both of them (and requested Nina’s second book for purchase). They are both great!
    I don’t mean to sound like a skeptic but it is amazing our depraved people and consequently our companies and governments really are. The more I research the more appalled I am.
    Here’s my trouble- my in-laws (sisters, mother, grandparents…) are no where near a food conversion. What is a loving and Christ-like response to their ignorance and carelessness? (Maybe I’ll blog about this?)

  16. tarena October 13, 2009 at 9:18 am #

    Thank you for this suggestion! I hadn’t heard of this book yet, but I’m adding it to my list! I’m in the middle of Nourishing Traditions (who knows how long those 600 pages will take me to get through!!), and of course love it…I was even thinking that I wish we knew the PROCESS food goes through. Like organic cereal…not that great when you know about the heating process! It will be a great day when they have to list processes on packages! But considering we avoid packages, it won’t help me much! =) That’s what these books are for!
    I was also wondering if you have any kind of list or know of a site that has a list of what foods are in season or on sale (to stock up) so it will be easier to know how to plan meals. I would love to have not only weekly meal plans, but also a long term plan based off of when foods are in season to plan better!

    • Lindsay October 13, 2009 at 10:26 am #

      There are several resources online with reference to discovering what is in season in your area. Epicurious offers one that includes what is in season by state and then provides shopping guides and recipes for using those items. Really nice guide. You can also find a seasonal guide at Sustainable Table.

      • tarena October 13, 2009 at 12:28 pm #

        OH YEA!!! Thank you-that is just what I needed and even more!

  17. Myra October 13, 2009 at 9:03 am #

    Such great information! Thanks for sharing it!!

  18. Shannon October 13, 2009 at 8:44 am #

    I read this book about a year ago, and absolutely loved it! I agree that one of the great things about it is that it doesn’t suggest some new health food fad (“Eat this and you’ll live forever!”), it just shows what’s wrong with the modern system and what to avoid. And it’s hilariously funny at times, as well! Fortunately those few evolutionary references are brief and easy to “skip.” Thanks for your review of this; it was splendid!


  19. Amanda October 13, 2009 at 8:16 am #

    Such an insightful book! Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? Or Real Food by Nina Planck? These books were so instrumental to my family’s decision to eat “real food.” I appreciate your work on this website!

  20. emily anderson October 13, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    i just went to a nutrition workshop last night (at my chiro’s office) and this was basically the whole workshop. it’s so eye-opening. and it makes me so mad, about how deceiving food companies are allowed to be.

  21. Jana Pedowitz October 13, 2009 at 7:35 am #

    I enjoyed this book as well. It is almost frightening. Thank goodness we live near a farmers market and joined a CSA. Thanks for drawing attention to this matter