In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

For photo credit, please click on the picture.

2008. Penguin Books. Paperback. 244 pages.

From: I bought this at a Borders (that is still in business!)

Recommendation from: Fizzy Thoughts

In a nutshell:

Pollan writes in the beginning of In Defense of Food: “I started on this quest to identify a few simple rules about eating after publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006. Questions of personal health did not take center stage in that book, which was more concerned with the ecological and ethical dimensions of our eating choices.”

Pollan spends the first part of the book describing The Age of Nutritionism.  He argues that when food scientists reduced food’s value to the nutrients they contain, they started a new era.  In this era, the definition of “healthy eating” is ever-changing: a nutrient will be lauded one year only to be condemned the next.  The second part of the book focuses on the rise of the Western diet and the havoc it has wreaked on those who eat it.  And finally, the last section elucidates the eating manifesto which adorns the book’s cover: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”


This is the first book I’ve read by Michael Pollan, but certainly not the first time I’ve been exposed to his ideas.  A number of years ago, I was visiting my friend Jocelyn in her apartment in Baltimore.  On her kitchen wall, she had affixed a clipping of a news article about Pollan and one of his books (possibly The Omnivore’s Dilemma).  I asked about the clipping and Jocelyn explained to me Pollan’s ideas as she knew them.  Since then, I have run into Pollan’s ideas from reviews of his books, or radio interviews, or from word of mouth.

So when I finally did read this book, In Defense of Food, I found myself running into ideas that were already familiar from these Pollan snippets.  Additionally, I’ve read a good chunk of Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating, which I found a little austere, but thought-provoking.  Her book has some similar recommendations to Pollan’s.

While the eating recommendations tread some ground familiar to me, Pollan’s discussion of ‘nutritionism’ was new to me.  Certainly, I have long been skeptical of new health findings, as each new health claim is quickly supplanted by a newer one in quick succession.  Still when Pollan illuminates the dubiousness of certain accepted principles of eating, I was surprised by how many of them I had assimilated anyway.

One criticism of this book that I have is that Pollan challenges the validity of most food studies, but then uses other scientific studies to support his point, sometimes without telling the reader why we should trust them when he’s cast doubt on others. For instance, he uses a study run by the Organic Center for examples on how current food quality is compromised, but doesn’t address the fact that an institute “established by the organic food industry” might have an agenda too (p. 119).

In the end, what I really liked about In Defense of Food is all the take-away points.  Though I have been gradually altering my eating habits for some time, this is a book that encouraged me to take some further action.  I think a lot more now about how food interacts with each other, and not just consider each item on its own.  In response to a specific recommendation in the book, I’ve started adding a half-glass of red wine to some of my dinners (one of the more pleasurable take-away points to be sure.)

I’m also buying the grocery store’s bakery bread, instead of the packaged kind.  The bread I used to buy had been both appealing and suspect for its ability to last a long time.  Also, I really liked Pollan’s recommendation that, if possible, we should be willing to pay more for good food, and not just settle for cheap options that degrade our health. I’m lucky to have a decent job and to live in an area with a plethora of food options.  (Unlike in some urban and rural areas of the United States where finding healthy food options is actually quite difficult and can be labeled “food deserts.”)

The take-away point that I would ideally like to enact, but might not be in the cards: “Try not to eat alone.”  I often have the option of eating with my co-workers at lunchtime, but at dinner I’m frequently on my own and I usually take it to my computer desk, so I can multi-task.  The picture I chose for this review reflects the kind of meal experience I’d like to have more often – eating a home-cooked meal with friends.

Other reviews:

The Book Nest – “I really like Pollan’s writing style – for non-fiction, it’s completely accessible and wow is he persuasive. I finished reading this book and wanted to chuck out every processed food in my house.”

Shelf Love – “On the whole, In Defense of Food feels like a puffed-up appendix to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Much of the new information here is worthwhile, but there’s not enough to warrant a whole new book.”

So Many Books – “Pollan also writes with his usual easy-going style that does not put down the reader. In fact, I always feel like he includes himself as among the people who had no idea.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

4 responses to “In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

  1. I’m absolutely terrible at the “eat at a table” point. I’m either at my desk at work, or sitting in my reading chair at home when I eat. Bad, bad softdrink!

    And you bring up a good point re: Pollan’s willingness to use studies when they support his points. I never even noticed that!

  2. I’ve seen this book all over the blogisphere but have yet to pick it up. I think the points you bring up about Pollan’s take on certain studies is pretty valid. I’ll try to keep this book in mind when I visit the library.

  3. Interesting review, Christy! I liked very much your point – “One criticism of this book that I have is that Pollan challenges the validity of most food studies, but then uses other scientific studies to support his point, sometimes without telling the reader why we should trust them when he’s cast doubt on others.” I loved that picture you have posted as part of the review 🙂

  4. softdrink – I’m bad at it too! I eat often by myself so I usually feel like I want to multi-task at the same time as I’m eating.

    Vasilly – yeah Pollan and this book have been everywhere. Worth reading and it’s not too long either.

    Vishy – Thanks! And yeah, isn’t that picture great? I love the colors.

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