Saturday, May 10, 2008

Michael Pollan - In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasure of Eating (2008)

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This advice is the gist of Michael Pollan's new book. Pollan argues that the Western diet - concerned with quantity and speed (both of production and consumption) above any other values - exemplified in the United States but fast being adopted everywhere else, brings with it a huge host of lethal diseases, including cancer and diabetes (among many others), which Westerners have come to accept as an inevitable lottery.

Pollan argues, essentially, that the scientific response to nutritional health has been what he terms 'nutritionism' - the reductivist view, related both to capitalism and to the methods of scientific enquiry, that we can isolate particular nutrients, rather than particular foods or particular diets, which promote wellbeing or cause illness. The calling into question of the Western diet itself, or even of any particular food (with its associated lobby group) has become entirely verboten. Meanwhile, the scientifically-proven 'good' and 'bad' nutrients shift constantly, and in the entire period of scientific nutritionism the population has become healthier only in the sense that medical science has become better at prolonging life; but by any other measure, health has declined.

In the modern era, supermarkets are stocked, not with food, but with 'foodlike substances'. Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be any common denominator, in terms of foodstuffs or nutrition, between traditional diets which kept people healthy, ranging from diets based only on blood and milk, to those entirely based on vegetables, to the well-known 'paradoxes' of the health of the French and Mediterranean peoples whose diets contradict received science.

Given the state of things, it's easy to throw one's hands up and say, all the advice is contradictory and untrustworthy - I give up. In response, Pollan gives some simple, and at times amusing, guidelines as to how to eat, expanded from those mentioned above. For example: don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or more than five in number. Eat meals, slowly, at a table.

The overall picture is not necessarily original news to those of us interested in contemporary diet and health; but Pollan's style is easy and captivating, while not being didactic or 'dumbing down' his subject matter, and even for those of us who've put some thought into this issue it reveals (or at least it did for me) areas where I still wasn't questioning my assumptions. Ultimately, this book is not so much condemnatory as an impassioned plea for Westerners to re-enjoy food; to invest an effort, and reap the many rewards, of the whole communal process of growing, shopping, cooking and eating.

No comments:

Post a Comment