Michael Pollan’s “In Defence of Food” outlines a very simple strategy for eating - “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants”.
Whilst there are many excellent books on approaches to diet and the dangers of “nutritionism” (such as Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories”), this is perhaps the clearest, easiest to follow and most balanced – as well as the shortest.
It argues that the nutritional research trend of reducing food to its components (fat, protein, carbohydrate, phytochemicals, vitamins, etc.) is largely unhelpful, citing the case of whole grains as an excellent example. Scientists still do not know what it is about whole grains that makes the people who eat them healthier. It is not due, as initially thought, to fibre, phytic acid or any specific vitamin. However, the general public is now extremely nutrient-conscious, and attentive to fat content, carbohydrate content and vitamin enrichment – the ideal market for the nutrient-adjusted “food-like” substances produced and marketed by food companies.The fact that manufacturers of crisps and desserts can receive a “heart healthy” approval (for a fee) because of their engineered fat content is sickening.
The Western diet, based on refined flour and sugar, is presented as the main cause of the “Western” diseases – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Pollan explains how humans can thrive on a variety of diets – vegetarian, high protein, low fat, high fat – but not the Western diet.
The last section of the book gives suggestions for escaping the Western diet.
It is difficult to find real fault with this book. The suggestions for escaping the Western diet will be largely unhelpful for people with limited resources in terms of money and potentially time, though (organic delivery services will help with the time aspect). I wholeheartedly agree with the notion of spending a little more to get good quality meat and vegetables, but this is not an option for everyone.
Also, the focus on eating “mostly plants” is at odds with the fact that there are a number of very healthy human populations who eat little or no plant material, as reported in the book. Pollan does not promote vegetarianism as the only way forward, though, stating that since humans have been going to so much trouble for so long to obtain meat, it probably has a place in the diet. It is also fair to say that eating more plant food would not be a bad idea for most people.
Finally, Pollan dismisses supplements as useless, except perhaps multivitamins for the over-50s and in some cases a fish oil. Fish oil is well researched, with benefits for insulin metabolism, inflammation and cardiovascular health and I would put it ahead of multivitamins in terms of importance – even for people who eat well. I would also advise supplementation with vitamin D3 for most people living in the UK. As for other vitamins, supplementing with B complex may be helpful for improving energy levels and mood, and I suggest a good quality multivitamin as an optional extra for those who place excessive demands on their bodies – such as frequent, heavy exercise, an extremely busy work and travel schedule or an ambitious fat loss plan. It is not yet clear whether multivitamins have significant health benefits, although studies do not generally discriminate between types of multivitamins (and there is likely to be a huge difference in biological activity).
Everyone should read this book! Real food should be easily available and affordable, not an effort to obtain, or a luxury – and perhaps the most likely way to achieve this is through consumer power. If Farmers’ Markets and organic delivery services blossom, and the non-food taking up most of the space in our supermarkets is shunned, producers will have to change their practices.