In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food

I find In Defense of Food mostly credible, though I have minor misgivings here and there.

Author Michael Pollan argues that we’ve made a mistake in not looking at food holistically, but instead in trying to break it down to its component parts to ascertain what’s the helpful stuff and what’s the harmful stuff. (He calls this approach he’s criticizing “nutritionism.”)

His position is not that somehow it’s impossible that there’s a link between this vitamin and this benefit, or this type of fat and this harm, but that there’s a limit to how much that approach can really tell us—at least at this stage of scientific development.

Instead he thinks that we should trust traditional practices concerning food. Not because non-Western or non-scientific people have some mystical access to higher wisdom or anything, but more from the evolutionary standpoint that surely all different diets were tried over the millennia, and the ones that lasted are presumably the ones that enabled people to live long enough and healthy enough to reproduce and defend themselves and such.

As he points out, reasonably successful diets around the world vary enormously in terms of fat versus carbohydrates versus protein, meat eating versus primarily vegetarian versus lots of seafood, etc. In fact, the one diet that’s a clear failure compared to all the others is the Western diet of recent decades.

That’s the one where people get the fattest and get the most cancer and diabetes and such, and the one where—if factors like poverty and access to health care are held steady—people die youngest.

Why? In Pollan’s opinion, it’s because so much of what is consumed in the Western diet has been altered and added to and subtracted from. Instead of eating traditional foods, what we’ve ended up with is a lot of processed “foodlike substances.” They’re artificially preserved, frozen, bleached, canned, artificially colored, etc., etc.

Some of the harm of that we can identify—some of the nutrients that are eliminated by certain forms of processing and such. But a lot we can’t, because when we focus too much on trying to identify the specific elements that are lost or altered and what effects that has, we fall into the nutritionist error.

One consequence of that is that we think we can solve the problems by putting back what was lost, or even adding a little extra of it. So if we’re aware that processing wheat to make white bread lessens the amount of this or that vitamin or fiber or whatever, then we chemically alter it to add ten times as much as it originally had of those substances, creating “fortified” white bread.

But that rarely if ever works, he says. When we try to rebuild the foods, or we try to add all the “good stuff” we’re aware of to the foodlike substances we’ve created, it doesn’t have the same benefits as eating the original food would have. You can’t make a Twinkie a health food by grinding up a multivitamin and injecting it into it.

And that’s because, presumably, there are all kinds of other elements and all kinds of synergistic processes going on in foods and even between foods that we’ve only scratched the surface in discovering. Milk, butter, beef from cows that eat regular grass, fresh local fruit, and bread made from whole wheat have different and better and only minimally understood properties that nondairy creamer, margarine, beef from cows fed with unnatural feed, fruit rollups, and processed white flour lack. And that difference is killing us.

Science designs studies to focus on incremental differences in diet—a little more of this, a little less of that—and the results are routinely ambiguous. Or they’ll look very informative for a while and everyone will rush to eat more of this kind of fat and less carbohydrates or whatever, but invariably later studies lead scientific opinion to shift in another direction, in fadlike manner. Meanwhile we’re ignoring the massive real life experiment that all versions of the Western diet with its preservatives and processing and such are getting their ass kicked by the traditional diets of Eskimos eating blubber and fish, Greeks in old time villages eating lamb and olive oil, and South American Indians eating beans and rice.

His recommendations are to eat organic, eat local, eat actual fruits and vegetables, eat (not too much) meat and dairy and such from animals fed on real food, and eat as little as possible foodlike substances that come in boxes and have 47 unpronounceable ingredients, indicating they’ve been processed beyond recognition (if they were ever foods to begin with).

As I say, I’m inclined to think his analysis is right-headed, even if I’m not ready to endorse it a hundred percent. At least in general terms it strikes me as consistent with what I’ve been told in conversation about nutrition by doctors whose opinions I give a fair amount of weight.

But I think the folksy, anti-elitist appeals lamenting the fact that we stopped listening to “Mom” and her traditional advice about diet, and started listening to scientists and doctors instead, goes a little overboard at times.

He’s seemingly critical of the very idea of self-consciously judging a matter on its merits and deviating from tradition, on the grounds that the very fact that something is done the way it’s been done as far back as memory extends should tell us it’s better than anything we can come up with trying to start from scratch. I could see that having some weight as a quite loose rule of thumb, but too often he seems to rely a lot more heavily than that on it.

Hey, there are a lot of things that have “stood the test of time.” War, paternalism, fundamentalist religions, lying to acquire and maintain power, astrology, and never saying no to a new technology, to name a few. I suppose these all count as “successful” in some largely tautological sense, but I don’t think they’re so self-evidently beneficial that we should never seek to deviate from them.

He can come off as a little anti-science for my tastes, but I do like when he emphasizes that it’s more the distortions of science that cause the problems. So it’s the fact that so much of science is heavily influenced by the capitalist industries that stand to gain or lose the most from its findings. And the fact that some of these same forces work more indirectly through politics and the media to pervert science.

Politically, you aren’t allowed to say, for instance that Americans eat too much meat, or too much beef. It doesn’t matter what the research shows. It doesn’t matter how many people will needlessly die if you don’t say it. Money and votes won’t allow it.

So you have to say that there’s a certain (fixable) aspect of meat that is the problem, or that we can continue to eat as much meat as ever as long as we increase how much we eat of something else, etc.

I could see some readers faulting him for basing some of his defense of his conclusions on the very kinds of considerations he criticizes as nutritionist fallacies throughout the book—as when he discusses how the Western diet has resulted in us eating too little omega-3 fat, how processing food removes various nutrients, etc.—but I don’t really see an inconsistency there, because his position is not that vitamins and other parts of food have no importance, but just that you’re missing the big picture if you focus exclusively on the few components of food that we have some understanding of.

He at times tries to extend his argument beyond the physical properties of foods to the way the whole culture of eating is relevant—e.g., whether it’s expected in a given culture to eat until you’re full, the pace at which you’re expected to eat, the number of meals you’re expected to have per day, etc.—to how eating affects our health. There’s probably something to that, but I didn’t find those points quite as compelling as the rest of the book.

Here and there he may be guilty of a little of that form of wishful thinking where all the things one wants to believe turn out to be mutually supportive, for instance that going organic and eating the kind of natural foods he advocates results in better tasting food than we’ve gotten used to, is good for the environment, and just has better consequences all around.

I don’t want to put too much weight on it, because I think the show is simplistic and willing to sacrifice some logical rigor for entertainment (ironic, given its holding itself out as all about critical thinking), but I happened recently to see the episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! debunking organics. Among other things, they staged taste tests where diehard proponents of organics who swore up and down how much better tasting they are actually chose the non-organics slightly more often. They also pointed out how if more land now used for the most objectionable industrial farming were converted to growing only organics with no pesticides and no chemicals and all that, the result would be significantly lower yields and a lot more hunger around the world.

Again, not sure how much to buy that, but I suspect there’s at least something to it.

The author also claims that because the vegetables and such he praises are so much better tasting and more nutritious, we won’t have to eat as much of them to be satisfied and feel full. The theory being that when the body consumes foodlike substances with minimal nutrients, it craves more and more because it wants to get the nutrients it needs whether it takes an ounce or five pounds, plus psychologically if something tastes twice as good, you’ll only bother eating half as much of it because you will have derived the same amount of enjoyment.

Uhh, no. The reason I eat one apple but will devour as much chocolate cake as is available (if I weren’t forcing myself not to) isn’t that the apple fills me up as much as the huge amount of cake, nor that the apple gives me the same amount of enjoyment as the huge amount of cake. Basically it’s the same reason I do just enough to get off with the below average looking woman who’s barely doable, but will devour as much of Scarlett Johansson as is available.

I want more of a good thing, not less.

On a more general level, one thing this book brought to mind for me is the need to have a sense for what’s settled science, what’s nearly settled science, what’s kind of headed that way, what’s still really speculative, etc.

I think of it this way. Let’s say you could record the opinions of everyone who is in a position to understand the science in a given area and how reliable it is. And you ask them about a certain proposition, not just yes or no, but the degree of confidence they have in it or the likelihood from 0% to 100% that it’s true. Plus maybe you weigh the opinions, such that the scores of those most knowledgeable about the matter are multiplied so as to carry several times the weight of those more peripheral to this area of science.

What would the results be for various issues? The idea that tigers are carnivorous, or matter is composed of molecules might be 99.9999999 for instance. I’d guess evolution would be something like 99.99 (and I’d also guess the average member of the American public would think scientists would score it closer to 50). Homeopathy would be something like 0.2.

What In Defense of Food is expressing in effect is that a lot of the claims of nutritionism really wouldn’t score as high as most people think, that the claims tend to be very speculative, even as the mass media report each new change in the official doctrine as if everything’s been settled now and we “know” we’re consuming too much salt or too much saturated fat or not enough fish oil, or what have you.

But that’s the kind of thing that can be very important. How solid is the science behind such-and-such a claim, and how much is still very much educated guesses?

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