Book Review: In Defense Of Food, by Michael Pollan

September 9th, 2009 - filed under: Furthermore » Reviews

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Those seven words, which I absolutely agree with, are the thesis of Michael Pollan’s most recent treatise. The book itself was probably the final spark that ignited this whole foods movement, illuminating the issue across America and beyond. So, if I agree with Pollan’s core concept, and I am willing to credit him with generating revolutionary interest, why am I about to give a negative review? Buckle up my dears – I don’t worship Michael Pollan the way that everybody else appears to.

In Defense of Food is set up in three sections: The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization, and Getting Over Nutritionism. In part I, Pollan lays out an interesting timeline of food science and health philosophy in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In part II, his argument is presented and explored. This is the real crux of the work, but there are undeniable omissions here. Finally, part III brings about his lackluster conclusion.

Let’s start at the beginning.

I very much enjoyed myself while reading part I. I thought it offered a well-researched, if not terribly well written, history of nutrition science. I learned a new word, orthorexia: a person with an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy (from ortho=correct, and –exia=appetite). And I learned some new trivia, regarding the origin of the word ‘vitamin’, which was coined in 1912 by a Polish biochemist named Casimir Funk. Yes, really. Coolest. Name. Ever.

But the point of this portion was to introduce what Pollan calls ‘nutritionism’, or “the idea that a food is not a system but rather the sum of its nutrient parts”. He rails against ‘nutritionism’, and for the most part I agree with him. However, Pollan covers a lot of ground in his indictment of nutrition science – not all of which is worthy of his wrath. In fact, it’s this very heavy-handed critique that comes back to bite him in the ass later on.

A lot of good information has come from the study of nutrition, but Pollan makes it seem as if all nutrition scientists are corrupt, as if all biochemistry is inherently flawed. I think there is a middle ground, but perhaps I’m biased. I am, you know, a scientist after all.

In part II Pollan lays out his case against the standard American diet (SAD), and my big issue here is not the information he presents. It’s what he doesn’t say.

Pollan argues that different people eat different foods, based on availability. People in Scandinavia eat lots of fish and little fruit, and people in the Amazon eat lots of fruit and foraged goods, and Inuits eat pretty much only blubber. Each of these groups are relatively free from the diseases that destroy us – heart disease, diabetes, obesity – though they all eat drastically different diets. So what’s wrong with what we’re eating, that’s effing us up so badly? Well, white flour, for one. And refined sugar. High fructose corn syrup. Preservatives. Additives. Processed ‘foods’. The thing that native people have in common is that they’re eating whole foods.

Duh. Yadda yadda. We know this by now, right? (to be fair, this wasn’t such a popular idea a few years ago, when the book was published)

What I kept asking myself while reading about these many indigenous peoples of the world, was this: Where’s my peeps at? Where’s all the plant-based diets? Pollan didn’t touch on the peoples who live without animal ‘foods’ – although there are plenty. I find this absence dishonest, and, given Pollan’s attention to detail, most certainly intentional. Dishonest, but not surprising, as Pollan has a bit of a *history* with vegetarianism (see this excellent review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma).

So we spend the first third of the book derailing reductionism and the dangers of lipophobia and obsession over single nutrients. But then, we spend a goodly portion of the next third . . . touting the glory of the magical omega 3. As Pollan writes: “Could it be that the probem with the Western diet is a gross deficiency in this essential nutrient?” Um, hypocrisy? You betcha! And Pollan even admits it, in the very first paragraph of part III: “You’ve no doubt noticed that much of the nutrition science I’ve presented here qualifies as reductionist science, focusing as it does on individual nutrients . . . rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns. Guilty.”

Sorry, but an admission does not excuse you my friend, and you don’t get to have it both ways.

The rest of part III was hard to find fault with. It’s true: his basic ideas are solid.

It’s funny to me, that I felt like I needed some sort of ‘cultural permission’ before I felt comfortable criticizing such a widely acclaimed author. Really, everyone I’ve ever met has such a hard-on for this dude. It makes you doubt your skepticism. But, once I allowed myself to question, the floodgates were opened and all my misgivings articulated at the surface.

Michael Pollan, I must call you out as a coward. I know you’re smart enough to see the science; to see the contradiction in your ‘foodie’ infatuation with fancy meals laden with meats and dairies. You know that it’s detrimental to your planet, and to your own health. Vegetarianism isn’t actually difficult, and veganism isn’t some imaginary utopia. I guess I just wish you would be honest about that, in one of your grand manifestos.

You have the ear of the world. Would that be so hard to say?

  • J

    I think maybe the point was that people ate what was available, not worrying about nutrition ~or~ morality as much as people (OK, some people) do now. Naturally, I think humans are omnivores, and would quickly devour an animal rather than go hungry. If you know where, historically, humans really didn’t have access to meat, I think that itself would make a really interesting post. :)

  • Heather

    Thanks for the review, and don’t feel guilty! I have this book on hold at the library and waiting for it to become available. I will definitely read it with a more discerning perspective.
    Maybe his next manifesto(cha-ching!) will be about his conversion to veganism!

  • Mari

    I haven’t read any of Michael Pollan’s books, but I have read excerpts from The Omnivore’s Dilemma which is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, as we speak. I am total agreement that food culture, especially in the Western world is unhealthy and unsustainable, but I think that there is room in the world for everyone, be they omnivores, vegetarians or vegans. If we concentrated on curtailing the waste involved in the modern food industry, we’d will have come a long way already; and if we encouraged co-operative and sustainable farming and agriculture, that focused on native plants and animals, we’d probably be more then half-way there. Unfortunately, human beings are generally lazy, and if they can avoid putting extra effort into even thinking about any issues at all, they will. Not only that, but most people are not fussed about what they put into their bodies, and the powers that be are happy sell them “food products”. Instead of choosing sides, i.e. meat-eaters vs. plant-eaters, all of us who care about this Earth and those on it, should be encouraging a healthier and more sustainable food culture worldwide.

  • Leigha

    I have had similar misgivings over Pollan’s statements. I wondered why he never explored vegetarianism & veganism – it seemed like the next natural step. I also took issue with the inconsistency of him criticizing single-nutrient focus only for him to later extol the virtues of Omega-3. I agree that Omega-3 is good for the body, but had a hard time taking him seriously after he so blatantly contradicted himself.
    It was refreshing to read your review. I have tired of the constant praise for Pollan and the lack constructive debate or dicussion about his claims. (Full disclaimer: I get annoyed when anyone acts like one single person is the end-all on any given subject, so that could explain part of my aggravation over the Pollan-worship.) I’ve pissed off many a health food store worker after speaking my mind about Pollan or one of his books.
    Keep up the good work! I, for one, agree with your criticisms.

  • Adam

    At the risk of being tagged a “Pollan worshiper”, here’s my two cents. Despite his lackluster opinion of vegetarians in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that book is probably the greatest reason I am now a vegan. After reading it I no longer wanted to be a consumer of the factory farm industry. Still, I find it hard to have beef (ha!) with him over his non-vegetarianism. Most people aren’t vegetarians. Heck, it took me long enough to come around.

  • daoine o’

    i read ‘the omnivore’s dilemma’ as well and it certainly helped reinforce my current avoidance of factory farming, ewwww! i’m not a vegetarian, but do limit the meat and dairy i eat and do strive to buy from more humane and especially local/organic sources.

    i think overall pollan’s books do indeed have merit, and i have also read that veg-only diets aren’t for everyone…that some people truly do better with some amount of animal protein in their diet. from the wee bits i’ve read, the ‘paleo’-type diet seems to be a fairly sound one…a little bit of everything: meat, veggie, grain, fruit, etc.

    no-one, but *no-one* should ever need to eat a 32-oz porterhouse steak, however, as old-time steakhouses used to tout (and maybe some current ones still do?) or 1-lb hamburgers.

    really, it’s all about balance and moderation, and what makes you feel the best. when it comes to our diets, i think one-size (or type) really doesn’t and just can’t fit all.

    there’s my $.02 on that! :)

  • Sayward

    Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments! I love hearing your different perspectives, especially since they’re all so diverse. I liked writing this review (my first book review) and look forward to doing it again. Maybe I’ll let you al know what I’m reading in advance – sort of like a Bonzai Book Club! Ooh, I like it! What do you all think?

    Just to clear one thing up – I’m not asking that Michael Pollan, or anyone else, become a veg*n. I mean, of course I’d prefer it because I think it’s the healthiest, most sustainable, and of course most ethical way to live! But I’m not so naive as to expect a massive conversion. My point was that from somebody as intelligent as Pollan, I expect a certain level of intellectual honesty. I think it’s dishonest, and a disservice, NOT to mention the environmental superiority of a veg*n diet (this is an undeniable fact) and the healthful benefits of eating veg. He can leave ethics out of it, since that’s what he seems to do.

    That’s all I meant.
    Love you all!

  • Dylan

    Well I agree with most of what you have to say about Pollan’s stance on food and take to heart your concern about the lack of discussion on his part about the relative merits of eating vegan or vegetarian. I myself have been frustrated by his reluctance to take a more strident position against what is happening to our food and the planet because of factory farming and the profit driven food industry. His conclusions are often softened down versions of what I have been trying to get people to understand for the last 20 or 30 years. However he has won me over because he has actually gotten people to listen to him where I have largely failed. Probably the time was right, finally (hope not too late), but he also deserves great credit, not so much for what he says, as for how he gets to his conclusions. By using the “objective” and professional journalistic approach, considering all claims as equally valid, and then dealing with them on the basis of first hand experience coupled with the in depth research and “unbiased” looking of someone with no prior position or awareness of the industry, he has managed to come off as someone truly reporting what is going on rather than defending his particular belief system or way of life. As frustrating as that is in the face of the overwhelming and blatant evidence that the general conversation about food is so off base and the amount of time and space he gives to this ubiquitous disinformation, I have to commend him on his results: he does educate rather well and he is getting the mainstream to listen to what he has to say. I bet this is why he, as you point out, deliberately avoids the issues of vegetarianism and veganism. Who knows what his personal opinion or practice is about the use of animals and animal products in his own life. He is being a journalist first and dealing with the conversation as it is when he comes to it.

    What I do notice is that the longer he looks into the mess the harder and harder it is for him to stay “objective” and not take more and more radical stances. Probably he is working his way to the obvious merits of avoiding meat and animal products in our diets and agricultural system. But he has to get there in his own “naive” way as a journalist, regardless of how aware he himself may be.

    Having said that, I would like to point out the relative wisdom he has come to and the larger message he has to make. In addressing the issue of sustainability and the meaning of the word (which he has serious misgivings about as do I) he has this to say (in an article in the New York Times, see whole article here- “Whenever we try
    to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too
    many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency,
    we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break
    down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of
    sustainability as something more than a nice word.”

    Without going into a long conversation about it, and in the interest of truly looking at the whole picture I would recommend you check out this video:, or look up anything you can by Joel Salatin. Both of these people give wonderful and inspiring ways of how we can include animals in an agricultural system that are both beautiful and healthy for the planet.

    PS in writing this I accidentally coined a new word: “conversaytion”-a talk with Sayward that results in a conversion to veganism
    , hee hee.

  • Sayward

    @ Dylan – Sorry it’s taken me a bit of time to respond to this, but you wrote quite a bit and I wanted to give it the proper attention.

    I agree with much of what you say about Pollan’s influence and the important impact he’s had in raising these issues. I do not quite buy the ‘he’s a journalist’ argument, since it’s pretty clear he’s pushing an agenda. I think it’s more accurate to say he’s a very well-researched and fact-based opinion writer. I don’t think he is just dealing with the conversation as he coms to it, though, because in so many cases he is setting the tone of the conversation!

    I think he is working towards a vegetarian position, actually. After I wrote this article I listed to this episode of Science Friday, which I think you may find particularly interesting. It’s about what one new author is calling ‘the Loca-vore Myth’, and includes interviews with Pollan and that author. You should give it a listen, it’s really interesting stuff. And Pollan straight up comes out and admits the inferiority of meat as far as energy and the environment are concerned. It’s here: , with free download available on iTunes

    As for the end of your argument, I just do not agree in any way. Sorry! I watched the TED talk ( I <3 TEDs!!!) and was quite disappointed with what I saw. I know my views are the minority, but I do believe in them. For the sake of time and space I'll simply summarize:

    There is no such thing as a non-exploitative ('humane') situation where one group in power takes something forcibly from another group with no power, and makes money from it. Money is the priority, and the welfare of the animals will always be secondary. These animal agriculture systems are, by definition, exploitation. There is no such thing as humane murder.

    But Dylan, I do love your input and always appreciate your thoughtful comments. And conversaytion is my new favorite word! So awesome!

  • Dylan

    Thank you Sayward! And thanks for the link: I read and liked it.I have four points to add that relate to all I have said, all you have said and what was said in the interview.

    First, I think both you and I are observing how Pollan is moving from mainstream to the actual truth in his rhetoric, and yes he does seem to be getting it as far as animal production goes.(Leaving out the ethics).Whether or not he actually started out as an “innocent naive” and worked his way to his present position, or if that was his intent all along, I can’t say, but it did work as far as getting more mainstream people to pay attention.

    Second, my position about “being local” is about a lot more than how far the food travels. Which, as was talked about in the interview, is not the only issue. However I give much more emphasis to scale of operation and directness to the consumer (how many middle-persons are there?)in my analysis than any of them did. So much of what is environmentally unsustainable and ecologically imbalanced (if not to mention ethically, morally untenable) is perpetrated by the large scale factory farms (both animal and vegetable). And when you buy direct all of your food dollar goes to the farmer, while in most other cases 80-90% goes to advertisers, marketers, brokers, distributors and retailers. What isn’t even mentioned is the carbon footprint that that 80-90% goes to (except the cost of transportation).Buying local avoids all of this as well as supports the local farm community.(My bias comes from having spent years as a small direct market farmer, primarily organic; I could not afford to stay a farmer).

    Thirdly, I totally support and have no argument with your choice to be vegan. I was married for ten years to a Buddhist whose main reason for being vegetarian was spiritual I accepted and supported this, eating and cooking only vegetarian at home. I believe that it is a higher consciousness that considers the soul or spirit of all living things. In my defense, in your review you did say you were leaving out the ethical issue(s)in criticizing Pollan’s points (or lack thereof). I was responding in the spirit(NPI)of leaving ethics out of it, though I believe that ultimately it always comes back to that anyway.

    My fourth point considers the criticism of fundamental thought as regards the conversation regarding, local, organic and sustainable as brought up by Professor McWilliams. I myself have been guilty of fundamentalist thinking and positions. There is much to be gained by developing greater perspectives and higher points of view. However, I have also learned that fundamentalism is also always based on some important truth, whether it be the words of Buddha, Mohammad, Jesus, or the awareness of the souls and spirits of animals. So I think it is important not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Ultimately, saying locavores are wrong is a mistake. But what is humane and what is murder? Is killing vegetables for food inhumane? Is terminating pregnancy through abortion murder? Is it wrong for osprey to live off the killing of fish? Were the Native Americans immoral when they prayed to the spirits of the animals they killed and thanked them for giving their lives so that they may live? Can we really separate out ethics and morality from nature and the natural order of things, regardless of how far we develop our consciousness?

    I don’t know the answers.

  • Sayward

    @ Dylan – We need to get those forums up, don’t you think?! =D

  • IngaG

    *I think it’s dishonest, and a disservice, NOT to mention the environmental superiority of a veg*n diet (this is an undeniable fact) and the healthful benefits of eating veg.*

    Actually, I vividly remember him stating that he believes the wide variety of diets indicates that there little health reason to avoid meat – but that there are plenty of ethical and environmental reasons. I don’t have the book right now so I can’t tell you which page it is, but it’s where he comes down to practical recommendations. So he does mention that.

    Agreed on the Omega-3 inconsistency…

  • Sayward

    @ InaG – Unfortunately I no longer have the book either! I wouldn’t be surprised if he made the concession offhandedly, in passing. He certainly doesn’t present it clearly and in the honest manner I’d hoped.