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1-Page Summary of In Defense of Food
We have a lot of choice when it comes to food. Should you choose local, grass-fed beef or save time and money with chicken nuggets? Organic asparagus shipped from Argentina or kale picked from your neighbor’s garden? The Omnivore’s Dilemma examines the production methods of today’s food supply and how they could be improved.
Why would we need help with the food choices we make? We all know what food is.
Do we really need nutritionists to tell us what foods are healthy? In the past 50 years or so, an industry has developed around food and its nutrients. This led to a diet that is mostly processed and stripped of its original nutrients. The result of this diet on our health has been astounding. Therefore, people have created labels for food products in order to distinguish between truly healthy foods and those that claim to be so.
In this article, you’ll learn about food recommendations that are based on no more than hypotheses. You’ll also discover why we stopped talking about foods and started talking about nutrients. Lastly, you’ll find out why your great grandmother’s diet is the best one for you to follow today.
Big Idea #1: In the twentieth century, we began to talk about nutrients rather than food.
Think about the last time you wanted to start following a healthier diet. Did you think, “I’ll eat more carrots and cucumbers and stop eating beef”? Or did you think, “I need to cut out saturated fats and starchy carbohydrates, and eat lots of vitamins and minerals instead”? If you’re like most people, your new diet was expressed in terms of nutrients rather than specific foods.
But when did this happen? Why? During the second half of the twentieth century, food and US government shifted their focus from food to nutrients. Around 1950, a number of scientists believed that fat and cholesterol (i.e., meat and dairy products) was responsible for heart disease. They called it the lipid hypothesis.
In 1968, the US government created a committee to review nutrition and human health. Based on their findings, they produced a report in 1977 called “The Dietary Goals for the United States” that was largely based on the lipid hypothesis.
The committee’s goal was to advise people on how to prevent heart problems, but the head of the committee owned cattle ranches. Therefore, he didn’t want people to stop eating red meat because that would hurt his interests and those of powerful food lobbyists.
So, the committee’s recommendations were changed. Where they previously advised people to “not eat meat and dairy products”, they instead advised them to “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” The new wording was a much smaller threat to the food industry.
As a result of this, the discussion about diets began to change. We started talking about healthy eating in terms of nutrients instead of food.
Big Idea #2: If we’re led to believe that nutrients determine a food’s healthiness, then we may misinterpret the actual health content of certain foods.
You’re in the supermarket and you want to buy pasta. There are two types of pasta: one is “low-carb” and the other is “imitation pasta.” Which would you choose? Most people would go with what seems like a healthier option, but both are essentially processed imitations of real food.
But why do we need to rely on professionals to tell us what is good and bad nutrition? We don’t really know, because most of the time, they are just translating scientific studies into something that seems more comprehensible. This way of eating is a religion for many people who believe that it’s important to maintain health by eating healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. But this also promotes an unhealthy attitude about food in general, where we tend to focus too much on nutrients instead of looking at our overall diet.
However, if we focus on the nutrients in food rather than the actual type of food we’re eating, then even processed foods would be considered to have more nutritional value than real foods.
In 1938, the Food and Drug Act was passed in order to regulate imitation food products. One of the rules that was put into place was that any product classified as an imitation had to be labeled as such on its packaging.
Naturally, the food industry opposed this decision. At a time when adulterated food was uncommon, it was seen as a kiss of death to label a product as an imitation. Eventually, the rule changed so that companies could market their products without using the dreaded “I” word if they weren’t nutritionally inferior.
When people began eating less healthy foods, food companies started making imitation products to replace the unhealthy ones.
Big Idea #3: The US Dietary Goals were based on a hypothesis. This led to a golden age of food science.
The link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease is not as strong as originally thought. Today’s food science has advanced to the point where it can be used to create healthier foods that are an improvement on what we have now.
The Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs published those guidelines under pressure from the food industry. The committee followed that advice, but people didn’t understand it properly. They reduced their saturated fat intake, but they also added processed foods to their plates. As a result, people ate more low-fat products instead of real whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
In the 1970s, food science became the most important way to look at food. There were labels on almost every food that said it was low-fat and had no cholesterol. Food companies even started adding new ingredients to foods like mayonnaise and yogurt so people would think they are healthier.
Besides changing certain food products, scientists were able to study how different diets affect animals. This led to the creation of leaner cows and pigs, which meant that beef and pork could be part of a low-fat diet.
Foods that are unaltered, such as carrots, bananas and potatoes were neglected at around the same time.
Around the same time, one group of foods that could not be altered was neglected: whole foods, such as carrots, bananas and potatoes.
With the rise of food science, we entered a strange period in which producers could make their products appear healthy simply by adding “healthy nutrients” to them, while all-natural healthy foods were neglected. After all, it’s far easier to stick a “healthy” label on a Lucky Charms cereal box than on a carrot!
As this shows, nutritionism might be the best thing to ever happen to the food industry. But is it good for us?
Big Idea #4: People who choose to eat better are not healthier than those who don’t.
If you’ve ever stopped eating a favorite food because someone told you it wasn’t good for you, then that’s exactly what most Americans do. They’re typical victims of nutritionism.
Nutritionism is a new way of thinking about food. It tells us what we should eat more of and what we should avoid. To do your shopping right, you need to be up on the latest scientific research and learn how to decipher increasingly complicated ingredients labels.
The author is arguing that our society has changed the way we think about food. Food used to be a cultural and social experience, but now it’s something we consume for physical health benefits. We’ve made eating more scientific by thinking of fat as toxic rather than delicious. This approach makes us lose track of what foods have historically meant to us as a culture because it’s based on science instead of pleasure.
For example, the increase in low-fat products on the market has coincided with an astonishing rise in obesity and diabetes. Nutritionists advised us to exchange fats for carbohydrates. However, carbs interfere with our metabolism and cause us to eat more than we should.
Nutritionism is a philosophy that believes that if you eat the right foods, you can prevent many diseases. It’s goal is to reduce heart disease deaths in America. Since 1969, there has been a 50% decline in heart disease deaths in America. However, it seems like the cause of this decline isn’t nutritionism but rather better medical care and advances in medicine.
The Western diet has caused an epidemic of obesity and other health problems. The author will discuss the problems with this diet, as well as propose a new way to think about food.
Big Idea #5: Poor health is largely caused by the Western diet.
Both the advice of nutritionists and the practice of modifying food products to increase their nutritional value distract us from a major cause of poor health in developed countries: The Western diet.
This diet consists of processed foods, full of refined sugar and flour. Moreover, it doesn’t include a sufficient amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In short, the reason for our general poor health isn’t nutrients—it’s our diet. Research undertaken around the world has shown that people who avoid this Western diet also avoid its associated health risks. For example, in the 1930s a dentist named Weston A Price traveled to various parts of the world to find out how isolated populations lived on native diets without suffering from chronic diseases or tooth decay due to their lack of exposure to refined flour, sugar and chemical vegetable oils.
Furthermore, other studies have shown that when people stop eating the Western diet, they dramatically improve their health.
In the 1980s, a nutrition researcher named Kerin O’Dea conducted an experiment in which she asked ten Aborigines who had recently moved to settlements in Australia and adopted Western diets to return to their native lands for seven weeks.
Ten men who lived in the settlements had developed type 2 diabetes, elevated levels of triglycerides (which cause heart problems), and increased risks of obesity as well as hypertension and heart disease.
While living in the settlements, the ten men had developed type 2 diabetes, elevated levels of triglycerides (which cause heart problems) and increased risks of obesity as well as hypertension and heart disease.
However, during their stay on the island, they ate seafood, birds and kangaroos. They also occasionally ate turtles, crocodiles and bush honey. By the end of their time there, all ten men had reached a healthy weight. Their blood pressure was lower than before they went to the island as well as other risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes.
The results were published in this month’s edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
As the experiment showed, a change in diet rather than nutrients could reduce the risk of developing certain diseases.
Big Idea #6: We need to stop thinking of food as a means to an end and start thinking about it in terms of relationships. Food is the product of those relationships.
As we’ve seen, Weston A. Price looked at the relationship between diet and health back in 1939. Why didn’t people listen to him? The food industry has too much power, and his conclusions are a threat to them because they’re about the relationship between food and ecology (the environment). We now know even less than we did then about where our food comes from or what kind of soil it’s grown in. It’s these factors that determine whether a food is good for us or not.
If the soil is polluted or lacking in minerals, it will affect the grass and cows that grow from it.
Therefore, we need to think of food as a relationship between the links in the food chain. The health of one link can affect all other links. Thus, physical health is dependent on being a part of this network.
Big Idea #7: Industrial agriculture has achieved many things, but it has come with a cost.
The Western diet has changed a lot over the last 150 years. One of the most important changes was from whole foods to processed foods. What is a processed food? Food production became industrialized, and food underwent chemical and biological simplification. To make it last longer, nutrients are taken away or chemically treated so that only certain ones – those recognized by science – remain in them.
In order to make flour last longer, bran and germ are removed during the refining process.
Yet, the process of refining whole foods has made them less nutritious. Today, you’ll have to eat three apples in order to get as much iron from one apple that was available in 1940. The history of refining food has been about making it more durable and portable, so that people can easily carry it around with them. Meanwhile nutritional value is being ignored.
Since the Industrial Revolution, people have been refining grains to make them more palatable and longer lasting. For example, white flour is refined wheat that has a longer shelf life than whole-wheat flour. White flour also turns into glucose faster, which is what our brains prefer as fuel.
White flour has no nutritional value. As a result, it caused diseases like pellagra and beriberi. Scientists have known that refined carbohydrates increase the risk of developing chronic disease and whole grains reduce that risk, but at this time in history they aren’t recognized as part of the Western diet.
Big Idea #8: We need to break away from the Western diet and return to a healthier lifestyle.
Before nutritionism, people were guided by their cultures to eat the right foods. Mothers passed on those habits to their children and they endured because they kept people healthy. Nowadays, most of us have lost that cultural food guidance and we’re eating unhealthy diets instead.
Instead of trying to find an alternative diet, the food industry has been looking for ways to improve the Western diet. One theory is that there’s a single “problem nutrient” in today’s diets. The food industry benefits from this theory because it allows them to redesign products and create new ones based on this idea.
The health industry benefits from new theories, too. It’s easier and more profitable to create lifestyle treatments for diseases than it is to change the diet of an entire civilization.
It’s clear that we need to get away from the Western diet. The general population has been made aware of scientific terms, such as the lipid hypothesis and refined carbohydrates, but one thing is clear: people who eat a Western diet are more susceptible to chronic diseases than those who don’t. The solution? Stop eating a Western diet and recover food culture.
To break with the Western diet, you don’t have to follow nutritionist’s advice on which foods and nutrients to eat or avoid. It is better to follow a simple set of guidelines for deciding on a meal that will result in a more traditional and healthy diet.
Big Idea #9: People should eat natural, simple and unpretentious food.
When you go to the supermarket, look at what you’re buying. You’ll probably see that a lot of it is actually food-like products instead of real food.
The problem is that food science has made it very difficult to identify real food. You need to follow certain principles in order to make sure you’re eating real, natural foods and not highly processed ones. First, try not eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. If she wouldn’t eat it, then don’t either because it’s probably a highly processed product that isn’t good for you. Second, stay away from products with more than five ingredients—food science makes things complicated by adding unnecessary ingredients into traditional foods. Traditionally bread was just made of flour, water and salt; today you can find breads with 20 or more ingredients which are usually added by scientists trying to make the product healthier but end up making them worse for you instead!
Third, if a food product claims to be healthy, then you should avoid it.
A lot of products claim to be healthy, but they’re not. These claims are based on questionable science and incomplete studies. For example, margarine used to make the same kinds of health claims as butter does now, which is why we know that those health claims aren’t true. Moreover, if corn oil makes a similar claim about being healthy as butter does now, it’s probably because companies can get away with making false health claims in the first place.
These three rules will help you to tell real food from the processed stuff that passes for food these days.
Big Idea #10: To eat healthy, it’s important to choose foods that provide the most nutrients from the soil. However, you should make sure your food is coming from good sources of soil.
If you follow the principles in the previous key point, you will be able to tell real food from food-like substitutes and improve your diet.
But, not all whole foods are created equal. Some plants have more nutritional value than others. So, here are two principles to help you decide which foods should form the foundation of your diet—give priority to plants and choose leaves over other parts of the plant.
Plants are good for you, and eating them won’t hurt you. Arugula is a type of plant that absorbs nutrients from the soil and puts it into its seeds. Since humans can’t live without plants, they should be prioritized over other things because they’re so important to our survival. In addition to this, plants provide us with antioxidants that neutralize dangerous chemicals in our bodies. The more antioxidants we have in our diet, the better prepared we’ll be to fight off disease-causing toxins
It is possible to prioritize plants while still including meat in your diet. Although meat doesn’t provide any nutrients that can’t be acquired from other foods, it does collect toxins because of its place at the top of the food chain.
The second principle is actually a spin on the old expression, “You are what you eat.” In this context, it’s that we’re also what we consume. So when eating meat or milk products, choose sources of those foods that eat more leaves and fewer seeds.
The same logic applies to plants. Plants that are grown in good soil will be better than those grown with synthetic fertilizers.
It’s important to have a balanced diet. By eating only one type of food, it is not healthy for you and can cause problems. The best way to maintain balance in your diet is by eating a variety of foods from different sources (plants and animals).
Big Idea #11: It’s important to not eat too much, even if you’re following a healthy diet.
The focus of nutrition and food science is so heavily on the chemistry of food that they rarely focus on how eating affects people’s lives. As a result, nowadays very few people care about what it means to eat well or even enjoy their meals.
If you can afford it, buy high quality food and eat less of it. If you’re eating better quality food, you won’t have to eat as much to satisfy your hunger. So, prioritize the experience over quantity by appreciating taste and ambiance rather than simply consuming calories.
It is important to have proper meals. It’s also important to sit down and enjoy that meal with other people. Eating properly will make the food taste better, and it will also enhance your social relationships because you’ll be able to spend time with family or friends while eating.
Eating with others makes you eat slower and more mindfully.
If you have the chance, cook for yourself. This is a simple way to stop eating processed food and start cooking your own meals.
Processed foods are bad for you. They contain a lot of chemicals, preservatives, and other unhealthy ingredients. Therefore, cooking your own meals is better because it will be healthier and more natural than the processed food that you’d otherwise buy at the store. You’ll also enjoy preparing your meal in the kitchen because it will smell good while you’re cooking and there’ll be snacks to eat during preparation so that when dinner time comes around, you’ll really appreciate what’s on your plate.
Cooking is an ancient tradition that many people continue to practice.
Full Summary of In Defense of Food
When was the last time you went on a diet? How often do you read nutrition labels and try to figure out what’s in your food? Do you enjoy eating when doing so? Many people, especially those who live in Western culture, struggle with these questions. Michael Pollan attempts to answer them by looking at how our diets have changed over time. He looks at human history and shows that for most of it, what people ate was tied to their culture. In today’s global society, where there is so much variety available, we need new guidelines for determining what we should eat.
Globalization is not the only reason why people don’t know what to eat. Marketers appeal to consumers’ subconscious desires, as well as their conscious needs, in order to get them to buy certain foods. Nutritional scientists also have a hand in this confusion by telling society one thing about a food at one time and then changing their minds later on. Journalists are also partly responsible for confusing people because they have an interest in keeping the public confused about nutrition.
People are confused about what they should eat because of the abundance of food choices. We have lost our knowledge on how to eat well, which was passed down from generation to generation. This leaves us with harmful advice and foods that aren’t really food at all. Pollan suggests avoiding any food that your great-great-grandparents wouldn’t consider as edible, since they would know better than you do.
In Defense of Food is about finding truly healthy eating habits and enjoying food. To accomplish this, we need to buy less food overall, but ensure that the quality of what we do buy is higher. Pollan suggests that instead of following scientific trends by consuming foods based on which nutrients are currently being studied, we should focus on ecology and tradition when making our dietary choices.
In Defense of Food is not a diet, but rather an examination of our relationship with food. Pollan suggests that we could enjoy eating more if we ate the way our ancestors did. Doing so would prevent us from further damaging our relationships with food.
Michael Pollan wrote this book as a response to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It is an answer to the question of what we should be eating, and it also stemmed from his previous article “Unhappy Meals.” In that article he talks about how people have stopped eating food and are now just thinking of nutrients.
Pollan uses the example of low fat diets to prove his point about nutrition fads. He believes that fat isn’t bad for you, and that removing it makes food less tasty. So manufacturers add sugar to make it taste better. Sugar is addictive and can lead to complications such as diabetes, so people are worse off than they were before.
In the past, people ate mostly whole foods. Pollan explains that we’ve shifted to a culture of eating nutrients instead of complete meals. To break out of this cycle, he suggests eating mostly plants and minimizing animal products. He doesn’t recommend becoming vegetarian or vegan but rather to eat like our ancestors did – in moderation.
Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, was a bestseller and maintained its position on the New York Times’ list for six weeks. He has written several other books that touch on similar topics. His show “Cooked” is also related to his work in food.