Every book you read is an opportunity to further develop and expand your mental models. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan is a prime example for me. Prompted to read the book by my wife, I was unsure of what types of lessons I would glean from this volume. Having finished the book, I not only have gained a better understanding of food and its relationship to health but also learned new lessons which I can apply in other areas of my life. In Defense of Food presents a compelling mental model related to eating with additional lessons for your health and wealth.
Synopsis of In Defense of Food
Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” – Michael Pollan
This eater’s manifesto adorns the front cover of this book but also succinctly captures the mental model contained in the text. The secret to healthy eating is not so much a secret but simply forgotten since the rise of nutritionism. Only in recent history has humanity not understood how to eat healthily. Having outsourced our critical thinking to nutrition experts, we have been left with a confusing jumble of advice that would leave most people completely confused on how to eat.
Yet, healthy eating has always been intuitively understood by our ancestors. Culture, humanity’s first invention, has passed on the secret to healthy eating down through the generations. You’ve likely heard of the Mediterranean diet and it’s purported health benefits. It’s no accident that the Mediterranean diet is healthy. If it wasn’t, the people of Europe would have died or at least not prospered enough to build a food culture around it.
This intuitive form of eating based upon history and culture is the focus of In Defense of Food.
The rise of nutritionism is the focus of the first part of In Defense of Food. Michael Pollan tells the story of how we transitioning from eating foods to eating nutrients. This fundamental shift in thinking not only changed the words we use to describe our food but it changed what we eat as well.
Over the last century, there has been a gradual increase in our scientific understanding of chemistry and biology. First, we discovered the macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Next, we discovered micronutrients or vitamins which broadened our understanding of the chemical makeup of our food.
Naturally, as food scientists learned more about food, they began to make recommendations on proper or healthy eating. The agricultural and food industry responded by modifying our foods or creating new food products aimed at achieving a result that was both tasty and ‘healthy’ according to food scientists.
Unfortunately, this trend is a prime example of the need to understand your circle of competence. Nutritionists had a large category of information that they didn’t know they didn’t know. This “unknown unknown” has resulted in a growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the United States and other western countries. If our diet and culture were truly healthy, the result would not be ever-increasing sick and obese population.
This is an example of the mental model I am calling, “Expert-ism.” Expertism is the outsourcing of your critical thinking to experts. Unfortunately, any time you outsource your critical thinking, the result can be disastrous. In this case, complete trust in experts resulted in a severe decline in health. Micheal Pollan provides us with a case study that we can apply not just to the study of food but also other areas of our life.
The Western Diet and Western Diseases
The second part of In Defense of Food focuses on the modern day ‘western diet’. The western diet is highlighted by large amounts of processed food products. Whether it’s fast food or a highly processed protein bar, the western diet’s specialty is the convenience, not health.
Sadly, a focus on eating food products instead of food has resulted in an unhealthy population. Numerous studies discussed by the book outline how the western diet is linked to metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a complex set of conditions that include heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. These chronic diseases are mostly non-existent in traditional populations eating a traditional diet.
This brings me to one of the things Michael Pollan does really well. He recognizes that there is only so much that we know. Michael Pollan emphasizes that we don’t necessarily know why traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet or certain Asian diets result in better health outcomes. Instead, he asks that we simply recognize that we know those traditional diets are healthier than western diets.
Michael Pollan asserts, with evidence in the book, that by no longer consuming the western diet we can reduce or eliminate the incidence of our western diseases.
An Eater’s Manifesto
The Eater’s Manifesto is best summed up in Pollan’s words, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Yet, the book is more nuanced and offers definitions of these terms. I encourage you to buy and read In Defense of Food for yourself.
Here, I have simply taken a few of my favorite or most surprising recommendations that Michael Pollan offers.
- Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
- I think this is a great lesson to take away. The industrialization and creation of highly processed foods began mainly over the latter half of the 20th century. By limiting your consumption to food from before that time, you will naturally eat more food and less ‘food products.’
- Avoid food products that make health claims
- One of my favorite insights of Michael Pollan in this book is how actual healthy food like an onion or a sweet potato don’t make any health claims. If a food product needs to make health claims to market itself, then it’s probably not a food you should consider eating.
- Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
- I appreciate the focus on the Lollapalooza effect that eating a traditional diet offers. The sum is greater than the individual parts. If you focus on a single part of a traditional diet it’s possible you’ll miss some key ingredient that makes the diet work. You don’t need to know the specific factor that makes traditional diets successful. It’s sufficient to just know that they are healthy.
- Have a glass of wine with dinner
- This recommendation was a surprise for me. I did not expect to find a recommendation for alcohol. Yet, Michael Pollan points out that wine has traditionally been a key ingredient in multiple historic diets and likely offers some benefits within the context of those diets. Obviously, moderation is important and only a single drink with a meal was recommended.
You’ll want to read the book for his full list of recommendations.
In Defense of Food – Book Review
What Michael Pollan does well:
- Michael Pollan understands his circle of competence. He doesn’t try to make health claims that he can’t substantiate with evidence. Instead, he focuses on areas that he has a broad understanding of and can back up with facts. This allows his findings to be more persuasive and his writing more relatable.
- He lays out a story that allows a reader to intuitively understand how to improve their eating habits. By focusing on simply eating food instead of food products we can all improve our health and well-being.
What Micheal Pollan does poorly:
- A cornerstone of the first part of the book is an attack on nutrition science. This attack, while successful at highlighting the flaws in nutritionism, also causes the reader to consider whether Michael Pollan’s own arguments are supported by the weight of evidence. I believe he does a well enough job of supporting his arguments with evidence, but I was left with the feeling of wanting to read a contrasting viewpoint to broaden my horizons.
Rating of In Defense of Food
I give a Five Star rating to In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.
In Defense of Food is a great book at explaining the history of the modern western diet and it’s drawbacks all while presenting a plan for how to improve your diet. This book stays focused on the key elements needed to make the case for eating whole foods and not food products. A healthy diet improves not only your health but also your wealth. Chronic health problems are expensive in both time and money so it is worth picking up this book to learn more about how to improve your overall health.
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