Think, for a few moments, what your grandparents used to tell you about what they ate while they were growing up. If they were anything like my Paw Paw, here is what they probably ate – lots of vegetables: potatoes, turnips, carrots … some bread (often from cornmeal), and a smattering of meat (most likely pork – it was the cheapest).
What’s something else you remember about your grandparents? Well, once again, if they were anything like my Paw Paw, they lived a very, very long time. It wasn’t just eating habits either, it was all those quirky things too. Brushing teeth with backing soda, vinegar mouthwashes, Vaseline rubs.
While some of those things seem very much “out there”, here were some other truths about my Paw Paw.
1. You almost can’t count on two hands the number of heart bypasses that he had. (I don’t mean to tell this story as to report that he was unhealthy. Only the opposite. He had two surgeries, both of which happened late in life, as in post-70, if I am not mistaken. Also, I remember after the first one – I think I was around 10 – that he was up and walking multiple miles mere days it seemed, after the surgery.)
2. He was the fittest man I knew. He was lean and had a full head of hair.
3. My Paw Paw died living until his last day, and the ripe old age of 98. They simply don’t make them like that anymore.
So what was his secret – or secrets – for that matter? Maybe it was the fact that he took about 500g of Vitamin-C each day. Maybe, but also it was probably how he ate, and eating is what this book is about. Eating like my Paw Paw …
So … food is ruined for me. Well … let me rephrase. Food isn’t ruined, Foodstuffs are. What are foodstuffs, you might ask? Well, foodstuffs are those things that look like food, that you put in your mouth, chew up, and attempt to digest. What they are more like are the things that trend towards the centers of supermarkets. Processed. Enriched. Fortified. Low Fat. Low Cal. Infused. As the author of this book suggests, if it has to advertise that it’s good for you chances are … it’s not really. Not in the way you think anyways.
The book has two broad themes, broken into three parts.
The first theme is an attempt to educate the reader on what has happened to the food supply in the last one hundred years, most notably the advent of food science itself. Food science (or nutritionalism) started like any other science: an attempt to identify what makes food healthful in an attempt to then make them even “more good” for you. This is what you see all the time in trends with food. Low-fat (when we now know that fat is actually good for you – at least the natural stuff – not that transfatty stuff). Low-cal (even though it’s not about less or more calories, but the content that the calories come from).
The principle problem in the first theme in the book is simply (and I think that this is so awesome) is that there is something intrinsic about food that can’t be really explained. That while the science of nutritionism is over 100 years old, it’s not very close to understanding how food actually works, and works together with other food.
A carrot then, is good for you because it is a carrot. Once you try to pull out the things you think make it good, you begin to lose the real content and essence of the food. It’s almost like it was created right in the first place, and maybe best eaten in that form.
Not only that, but much of our diets currently are saturated with chemicals and compounds that are much less tested and measured for impact on the body than most beauty or medical products. We honestly don’t really know what we are putting in our body.
Depressing, I know. Scary? A little.
In the second theme of the book, however, we have the simplest of solutions. Not a lot of science, more about what seems to be common sense:
Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
No research needed. It’s really that simple. Then Pollan then shares some very simple rules to govern shopping and eating. Here are some of my favorites:
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.
Shop in the periphery of a supermarket. Stay away from the middle aisles.
Avoid food products that make health claims.
On the whole, I think that In Defense of Food was an easy read (read it pretty much on flights to and from San Antonio while traveling for work) and a valuable perspective into understanding and interpreting what people are trying to tell you about food.