“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is Michael Pollan’s mantra in his most recent book In Defense of Food. As an eater’s manifesto, this book strives to help readers find a healthier lifestyle and start enjoying good food. Although many of Pollan’s actual prescriptions may seem fairly obvious, in a world full of processed food, maybe we do need to take a more critical look at how our culture approaches food. He accomplishes this, in part, by revealing startling facts about the food industry and our own habits.
Pollan does more than critique the food industry and the influential monopoly of a few corporations and specific crops. He also reveals socially-promoted false beliefs on nutrients. Providing evidence of the flaws of the typical North American diet, Pollan examines how the Mediterranean diet, among others, has succeeded where ours has failed. He notes that this failure is often due to differential cultural understandings of food, but not necessarily diet. For instance, Pollan describes the overly-emphasized French Paradox – French people’s supposed ability to eat rich, “bad” foods and not gain weight – is simply explained by smaller portions, slower meals, and an attitude of enjoyment rather than guilt.
Instead of settling on any one diet as a model to be followed, Pollan promotes local and seasonal food as he outlines the steps we can take to eat a healthier and more environmentally-sound diet. The book ends with a throw-back to its opening offering simple rules like “eat well-grown food from healthy soils,” or “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” and “avoid any products that list more than five ingredients.”
Whereas in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s previous book, he left out specific suggestions, his follow-up is more accessible, providing a guide meant to change our lifestyles and encourage us to start eating “right”. In Defense of Food is also more to-the-point, coming in at about half the size of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In some cases Pollan’s brevity turns into a slightly repetitive and superficial discourse, but it is a practical starting point nonetheless.
The book follows an ongoing trend that has emerged in the past few years: going local. Vancouverites Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon coined the term “100 Mile Diet” when they published a book about eating locally for a year. Earlier this year, Barbara Kingsolver accomplished a similar feat in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which followed her family’s experience when farming in the Appalachian Mountains for 12 months. Alternately, Pollan’s book is a popular scientific and political look at the differences between food and nutrition, and the way that many products are promoted for profit, without our health in mind.
As a student, this book made me re-examine the way I approach the grocery store and the kitchen table. I can’t change everything at once, and I don’t have time to run around the city looking for that perfect, locally-grown tomato, but when I’m standing in the produce aisle, I will try to search out local vegetables rather than settle for the woody imported varieties.
At McGill, we’re lucky to have organizations such as Organic Campus at our disposal. On Tuesdays, they provide locally grown food, usually inside or in front of Shatner, and they have organized a farmers’ market in Three Bares Park for the month of September.
Concordia offers a collectively-run student food co-op, Frigo Vert (2130 Mackay), which sells produce and bulk dry goods at reasonable prices. Jean Talon and Atwater markets are also alternatives, as well as various health food stores, like Frenco’s on St. Laurent and Duluth, or BioTerre on St. Viateur and Esplanade.
With the constant flow of readings, essays, and exams, food seems to have taken a low priority in students lives, but without the proper nourishment, how are we going to feed our brains and write that perfect final sentence?
Pollan’s In Defense of Food is available in hardcover edition at bookstores around Montreal for $26.50. The book is 176 pages long.