In Defense Of Food {a book review}

I have a little book review for you today. I'm usually not much for writing book reviews (way out of practice!), but with this one, I felt I ought to give some reflection and response. After receiving a rave recommendation from our well-loved pediatrician, I checked out In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, from the library yesterday. I’m writing about it today because it took me exactly four hours to devour the 200 page book in one sitting.

I love that Pollan has a simple message, which he delivers with common sense and thoughtfulness. While he does not write from a Christian world-view, every argument he gives for the consideration of food and our eating habits points remarkably to the evidence of a Master Designer...the Creator of the human body and human existence.

The book begins with the simple thesis: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. While 2/3 of the book gives an inside look at the history of nutritionist theory and propaganda in this country, and how it informs all that we find lining our grocery shelves today, the latter portion of the book is dedicated to helping the reader make wise choices about our relationship to the food we consume.

I say relationship because the author does a convincing job steering the reader away from thinking of food as purely nutritional components and dietary needs and restrictions, but rather for what they were intended to be: nourishment and enjoyment. I love that Pollan seeks to portray what is so amazing about food as it was meant to be for the human body, and not just how toxic the food industry is, and can be.

Nutritionism (or reductionist science), Pollan argues, boils food down to mere nutritional  components; which, in turn, makes it possible for  junk food to be fortified and altered to the point of appearing like a health food. Or, for human beings to consider supplements an adequate supplier for healthy living.

Much lip service is paid to the importance of prevention, but the health care industry, being an industry, stands to profit more handsomely from new drugs and procedures to treat chronic diseases than it does from a wholesale change in the way people eat. (pg. 141)

Pollan does such a good job taking the reader beyond the history, the science, and even the trends of food and nutrition, and into the realm of cultural and moral ramifications of the Western diet.

For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life...but Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and little more than an hour enjoying them.  (pg. 145)

And yet, we are a society that wants to hear: Eat more low fat foods. We don’t like to hear: Eat less meat. Eat fewer dairy products. I couldn’t help but consider how great the testimony of stewardship and honor to our Creator, if Christians were to resemble the counter-culture in this area, rather than the norm.

In other words, instead of worrying about nutrients, we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature. (pg. 143)

As a mother of soon to be 5 who seeks to provide nutrition and enjoyment of the food, I felt so encouraged by the historical, philosophical, and practical help this book gives to the process by which we come about eating food. Simply put, though not given in biblical terms, the book ultimately charges me with a greater responsibility to consider how the Lord intended for my body to be nourished, and how I can use my time and resources more wisely to reflect his design.

When you’re cooking with food as alive as this--these gorgeous and semigorgeous fruits and leaves and flesh--you’re in no danger of mistaking it for a commodity, or a fuel, or a collection of chemical nutrients...The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many things to worry about, but “health” is simply not one of them, because it is given. (pg. 201)

It’s so easy for us to be enticed by the ease and convenience of fast food and a fast lifestyle, buying into the allure of foods that readily provide us all that we “need” at face value. But for the believer, pursuing the less-ubiquitous path of simple and whole foods leads us to a stewardship that rewards, not only in health, but also in the wonder of God’s great sovereignty and provision to his creation.