Boy, am I glad I read this book: “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” by Michael Pollan, an award-winning food writer for more than 20 years. I spotted it on a recent trip to Borders. I was feeling flabby and frustrated that my jeans felt tight, so I went scrounging for a new diet secret in a sea of get-skinny books. Fortunately, I passed the Social Science section first, and caught glimpse of this bestseller that encourages you to eat food. But Pollan uses the term “food” loosely, as much of what we eat today is just processed junk, empty but marketed-as-healthy calories in shiny packaging.
I’m always attracted to books that make veggies and straight-from-the-ground foods seem delicious. I do not, however, like books that make me feel like the government has a stranglehold on us, passively shoving processed, disease-causing garbage down our throats because of the massive influence of the agribusiness industry. Packaged, microwavable food can taste so good to me, and is oh-so-convenient for someone who doesn’t like to cook (me!).
However, when I have a day when I look and feel ten years older than I am, I know I’m overdosing on Lean Pockets, chocolate-chip granola bars, and diet coke. I get caught up in calorie-counting, as I’m always a little nervous that I will someday wakeup my former chunky self. But Pollan’s book pleasantly reminds me that natural food will not only keep me thin, but it will also make my skin glow and keep me safe from chronic degenerative diseases.
It’s sad and a little unbelievable that our “by the people, for the people” government would steer us wrong and encourage us to consume food that could make us very sick down the line. According to “In Defense of Food,” it all started in 1977, when a senator suggested eating less red meat and dairy. Farmers who made their living selling meat and dairy were outraged, and agribusiness lobbyists bombarded the government. The government later decided that, in order to keep everyone in the (incredibly lucrative and powerful) food industry happy, they would no longer discourage the consumption of any food. Instead, the government would promote nutrients.
Food companies jumped on this opportunity. All they have to do is fortify a nutrition-less, manufactured food item with a vitamin or mineral, and they can advertise it as healthy. To understand this, recall the last time you walked down the cereal aisle, and noticed a box of chocolate-flavored sugar puffs being marketed as “a great source of 12 vitamins and minerals!”
So, as tempting as it is, don’t believe any health claims on packaged food, Pollan says. Instead, follow his simple plan, “Eat food (as in, not processed), not too much, mostly plants.” More specifically, we should eat whole, traditional foods like our ancestors did. Buy from local farmers, eat lots of leafy greens, and if you eat meat, make sure the animal ate greens as well. Eat wild foods, game, and wild, caught fish. Try to get a good dose of omega fatty acids on most days. Do not let high-fructose corn syrup enter your body. Only eat food that can perish, and don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce. If a packaged food is advertised as healthy, it probably isn’t.
Many of us have heard this advice before, but Pollan explains why these guidelines are so important. For example, Pollan explains that “free-range” beef means that the cows were given access to grass, but they didn’t necessarily eat it. Unless you purchase “100% grass fed” beef, there’s a good chance your cow dined on corn, stale candy, and remains of other cows. Which means that’s what you’re eating, too.
I know far to well that processed foods are addictive, but down the road, they lead to nasty diseases. Preventing these illnesses, which are extremely common today, is as easy as eating real food. I’m thankful for Pollan’s book, which has really made me think twice about what I put in my body. The bummer thing is that Pollan pushes cooking and even planting a garden yourself. I hate cooking! But, living in the heart of NYC, I have three salad-making restaurants on my block. For those elsewhere in the country, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and many smaller grocery stores offer locally-made, ready-to-eat meals.