Posted in Food and Drink, My Bibliothèque, Non Fiction

{ Book Review } – In Defence of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a pill sized summary, the book tells us to ” Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It opens with this and it is also all that it has to offer to us. But it ends up winding 200 pages filled with small portions of excellent food wisdom, some of which is pretty common today, and large portions of extremely boring, number crunching information, which I found so exhausting that I ended up not even bothering to fact check them: I just speed read them and moved on. I felt that what was 20, may be 40 page manifesto about eating in moderation, mostly local and vegetarian was stuffed with two beanbag worth of fillers to make it sound impactful. But those 20 pages are something that I found to a really interesting perspective on food. So hang in there for those, it was worth it.

The image is from my own instagram account and can be found here

In today’s age and time, an age that he calls ‘An Age of Nutritionism’ in the book, it is not an exaggeration that the food that is cooked in our homes needs to be defended. So the next question you would naturally ask is, “From whom does it need to defended?” Pollan says that it needs to be defended from the food industry on one side and the nutrition industry on the other. The food industry seems to push convenience on us, making it seems like they are here to serve at our command to make “cooking” nothing more than mixing a few dry and wet ingredients from jars and packets to something “extraordinary” without really “slaving in the kitchen”, or without worrying about the what’s and whys of tasty, appetising food. On the other hand, the nutrition industry is hellbent upon convincing us that eating by numbers and markers and portions is the only way to well being, atleast physical well being, because they certainly don’t seem to be concerned about us losing our mental wellbeing as we become obsessed with counting and numbers. In other words, we must harness the science of numbers around micro and macro nutrients if we aim to feel healthy and hearty. And that is the purpose, the sole single purpose, of the act of consuming and cooking food – to fulfil these targets. It is a rat race in which your protein stats must win over your carb grams, your macros must tow the line and your micros must fulfill the requirements, or otherwise the battle is lost. They seem to thrive on making us orthorexics ( people with an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy ), like there is no middle ground, no way to do this without losing sanity.

The idea that food brings a sense of community, a sense of belonging or even that it defines the threads of being a part of a family is not how discussions around food are centred. This book made me think about the filtration of habits and customs with every generation, from our grandparents to our parents to us, and wait, before you tell me about how we have no time, we all have day jobs, etc I am not talking about “rituals” “rituals” . I mean basic rules or patterns that our moms and grand moms followed in our daily routines. Like making Rajma on Saturdays or in our Gujarati homes, consuming moong in some form on every Wednesday. Consuming moong on Wednesday and feed the same to a cow is supposed to bring good fortune. That good fortune part I do not endorse, but tell me something, does following that routine does not bring you comfort? Don’t you think that was a good way of maintaining diversity if pulses in our diet, and in turn, consuming a full compliment of amino acids even when on a plant based diet? Similarly, the consumption of fasting grains and root vegetables, sweet potatoes, millets, water chestnuts, Makhana, on a fixed, predetermined schedule, taught family members compliance for the sake of health, albeit disguised under religious regimens. But then it is upto us to think over the logic and reasoning in these supposedly rules and regulations. If you too find clever rationale in food practices of your region, pleased do share with me in comments.

Another point that tugs at my heart is the belief that that foods are essentially the sum of their constituent nutrients. I am no expert but I sort of agree when Pollan says it is not a linear mathematical addition equation. I have nothing to show for as my credentials in the field of nutrition nor am I a scientist, but it somehow feels intuitive to me. Like how conversion of energy from one form to another ( heat to kinetic or kinetic to electric ) almost always involves a loss of energy, it is impossible to ingest x grams of a nutrient and expect that the same x grams of it is assimilated and absorbed in our bodies. If you enter x joules in a machine, the output will be x minus y joules ( the energy lost in transfer ) of energy in a different form. The same way, consuming a cocktail of nutrients in measured amounts assimilates in a myriad, complex way in our bodies. The equation has many unknown constants involved on both sides of equations and hence treating food only as a source of some number if nutrients is fallacy. Food is a tradition, food is a balm that soothes when mind and body are down and it also the primal fire that pushes us to achieve what we set our eyes on. Food gives us an identity, food traditions are a valuable inheritance. Food is also a means of expression, expression of joy, expression of sorrow, expression of pride and so much more. So, let’s take a minute and look back, when was the last time you cooked to express?

Another part of the book talks about who the government guidelines about food have nothing been a carousel of some abstract ideal pie divided into carbs, proteins, fibre, lipids and so on, or into food groups, like vegetables, grains, dairy and meat, depending on which industry lobbied the hardest in the last few years before the guidelines were revised. When low fat campaign was at its peak, the margarine industry made a whole lot of money before the dairy industry woke up and started lobbying harder. For a period of time, the egg was demonised until the egg producers association funded enough research to prove no connection between dietary cholesterol and the cholesterol levels in blood. These are but a few examples, I am sure there is more. When pharma companies can influence the standard set for healthy blood pressure figures or optimal blood sugar levels in medical practice, there is a lot that we don’t get to see and hear. For every few basis points that these levels are reduced or altered, atleast a couple of millions more from the population come under the net of “high blood pressure ailment” or “abnormally high or low sugar” and have to start consuming medication under the advise of their medical care providers. If you can, please look up the data from last 100 years on the revision of these numbers and you will find how few people back then were prescribed medication, and how to many are prescribed today. Even ethical medical practitioners cannot do much against this kind of lobbying and the nexus between the policy makers and pharma companies.

Then there is a matter of narrowing of biodiversity in food crops we grow. In America, wheat, corn and soy provide a majority of food calories, when we pick up food from departmental store aisle. Even worse, those food products look nothing like a dish made of wheat, corn and soya bean. We all know the adage, “Shop from the aisles on the periphery of the store” which means to avoid the processed food aisles mostly located in the bang centre of the stores in the US and the aisles that are most easily accessible. It is not that different in India either. But do we actually do it?

So these are the questions that the book forced me to ponder on. Will I say that it is the only book that discusses these critical issues? No. Is it a must read? Ermm, no, if you have already read up enough in this and satisfied your thirst for perspectives on this subject, you can certainly skip this. But if you are keen and you do want to read more, take this up at leisure. Skim through the portions that get too obsessed with figures from researches and graphs and numbers. The rest of it is pretty interesting and certainly makes you rethink your priorities about food.

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