This past week I had several conversations about the “right” foods to eat, and that got me thinking about Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food (2008), which discusses this topic. It is a great read, and here I will share the top 4 highlights I took from the book.
1. Eat Food
One of the rules that Michael Pollan (2008) mentions early on in the book is that we should eat food. Although it seems obvious that we should eat food, Pollan means that we should eat whole and natural foods instead of the processed foods that are so readily available in grocery stores. Processed foods contain ingredients that have been processed so much that they can no longer be considered a food item. Processed foods contain many chemicals and additives that are not nutritious.
Sometimes it is hard to get food that is not processed to a certain degree, and it is not always possible to avoid processed food altogether. For instance, rice has to be processed in order for us to consume it because we would not be able to do so in its original grass form. What helps me determine how processed a food is, is to think about how different the food from its original source? The closer it is to its original form, the more likely I am to opt for it. Going back to rice, I opt for brown, black, or wild rice, which are less processed, rather than white rice. But, I would opt for white rice over rice crackers.
2. Eat Mostly Plants
To go hand in hand with eating food, Michael Pollan states that we should “eat mostly plants, especially leaves” (2008, p. 162). Consuming plants means that we are eating whole and natural foods that are nutritious. For example, he states we are better off buying corn on the cob than we are buying processed foods with high-fructose corn syrup. Corn on the cob has many nutrients and fiber, and high-fructose corn syrup is a processed item that provides little nutritional value other than sugar. Consuming plants provides nutrients that are necessary to the body, including antioxidants, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber. Different plants contain different nutrients, and it is important to consume a variety of plants in order to get a variety of nutrients in the body.
Eating plants is associated with improved health and is recommended with most diseases and conditions. For instance, antioxidants found in plants are able to decrease the amount of free radicals in the body. Free radicals occur more frequently as we age and when we are exposed to environmental toxins, such as radiation. In turn, free radicals have been known to cause diseases, such as cancer. Antioxidants, including Vitamin C, are able to bind to free radicals and reduce the damage that they cause to the body. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is recommended, not only to help in preventing cancer, but also to help in the treatment of cancer.
Antioxidants found in plants also help the body get rid of toxins. The more plants we eat, the more toxins we are able to eliminate. Pollan (2008) suggests that it is not as important to get rid of the toxins we consume, as it is to ensure we are consuming enough plants in our diet so that our bodies are able to get rid of the toxins. He does not state that we should be reckless and consume all of the toxins we want, but does state that consuming plants is essential to our health. To demonstrate it he states that vegetarians are more likely to consume more plants, and tend to be healthier than those who consume a more Western-based diet.
Pollan (2008) also argues that humans have been dependent on plants for nutrition for thousands of years. He states that we may have once been able to produce our own Vitamin C, but when our ancestors incorporated a plant-based diet, our bodies stopped producing their own Vitamin C since this was now coming from plants. Consequently, we became even more dependent on plants.
He does advise that it is important to distinguish leaves from seeds, such as grains and legumes. Although seeds are plants and are nutrient rich, they are also more energy rich than leaves. This means that seeds provide more calories than other plant parts, such as leaves. If consumed in excess, seeds can cause weight gain and other trouble. However, consuming excess of leaves will not have the same effect. Thus, eating mostly plants, especially leaves, provides us with the necessary nutrients and healthful benefits.
3. Consider What Feeds Your Food
Michael Pollan states that “you are what what you eat eats too” (2008, p. 167). Although it sounds like a tongue twister, it means that we need to be aware not only of what we are eating, but also what is being fed to our sources of food. In other words, we need to pay attention to what is being fed to the animals and plants that subsequently provide us nourishment. If the animals and plants we eat do not consume the necessary nutrients they need, then we ultimately do not get the nutrients we need.
Pollan (2008) demonstrates in his book that modern agricultural practices have moved to a high consumption of grains, particularly rice, corn, and soy. We may not be consuming these grains directly, but they are prevalent in our foods. They are in many of the processed foods, and they are also the food source for animals. Grains provide a cheaper food source for beef, chicken, pigs, and fish. In addition, feeding grains to animals yields higher production of milk and eggs.
The problem is that grains do not provide animals all of the nutrients that they need. They no longer get the benefits of eating grass that provides more fiber and antioxidants than simple grains do. As a result, animals are not as healthy and are more prone to illness. In order to prevent illness, animals get fed antibiotics. In addition, animals that are fed with grains produce more omega-6 fatty acids and saturated fats in their bodies. This means that we end up eating more ill-prone, less nutrient-rich, and more antibiotic-filled animals. This effect gets translated to us when we consume these animals. We eventually become more ill-prone, less nutrient-rich, and more antibiotic-filled.
In order to prevent this, Pollan (2008) suggests that we seek 100% grass-fed animals. Animals that are fed with grass are healthier and more nutrient rich. For instance, they have more omega-3 fatty acids and fewer omega-6 fatty acids. They also have more vitamins and antioxidants in their bodies that are later available to us when we consume them. Nutrient rich food is visibly evident, where an egg yolk from an egg that has come from a grass-fed chicken is bright orange, and an egg yolk from a grain-fed chicken is likely to be yellow.
Pollan advises we look for animal products that are not merely free-range, since often these animals are not fed grass for their entire life span, and they may end up getting grain as food at some point. Instead, he advises we look for grass-finished or 100% grass-fed food sources to ensure we are consuming animals that are nutrient rich.
4. Eat Proper Meals
Michael Pollan mentioned several rules in his book In Defense of Food to “counter the rise of the snack and restore the meal to its rightful place” (2008, p. 192) with the purpose of ensuring we eat in healthier ways. I will share my experiences on how I have incorporated these rules.
One is to “do all your eating at a table. No, a desk is not a table” (2008, p. 192). This is one that I used to not follow before. A few years ago I used to live my life on the go with little time to spare to eat. I ate breakfast and lunch at my desk at work, and dinner on the couch in front of the TV. My approach was about convenience and how quickly I could consume my meals. I did not focus on the food, but rather on other tasks. Eating at a table helps one eat less. I noticed that when I ate at a desk or on a couch I did not pay attention to how much food I was consuming, since my attention was on work or catching up on my favorite shows. Eating at a table made me pay attention to the food in front of me, and be conscious about what I was putting into my body. I take my time eating food, I eat sitting at a dining table, and I do not work or watch TV while I eat.
When I used to eat food on the go, I would either purchase ready-made food or food that required little to no cooking. I would also often purchase foods from convenience stores. This relates to Pollan’s rule to not “get your fuel from the same place as your car does” (2008, p. 192). These foods are high in energy, yet provide low levels of nutrition, and have high contents of sugar, fat, and salt (Letona, Chacon, Roberto, & Barnoya, 2014). These and other fast-food options are also high on sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat (Urban, Roberts, Fierstein, Gary, & Lichtenstein, 2014). They often come in larger portion sizes and contributed to eating more food than is necessary (Urban et al., 2014). I do not purchase foods from convenience stores any longer, and take my time to shop and look for organic, local, and healthy food options.
Another rules says to “try not to eat alone” (Pollan, 2008, p. 192). I no longer eat my meals alone. The only exception is when I travel. I consume all my meals with my family, including the occasional afternoon tea break. I agree with Pollan that eating with others helps one eat less. Having family around me made me even more conscious about what I ate because my family was also aware of what I was consuming. I now eat considerably less than I used to. For example, I am less likely to help myself to seconds than I used to be.
“Consult your gut” (Pollan, 2008, p. 193) is a work in progress for me. Pollan explained that we need to listen to the signals from our body to indicate that we are full, and should stop eating when we feel 80% full. That is possible if we are paying attention to our bodies, and are not distracted by working or doing something else while eating. Eating at a table with my family means I am focused on eating during meal times, instead of being distracted by other tasks. I am not always able to stop when I am 80% full, but I certainly pay more attention to my gut and eat less.
Eating with my family also allows me to “eat slowly,” which Pollan (2008, p. 194) states helps one eat less since it takes 20 minutes for the brain to signal to the body that it is full. While eating with my family we engage in conversation, and thus take more time to eat. I used to be able to eat in less than 20 minutes, but now that I eat meals with my family, it takes us an average of 40 minutes to an hour to complete a meal.
Thankfully I have been able to incorporate all these practices of eating at a table, not buying food at convenience stores, not eating alone, consulting my gut, and eating slowly, particularly in the last few years. Consequently, I have noticed a great difference in the quality of food and portion sizes, where I eat healthier and less food than I used to. There are many other lessons to be learned from reading In Defense of Food, and I would recommend reading the book in its entirety. But, if you consider eating food, eating mostly plants, considering what feeds your food, and eating proper meals, you will already be implementing some of the most important lessons Pollan wanted to impart.
Letona, P., Chacon, V., Roberto, C., & Barnoya, J. (2014). A qualitative study of children’s snack food packaging perceptions and preferences. BMC Public Health, 14(1), 1274-1279. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-1274
Pollan, M. (2008). In Defense of Food. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Urban, L. E., Roberts, S. B., Fierstein, J. L., Gary, C. E., & Lichtenstein, A. H. (2014). Temporal trends in fast-food restaurant energy, sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat content, United States, 1996-2013. Preventing Chronic Disease, 11(E229), 1-7. doi:10.5888/pcd11.140202