Saturday
Dec112010

Nutrition Book #1

In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto  by Michael Pollan, published 2008.

Michael Pollan, as you would expect of a U.C. Berkeley professor of journalism, is an exceptional writer.  He not only writes well, he also thinks very well.  Trust me, I’m an omnivorous reader of books on nutrition; you won’t find a better guide (outside of this blog) to healthy eating than In Defense of Food.  

I particularly enjoyed the 24 rules on eating found in the closing chapters.  Pollan has written a more recent book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual that provides 64 rules for food, but In Defense of Food is far the better book because it tells the story behind the rules.  One thing lacking in either book is a guide to implementing these rules, a week-by-week program for achieving such a difficult lifestyle change.  (Fortunately—ahem—you have this blog for such guidance.)

Pollan exposes the problems with modern food.  He soundly condemns the practice of nutritionism, the practice of looking at the nutrients in food individually, thus losing sight of the synergy of nutrients working together in their native milieu.  Taking nutrients out of their natural context has led to the industrialization of food, as well as today’s foolish trend towards functional foods.  (More on this tinkering with foods later.)

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was a footnote found on page 88.  The Nurses’ Health Study (phases I, started in 1976, and II) is our largest observational study of diet and female health.  Such studies often disappoint just because they are “observational”, meaning they follow people living their normal life, rather than testing, say, a diet thought to be more healthy.  Yet a small group of women, just 3.1% of the total, were found within this study who lived an unusually healthy lifestyle. 

This group of women did not smoke, were not overweight (BMI <25), averaged 30 min. of daily exercise, ate a diet low in trans fats and high in polyunsaturated vs. saturated fats, ate their grains whole, had fish twice weekly, got their daily allowance of folic acid, and consumed no more than five grams of alcohol daily, on average.  (More about the wisdom of alcohol later.)

Did this healthy lifestyle make a big difference?  You can bet your life it did.  Over the 14 years studied, their risk of coronary heart disease was reduced 80%, risk of type 2 diabetes was down 90%, and colon cancer risk was 70% less.  It is rare to see such a dramatic protection from the chronic diseases—and a big reason to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

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Reader Comments (8)

I just found your blog today through your daughter's blog. Love the concept--I will be following along closely! So, I was reading back through your posts that I'd missed so far, and I couldn't help but comment when I read this one. First, let me say that it's been a couple of years since I read In Defense of Food . . . right now I'm taking a class on health/nutrition. Yesterday's assignment was actually based on that book. Then, today I was reading in the class "textbook" (The China Study by T. Colin Campbell) for another assignment, and came across Campbell's opinions on the The Nurses' Health Study (Ch. 14, beginning on pg. 269) in regards to the validity of the study's research. Just curious if you've read Campbell's book and if you'll be discussing it on your blog. And, if you haven't, it's a fascinating read!

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWendy

I agree with the above comment! The China Study is fantastic. I didn't want to be convinced, but I was. I'm not about to go 100% vegan because of that book, but I am leaning heavily toward that side now because of that book. And way more because of that book than because of In Defense of Food.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristyn

Kristyn, people like you who carefully read The China Study become much more conscious of animal protein in their diet. The genius of the term "sparingly" is it gives each person some flexibility in defining what is best for them. Campbell's work suggested animal protein be limited to 5-10% of calories, that was my conclusion. I interpreted the "spirit" of the Word of Wisdom to include all animal protein under the term "meat". Using the 10% limit, my weekly calculation allowed meat for two meals (not counting fish) or meat used to flavor dishes for three or four meals, 4 eggs, an ounce of cheese most days, and some milk for cereal or an occasional glass. We don't put milk on the table at meals, but you can't eat chocolate or a P&J without milk, can you? One important reason for animal products from ruminants (cows, etc.) is the vitamin B12, it is critical to health and a problem for long term vegans. Best to you, Skip

January 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Hi Skip, I found your blog through the "That Wife" blog (thatwifeblog.com). Thought I'd click on over to check your blog out since I'm a registered dietitian:) It is exciting to see that you've explored and will continue to explore the world of food and nutrition. I've personally found that reading a variety of literature (books, research articles) and learning from other health professionals in my field has helped shape my personal philosophy on food, nutrition, and eating. I also read Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" along with "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma". These definitely provided some excellent info. If you haven't already considered it, I also enjoyed "What to Eat" by Marion Nestle. Her blog "Food Politics" (www.foodpolitics.com) is great also.

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Hi - this is slightly unrelated, but wasn't sure where to post this question. Ever heard of the book "Skinny Bitch"? I wasn't a fan to be honest. Turned out to be someone pushing an agenda, I thought, and trying to be "Dr. Phil" kind of funny. BUT, the only thing I did like about it was Chapter 11: Let's Eat with the good and bad ingredients glossary. Thought that was a valuable reference to carry to the store with me.

I remember reading a line from that book where the author claimed that human beings were not designed to be carnivores, that our bodies were not made to digest meat, giving the example that we have alkaline saliva not acid saliva like other carnivores and the stomachs of "real" carnivores have 10 times the amount of hydrochloric acid, "essential for digesting carcass" as ours. The author uses this to argue everyone should be a vegetarian. I felt like there was mega fallacy in the arguments in that chapter (Cptr. 4: The Dead, Rotting, Decomposing Flesh Diet). Should I have been a more open minded or is the author taking liberties with the whole "humans are meant to be vegetarians" thing? Would love a book review or post on that.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

I just recently read this book on your recommendation and LOVED it. Thanks for putting it out there. I was particularly affected by the whole "low-fat" phenomenon. Up until that point in the book, I'd been able to nod my head and be thankful I hadn't been taken in by "nutritionism." Not so! I was also bamboozled! I've found myself reassessing the "low-fat" products that have become staples of my diet (sour cream, cheese, milk), and check for additives, etc. I may just have to look up the other book recommendations now . . . but it will be hard to beat this one.

June 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

A key book and catalyst for my transformation!

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSabrena

Love your blog! I have found 100daysofrealfood.com to provide a way to put Michael Pollans suggestions into practice.

October 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErin

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