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.