Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is often mentioned as a good, practical follow-up to his excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which Jenny and I have both reviewed. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan looks at the process of food production, opening readers’ eyes to the problems with the industrial food chain that prevails in 21st-century America. It’s a great book, and it has changed how I make some of my food choices.
Pollan takes a slightly different approach in In Defense of Food. Instead of focusing on the food production process, he explores the nutritional value of our food and discusses what kinds of foods we ought to be eating. His answer boils down to three simple guidelines: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. By eat food, he means eat real food, staying away from “food-like substances.” We should avoid eating too much by adopting a food culture that allows us to listen to our bodies and not eat mindlessly. And the foods we eat should mostly be plants, with meat and dairy functioning more as garnishes or side dishes.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I did Pollan’s previous book. There was some fascinating information about why nutrition research tells us to avoid fat one year and carbs the next. But there was more information here than I wanted. I could have done with a good, solid article on this topic because, really, once you’ve decided that the focus shouldn’t be on single nutrients but on whole foods, it seems kind of silly to devote 20 minutes of the audiobook to the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
The specific advice Pollan gives is reasonably good, but there isn’t a whole lot that would be entirely new to readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some of the advice struck me as impractical or just downright wrong for my own situation. For example, he goes on and on about the problems that come with eating alone, not seeming to realize that people who live alone pretty much have to. And the man hates snacks—categorically it seems. Dude, not all snack foods are Twinkies. I’m pretty sure my usual mid-morning piece of fruit is doing me no harm and a fair bit of good.
On the whole, In Defense of Food feels like a puffed-up appendix to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Much of the new information here is worthwhile, but there’s not enough to warrant a whole new book. A couple of articles would have done the trick. Might it feel fresher and more interesting to someone who hasn’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? Perhaps. But the argument here doesn’t have quite the same power, and the most fascinating information in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is passed over very quickly, making this book a poor substitute for Pollan’s previous work. My advice is to read the first book, and then check this one out of the library and read the first and last chapters. The rest is little more than filler.