In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan: Summary and Notes

in defense of food book

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Rating: 8/10

Related: Food Rules, How Not to Die, Mindless Eating, Salt Sugar Fat

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In Defense of Food Short Summary

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan Pollan explores the rise of the ideology of nutritionism and its relationship to the Western Diet. He then proposes the short answer to what humans should eat to be maximally healthy: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

The Age of Nutritionism

Nutritionism is not a scientific subject but an ideology. The widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is the nutrient. In other words: foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts.

The 3 myths of nutritionism:

  • What matters most is not the food but the “nutrient”
  • Because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat
  • The purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health

This leads to dividing nutrients in food into healthy and unhealthy ones: good nutrients and bad.

Any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear.

Nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.

Nutritionism is good for the food business but no so much for us.

The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

People eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets. And when other people adopt this diet, these diseases soon follow.

Start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship.

The five fundamental transformations of the industrialization of eating:

  • From Whole Foods to Refined: a shift toward increasingly refined foods, especially carbohydrates
  • From Complexity to Simplicity: the industrialization of the food chain has involved a process of chemical and biological simplification
  • From Quality to Quantity: not only we’re eating a whole lot more but we’re getting substantially less nutrition per calorie than we used to. We’re both overfed and undernourished
  • From Leaves to Seeds: leaves provide a host of critical nutrients a body can’t get from a diet of refined seeds.
  • From Food Culture to Food Science: the industrialization of our food is systematically and deliberately undermining traditional food cultures everywhere

Getting Over Nutritionism

To escape the Western diet and the ideology of nutritionism, we have only to stop eating and thinking that way.

Instead of worrying about nutrients simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature.

Eat Food

  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the edges of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. In most supermarkets, processed food products dominate the center aisles while fresh food line the walls
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible and go to a farmers’ market. The surest way to escape the Western diet is simply to depart the realms it rules: the supermarket, the convenience store, and the fast-food outlet

Mostly Plants

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • Eat as many different kinds of plants as possible as they all have different antioxidants and so help the body eliminate different kinds of toxins
  • Plant foods—with the exception of seeds—are less energy-dense so you’ll likely consume fewer calories
  • We don’t need to eat meat—with the exception of vitamin B12, every nutrient found in meat can be obtained somewhere else
  • But meat is a nutritious food. Use it more as a flavor principle than as a main course, treating it as “condiment for the vegetables”
  • If you’re eating meat, look for pastured animal foods in the market. You are what what you eat eats too
  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it. Freezing does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce
  • Eat like an omnivore: the greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases
  • Eat well-growth food from healthy soils: look for food that is both organic and local
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Take a multivitamin, especially as you get older. If you don’t eat much fish, take a fish oil supplement too
  • Eat according to the rules of your traditional food culture
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner. People who drink moderately and regularly live longer and suffer considerably less heart disease than teetotalers. Experts recommend no more than two drinks a day for men, one for women.

Not Too Much: How to Eat

  • Pay more, eat less. Better food costs more. And the better the food, the less of it you need to feel satisfied
  • Eat until you are 80% full. It takes 20 minutes before the brain gets the word that the belly is full. Eat slower and consult your sense of satiety
  • Eat meals. Snack less
  • Do all your eating at a table
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Serve smaller portions on smaller plates; serve food and beverages from small containers
  • Leave detritus on the table—empty bottles, bones, and so forth—so you can see how much you’ve eaten or drunk
  • Use glasses that are more vertical than horizontal. We tend to pour more into squat glasses
  • Leave healthy foods in view, unhealthy ones out of view
  • Leave serving bowls in the kitchen rather than on the table to discourage seconds
  • Eat slowly. “Slow” in the sense of deliberate and knowledgeable eating
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. The food you grow yourself is fresher than any you can buy