Thursday, February 05, 2009

Michael Pollan, You're FREAKING ME OUT!

So I'm currently reading Michael Pollan's new book In Defense of Food.

I read his last book, Omnivore's Dilemma when it came out, and although it was extremely interesting (especially the part about mushroom hunting), I find certain aspects of his writing style extremely annoying and self-indulgent (namely the flippancy with which he writes about meat-eating). I also think the conclusions he drew from his experiences in writing the book were wobbly ones, and they don't logically extend from much of what he saw and wrote (namely his attitude on meat-eating—are you picking up on the pattern here?). And much the same criticisms have been lodged against his new book from vegetarians who've read it. So when I saw it in the "New Books" section at the library and grabbed it on a whim, I wasn't expecting much. I almost didn't read it. But then one afternoon I was bored out of my mind and had just finished the book I'd been working on, so I thought I'd give it a chance.

And I must admit: I'm really finding it fascinating.

Now granted, I'm only halfway through, so for all I know, the last 100 pages could be an argument for converting our diets over to a meat-only meal-plan. Or a step by step guide on how to eviscerate small animals. But damn if the first half didn't blow me out of the water.

What I dig so much about it (and what really compels me towards certain books—the same thing happened when I first became vegetarian) is when a book makes me look at a subject in an entirely new light. And not only that, but when a book makes me realize that a subject that I'd always thought of as being philosophically neutral, like hamsters or my toenails, is actually PREGNANT with a variety of possible philosophical interpretations.

And what is blowing my mind right now is essentially this:
  1. The idea that food is worthy of philosophical consideration. And that our VIEW of food is worthy of philosophical consideration.

    I mean, yes: as a veg*n, I'm obviously aware of the moral/ethical impacts of our meat-consumption. And I've read enough to realize that a simple food, like, say, coffee, is more than it appears to be—that the cup of coffee I guzzle down has humane impacts, environmental impacts, etc. But I've never really thought about how we view food before. And by that, I mean, what we perceive its purpose to be.

    I feel like I'm not being clear.

    In the west, we talk about what we should be eating to keep in good health. We talk about too much fat, too much cholesterol. We talk about trans-fatty acids. We talk about Vitamin C, Vitamin D. When we look at an avocado, we talk about it in terms of good fats and bad fats. We talk about how eggs are now being infused with extra vitamins to make them healthier. We look at the PARTS of the food and not the food as a whole. And we look at how these parts affect our health.


    Essentially, part of Pollan's argument is that we've reduced foods down to being nothing more than sums of their parts. We don't look at the avocado as a whole when thinking about it in terms of our health. We look at it as a vehicle for monounsaturated fatty acids. We look at it as a vehicle for potassium. We look at it as a vehicle for various anti-oxidants. Essentially, when we think about it in terms of health, we're not so much thinking about the avocado itself as we are thinking about its parts: the monounsaturated fatty acids, the potassium, the anti-oxidants. We talk about how THESE things are good for us, and how the avocado is good for us BECAUSE of these things.

    We don't look to the food as a whole.

    When we get overly reductive like this, when we start to talk about how monounsaturated fatty acids are good for us instead of how an avocado is good for us, we start to look at these nutrients/vitamins/etc. out of context and begin to move away from the foods themselves. And when we start to move these things out of context, we fail to look at their bigger picture: the monounsaturated fatty acids of the avocado are not the same as the monounsaturated fatty acids in say, nuts. Contextualized, the OTHER nutrients in an avocado may cause our body to process these monounsaturated fats differently than those in a nut. So two foods that have the same amount of monounsaturated fatty acids may not affect our bodies in the exact same way BECAUSE THEY'RE NOT THE EXACT SAME FOOD.

    Not only that, but when we start reducing things down to overly simplified tenets such as "Cholesterol is bad" or "Monounsaturated fatty acids are good," we fail to realize that these the "badness" or "goodness" of these things may vary from person to person, depending on the state of their bodies. For example (and this is a true example), I have high cholesterol. This is ridiculous because, well, I'm vegan, and every time they tell me I have high cholesterol and hand me the little pamphlet of foods to steer clear of, I DON'T EAT ANY OF THE FOODS ON THE LIST. And yet, some other meat-eating, egg-consuming, cheese-whore of a patient may have extremely low cholesterol, despite the fact that they consume all of the items on the No-No list. Our bodies treat what we eat differently depending on our bodies.

    Instead of contextualizing things in this way, we reduce things down to the statement "Cholesterol is bad" and we think that will save us. If we eat less cholesterol, if we eat low-fat foods, if we consume more antioxidants, we'll be a healthier person. And we've begun to take these oversimplifications to a whole new level, creating Frankensteined foods that aren't ACTUALLY foods at all but just various "good" nutrients (or "bad" nutrients, for that matter) half-assedly sewn together to create, say, Nutra-grain bars. Or popsicles. Or orange juice. Or oatmeal. (And note that I'm picking out supposedly "healthier" food-products.)

    There aren't ingredients on an avocado, because an avocado is just that.

    But when you start to look at HOW many ingredients are in the things we eat, and how they are "factory" produced "nutrients," it really does start to get scary and make you realize that really, we're not so much eating food any more as we are eating the parts of food duct-taped together.

    And I've never really thought about that. I mean, I HAVE. In a loose, kind of cloudy kind of way. But I've never really THOUGHT about it.

    And I've never really thought that the way that we look at foods for health is REALLY FUCKED UP. That we are so overly-reductive that we've stopped contextualizing them. That we don't think to ourselves "Maybe a banana is good for us BECAUSE A BANANA IS GOOD FOR US" and not "A banana is good for us because it is high in potassium."

    Do monkeys look at food this way? No.

    How many overweight, diabetic monkeys riddled with heart problems do you see roaming around in the wild?

    I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but the point is: Maybe the way we're looking at food has gone horribly horribly awry. Maybe we're pawns to the food industry and don't even realize it. Maybe we've been brainwashed into considering specially engineered "products" to be "foods" when really they aren't. Maybe we've been deluded into thinking the way to deal with an "unhealthy" food is just to artificially infuse it with the nutrients it's lacking INSTEAD OF JUST AVOIDING IT. I MEAN, GOOD GOD, THERE'S SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR THE FACT THAT THESE FOODS HAVE EXISTED FOR HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS OF YEARS IN THEIR CURRENT FORM WITHOUT, SAY, ACCRUING MORE VITAMIN C.


    *panting excitedly and hiccupping a few choked sobs*

  2. And you know what, that's not even the only thing that's got me excited about the book. But I seriously just got so worked up that I can't right at this minute even remember what the other thing was that I wanted to ramble about. *Pausing to think*

  3. Oh yes. Duh. The other point he makes that I find kind of interesting is this:

    We've oversimplified our view of foods so much that we tend to think of them mainly in terms of the fuel/health they physically provide our bodies with. But, as he pointed out, foods have many other functions for us. And one of them is just enjoyment. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a food. There's nothing wrong with eating a HUGE fucking piece of cake without neuroticizing the amount of calories you just consumed or how much fat you ate. And as a food-nerd and food-blogger, this pleases me. Because, yes, we eat because food tastes good. And that's not a bad thing.

    I had a lot more I wanted to say about this last point, but right now, I'm all rambled out.

So the long and short is this: Although Pollan is not an endorser of the veg-lifestyle, and although he can be somewhat annoying in his writing, this book is worth checking out. It really WILL offer you an entirely new way of looking at how you eat. And how you look at food.


Anonymous said...

Ironically, how we feel about what we eat has significant health implications that rival those of the nutritional quality. Additionally, eating good foods set up a feedback loop in which the foods that fuel us effectively encourage sustained healthy physical activity, and that primes us for craving more healthy meals, rather than lower quality snacks.

Since you are a food enthusiast you should really check this out.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I enjoyed this post. Thank you!:)

tina said...

i also enjoyed this. thx for posting

Vincent Do said...

"How many overweight, diabetic monkeys riddled with heart problems do you see roaming around in the wild?"

I agree with you that the rhetorical answer to this question is "none." I also agree with your conclusion that we should be eating more whole foods, with minimal processing (i.e. pressing olives for oil) at the most. But I've also concluded that the monkeys lack chronic diseases because they are eating a diet that's natural to their physiology. And that is the premise of the paleo diet and our preferred omnivorism, vegan ethics aside.

Jenny said...

This is a great post. I think it's important to listen to what all sides have to say, especially when it comes to the environment and the foods we eat. Michael Pollon is certainly making some waves and causing people to think, and while I do find him to be a bit hypocritical, the fact that he's an omnivore probably works to his advantage in that meat eaters are more willing to listen to him. And I certainly had never considered the fact that monounsaturated fats in nuts are different than those in avocados. I'm more of a sci-fi nerd but this may be a book that could hold my interest.

Anonymous said...

When you said "What I dig so much about it (and what really compels me towards certain books—the same thing happened when I first became vegetarian) is when a book makes me look at a subject in an entirely new light." it immediately made me think of Pollan's other book, "Second Nature", which ranges from the great american lawn to farming to growing pot in the back yard, and ensures you will never look at man's place in the world the same way ever again. Definitely worth a read.