In Defense of Food: A Book Review & Giveaway

In Defense of Food.Do you enjoy eating food? Not just any food, but good food? I recently had the pleasure to read “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto“, by Michael Pollan, which teaches us that in spite of the growing commercialization and industrialization of the food industry, it is still possible to enjoy food and to do so in a healthy and sustainable way.

Eat good food for good health and long life

I was first introduced to this book by a good chef friend of mine from Korea. We first met a few years ago when I went to Korea on a student exchange program and we were roommates at the dorm, and we’ve kept in touch ever since then. My friend came to Canada on our recommendations a couple years back to learn English and embrace a new and different culture. Seeing how things are different across the ocean can really broaden one’s horizons, and the experience opened up his mind. Korea is a small country and a homogeneous society, so my friend had never quite had the experience of multiculturalism that we take for granted in North America.

It wasn’t too long after he came here that he decided that he wanted to become a chef. This eventually turned into a full-time passion as he learned how to cook different recipes and worked as an apprentice under the tutelage of more experienced chefs in upscale restaurants in classy neighbourhoods. This was his passion, and he genuinely enjoyed what he was doing. Along the way he also learned about where our food comes from and why it’s important to understand what we’re putting in our mouths.

What sets ordinary food apart from great food? This isn’t just a question for food snobs, or passionate people like my chef friend; it’s also a question that has a direct impact on our health and lives. More and more, much of what we eat is not really food as our ancestors would have known it to be. Is it any coincidence that we’ve become less healthy at the same time?

My foggy head

I don’t really have “health problems” per se, but I have personally gone through bouts of what I call “foggy head“. For some reason or another, sometimes I would feel excessively tired and unable to concentrate. It would take a great deal of effort to speak and I felt like I was trapped in some sort of tunnel.

I didn’t remember always being this way, so naturally I was concerned and I pushed my doctor into finding out more. I took a blood test and I had elevated levels of bilirubin and some other liver indicators, but an ultrasound confirmed that my insides were healthy, if a little odd: I had two spleens! My doctor said it wasn’t that uncommon and I probably had “Gilbert’s syndrome” which he assured me was harmless. Ok, so my birth mother smoked cigarettes and drank some alcohol during her pregnancy and I guess that causes things like having two spleens, but I still needed to know why I had a foggy head.

The next step was to go get a MRI done. Unfortunately, with our public medical system being the way it is, I would have had to wait a year. What the heck… I would have to wait a year while my brain could potentially be turning into mush??? I ended up paying for a MRI with cash at a private clinic. There was just no way I was going to wait a year in anxiety, not knowing and not having any answers. Although only some things can be done through the private system, I’m grateful that I had the option and that it was an affordable option as well.

The MRI test came back clean, and the last remaining step was to visit a neurologist. My appointment came after a few months, and he basically said “stop wasting my time, you’re fine!” My doctor was stumped, so I was at the end of the line and at a loss for answers. He suggested that I was just going to have to live with it.

Diet matters

I then started to do my own independent research, and I found more and more sources that pointed their fingers squarely at the modern Western diet, especially refined carbohydrates. My diet was not that great back then, but surely it wasn’t that bad. I ate lots of pasta and some processed food, which was surely better than the diet of pizza pockets, popcorn and mac & cheese that I had in my student days!

Well, maybe not. Our ancestors survived mostly off of plants, fruits, and meat. Even agriculture and the eating of grains is a recent phenomenon as far as our bodies are concerned, and what about high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, super-refined flour, grain-stuffed cows, etc…? Definitely not stuff we ate even 100 years ago, let alone throughout most of our evolutionary history! Could the food be causing an issue for me?

Well, I took some of this to heart, and started reducing grains and increasing the fat in my diet, and eating more wholesome cooked meals, and less processed stuff. I was absolutely SHOCKED when I noticed a significant improvement after only a couple of days! It has been a long road since then and I have had relapses, but it’s much better today, and the ONLY thing that has made a real difference was eating more “real” food and less carbs, and especially less crap. Did my doctor even suggest such a thing? Nope! In fact, he’d probably get pissed knowing I wasn’t getting my requisite government-mandated intake of grains.

Yes, you can still enjoy food.

So am I saying you can no longer enjoy food? Of course not. I still eat rice, pasta, bread, I eat beans, beef, fish, chicken, duck, lamb, what have you, and I still go to restaurants without worrying about how they cooked the food (too much) and I even eat fast food every now and then. Mainstream “evil” foods like bacon are really not a problem for me. I just eat a lot less crap, and I eat my food in different proportions than I used to. I have skinny genes in my family and it’s not the calories that are an issue for me. It’s really about the nutritional content of the food and the detrimental effect of refined carbs. Some people can take it, and I had no problems when I was a teenager, but if I drink half a litre of pop today, I will definitely feel the effects and I really won’t feel good afterwards.

I want to eat food that not only tastes good, but makes me feel good as well, and I have found that nothing has helped with my foggy head like eating good food. Of course, moving in with my girlfriend and getting her on board was a HUGE benefit in this. Like my chef friend, she also loves to cook, and I have brought her at least somewhat on board with everything that I have learned to date.

Is it something that your great grandmother would recognize as food?

So, what is “In Defense of Food” about? I have talked mostly about my own story and not so much about the book itself, and that’s because I wanted to impress upon you, dear reader, the effects that diet has had on my personal life and why this topic is so important to me. I believe, and evidence increasingly supports, that many of our modern-day health problems can be directly linked to the food chain. Many of our doctors are unaware, and the government is complicit in misregulating and granting special privileges to Big Agro. It’s up to each of us to take responsibility for what we put in our mouths.

Michael Pollan covers these topics and more in”In Defense of Food“, which is divided into three sections:

  • The Age of Nutritionism
  • The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
  • Getting Over Nutritionism

Science and “scientism”.

In some ways, the downfall of our health can be linked with the increasingly mechanistic approach to food. Science has made progress in many areas, leading to rapid advances in technology and our physical understanding of the world. At the same time, the scientific method has its limits and deficiencies, especially when applied to complex and interdependent systems. This has clearly been made evident in economics where we are learning that relying on econometric models and simple mathematical tautologies can result in gravely mistaken policy recommendations.

Could the traditional scientific method also be mistaken when it comes to food? The scientific view of food treats it as a collection of individual nutrients. Instead of eating food, we eat collections of nutrients. This sort of viewpoint has led to all sorts of disastrous policy recommendations. Saturated fats were the devil, so millions of people turned to margarine and vegetable oil, and only later did we find out that we screwed up and actually made things worse in the process of hydrogenating these fats. How many people died for the narrow policy recommendations of our scientists, propagated by the government and supported by Big Agro?

The “western diet”.

Why is it that millions of people on traditional diets don’t suffer from the same health problems that we do, until they go off their traditional diet and start eating like us? Have we turned science into an ideology (scientism), and have we ignored the overall picture? Is food more than the sum of its parts?

At the same time, what of the unholy marriage between big business and government? When it comes to doing the right thing, do our representatives act in the best interests of our health, or do they act in the best interests of their campaign sponsors? Who stands to benefit from the laws and regulations that these politicians pass? It’s a little hard to reconcile the government supposedly acting in our best interest when it subsidizes industrialized Big Agro and lowers its apparent cost to the consumer, making it harder for traditional and organic producers to compete.

What is the way forward? Is it possible to return to healthier and more sustainable agricultural practices and still feed the large and ever-growing population of today? Something that has to be said for current methods is that they have allowed a great increase in the amount of calories available, even if at the expense of health to a certain degree.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I can understand why my chef friend recommended it to me. It changed his outlook on food, and it definitely changed mine as well. I do believe that we are what we eat, at least to a certain extent. When the traditional medical system failed me, food changed my life for the better. It’s up to each of us to educate ourselves and learn more about what we’re eating; education is the first step forward!

Because I enjoyed it so much, I am giving away THREE copies of “In Defense of Food“. There are four ways to enter, with five entry points total:

  • 2 points: Leave a comment on this post telling me how you feel about food, the “western diet”, and Big Agro.
  • 1 point: Retweet this post. If you do this, include “@InvestItWisely” in the tweet and let me know in the comments.
  • 1 point: Link to this post from your site. Again please let me know about it in the comments.
  • 1 point: +1 this post in Google+. You know the drill: let me know about it in the comments. :)

I really want to hear your stories, so that’s why that gets two points. Entries will be accepted until October 22, 2011, end of the day at midnight. I’ll then use to choose three winners. Good luck!

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  1. Be'en says

    I feel eating right is just as important as investing wisely!

    With modern life it has become increasingly hard to monitor what we eat. I am glad you went off the track to deal with this important subject.

    • says

      I agree. Eating healthy is not only a good investment in your future but also vital to your financial health. Who wants to spend thousands on medical bills later on in life?! Why not take care of yourself.

      This topic of good food is very important to me. In fact I have read numerous books and watch many documentaries on the subject and I have completely changed how live. I know eat organic as much as I can, eat local by buying from a CSA, I am a vegetarian and most of the time a vegan, and I exercise regularly. I also homemake beauty products and no longer use chemicals in the house. All of these changes have made me feel so much better and I like knowing that I am helping out mother nature too.

      PS: I retweeted this post not only to enter but also because I think it is an important topic.

      • says

        Thanks for your comments, and I couldn’t have said it better. Investing is really about more than just money, and the most important investment is the one we make in ourselves.

  2. says

    It’s so hard to tell what’s in the food we get and eat these days. Things are so processed, you can’t tell what went on by the time you get the food.

    I remember reading somewhere that most Americans are deficient in Omega fats. Why? Well, cattle are supposed to eat grass, which contains the Omega fats, but cattle aren’t fed that from the most part. They are fed corn and other. Pretty crazy.

    I’d love to read this book!

    • says

      Yep, the cattle are no longer grass finished but pumped full of crap so they they can get big and fat! This gives us relatively cheap meat, but at the same time… meat that’s less healthy for us. The scientistic approach would be to engineer the beef to have more omega 3, but maybe what we really should be doing is not pumping them full of crap to begin with…

      I would be OK if the industry wasn’t so in bed with government and the playing field was more level, and that includes fairer labelling practices as well. Then, consumers would get the proper price signals and choose based on their preferences.

  3. says

    Ooohh–I’ve been wanting to read this book! Am about to retweet.

    Also, I think the western diet has WAY too many carbs and carb stations–like McDonald’s, bakeries…look at all of the foods offered at State Fairs!

    • says

      Haha, I agree! I think it borders on child abuse to see parents stuff their kids full of that stuff until they can’t even run around and be kids anymore!

  4. says

    You can likely guess how I feel about big agro …
    Books like the 100 Mile Diet are on our book shelves and we do our best to eat local/organic foods. I also own Food Inc which really opens eyes about food production systems.
    Tweeted, +1’d and now commented. Hope to read the book!

    • says

      This is probably a topic where you and I see eye to eye! I’m not completely for local produce since I believe in free trade and comparative advantage, but at the same time I believe that Big Agro has an unfair advantage and that in a truly free and fair market traditional and organic producers of food would be better placed, and relatively more affordable as well.

  5. domestic diva says

    I’d like to read this book. We’re all about eating real foods, and make most things from scratch.

  6. Suzanne K says

    I’m with you! Big agro is out to make many bucks, often at the cost of the health of consumers! I’ve recently gone to an almost vegetarian diet, lots and lots of fresh fruits and veggies, brown rice, things like that. I find that I can eat more (satisfying my urge to be munching) and, without really trying, I’m losing a bit of weight! Plus, I don’t crave sweets and other things that I know aren’t so good for me. Apparently, this diet is what my body likes and does well with! Works for me, since I’m not feeling deprived, not starving myself, not craving sweets and losing! All good! Especially during the summer when lots of what I eat is coming in from my own garden.

    • says

      That cheap crappy food wouldn’t be so cheap if Big Agro didn’t have unfair privileges granted to it by law and statute. Looking at it another way, more capital would flow into traditional and organic produce, and this type of food would become cheaper and more affordable.

      I still believe in eating meat, but I am really concerned sometimes about where the meat comes from and just what it has gone through! Besides, we probably don’t need to eat as much as we do, and definitely not in the more processed forms.

      I lost my sweet tooth a while ago and I don’t regret it one bit. If anything, I appreciate desserts all the more because they taste so sweet to me now, and I am satisfied pretty easily.

  7. Kris T. says

    Thanks so much for the opportunity to win a copy of Pollan’s book. I try pretty hard to eat healthy, whole foods, but every now and then I get sucked into the “convenience” of processed foods. I just have to keep telling myself that getting sick isn’t very convenient, especially in this country. And I feel soooo much better when I eat well. Keep spreading the message!

    • says

      Thanks, Kris! It’s okay to indulge once in a while, but you know I actually find that everything tastes better when you eat real meals, and I have less of a craving for junk food. I’ll still have chips or whatever every now and then, and I actually enjoy them more when I do have them since it’s a treat for me, but at the same time all of the meals are delicious and I can’t go back to eating the “cheap food”, which actually isn’t that cheap when you consider what you’re doing to your own body.

  8. says

    Nutrition is incredibly important, and we’re learning so much about how proper nutrtion can truly improve the quality of one’s day to day existence. I like this giveaway.

    Just tweeted.

  9. says

    Hey Kevin,

    This is a great article/review. Since I am trying to lose 100lbs, I have been focusing on what I put in my body. We are trying to eat more whole foods, and avoid processed foods as much as possible.

    We are currently looking into the glycemic index and glycemic load of various foods. It’s important to look at how our foods interact with our bodies and with each other.

    I would definitely want to read this book, as would my wife!

    By the way, I retweeted the post, linked to it here:

    …and I Google +’d it as well.

      • says

        Thanks, Khaleef! Yeah, various foods can really wreak havoc. Even if you don’t gain weight you can still harm your health, so it’s important for thin people, too.

        It’s not that carbs are bad, but flooding your body with them, especially refined and processed versions that are far removed from the types of foods we used to eat, definitely can be.

  10. says

    I am so glad you gave an update on your foggy head, I have been wondering how you are doing with that.

    My mood is totally tied to food, or lack thereof. If I eat too much sugar, I feel awful, although it is tasty while eating it. I have really cut back on sweets because I just don’t see how it helps my body, although I do allow myself a little square of chocolate a day.

    Hope you keep feeling well!

    • says

      I still get a little foggy in the middle of the day, or if I get nervous (which I often do), or didn’t sleep enough — I guess I’m just predisposed to it. Even then the food can still make a big difference.

      I just don’t feel the same way after eating them. It’s not like when I was a kid and could eat pounds of sweets and just run it off. 😉 P.S. Dark chocolate is a good ‘sin’ food! 😉

  11. petra says

    I think we westerners eat way too much red meat and processed foods and not enough whole grains, low fat dairy, fruit, veggies, and fish. I’m trying to eat more of latter because when I feed my body healthier, more wholesome foods, I feel better.
    Thanks for the opportunity to read about this interesting topic.
    (In addition to this comment I also tweeted–moeyshay.)

    • says

      Agree with you! Except, about the low-fat milk. I’m not sure about the methods they actually use to make the low-fat milk, due to the stuff that happens to the milk when they remove the fat.

      Don’t know how substantiated it is, but I like the taste of whole-fat milk better anyways. At the same time, how good is milk from a regular cow? I don’t know. If the meat is not that great due to conventional practices, then the milk might have some problems, too. Here was an interesting post I found after a quick Google:

  12. says

    As a trained dancer I grew up with all kinds of crazy ways one should eat. I feel lucky I turned out pretty normal. We grow most of our food (except for fruit). The biggest adjustment is to eat the food when it’s fresh and how to preserve it so we can eat it in the winter.
    I love Michael Pollans book and was just discussing it with a girlfriend the other day!

    I tweeted!

  13. says

    When we are eating from the garden during the summer here in the northeast I do feel better. I think it is good for the soul and the body.

    • says

      Yeah, I also like the idea of eating from a garden. I also have to say that hand-picked apples from the orchard (that claims to be organic) did taste pretty good as well… some of the best apples I’ve ever had.

  14. lindsay says

    I am consciously trying to eat less meat, and if I do eat meat, have it be from local sources or organic farms. I think that’s one of the biggest ways I can make a difference on my diet as it is.

    • says

      I still eat too much conventional meat since it’s very hard to find alternatives where I live (surprisingly enough, even though it’s a large city), but I’ll go for better choices where I can and keep the quantity of the lesser stuff down, and compensate with lots of veggies. :)

  15. Rishi says

    I prefer Mexican and Asian food over Western food. Don’t have any strong feelings either way towards Western diet or Big Agro.

    Thanks for the giveaway

    • says

      Hey, I still eat McDonalds every blue moon, but I don’t look at it quite the same way given that I’ve worked there and also saw Fast Food Nation. 😉

  16. kerri r says

    It really saddens me that in our food industry it is about money and they are so willing to put peoples lives at risk granted we make our own choices but it is not always so simple when the poor are easily targeted and less educated I am all for geen eating and educating people on the importance of it other than good health

    • says

      Yes I feel the same way. What I don’t like is how the big companies are in bed with the government and use the government to gain unfair advantages, via patents, labelling, and other practices. I thought the government was supposed to be working for us, not for special interests?

  17. says

    Hi everyone,

    So the contest is now closed. I’ll gather up the entries, select and announce the winners soon. Thanks for participating!


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