In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan

(New York: Penguin, 2009), 256

This book, on the surface about food, is actually about much more. Pollan offers what amounts to a common-sense philosophical manifesto on the role of eating and how modernity has corrupted it in a manner quite representative of modernity. This corruption has come in the form of reductive, ideologically driven science (a form of scientism he calls Nutritionism), industrialization of the food chain, and excessive centralized government intervention and control. His arguments are based in culture and tradition, and most importantly, common sense. Reading Pollan feels like reading the distributists or Berry (who he quotes).

He gives some practical tips, but they all boil down to this: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.



Part 1: The Age of Nutritionism

  • Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (1)
  • Nutritionism's three myths (8):
    1. What matters most is not the food but the nutrient
    2. Nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists so we need expert help in deciding what to eat
    3. The purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health
  • Nutrition science can be reductive and overconfident: we have more to learn about food from history and culture and tradition. (12)
  • "I speak mainly on the authority of tradition and common sense." (13, echoing G.K. Chesterton)
  • Nutritionism is an Ideology: "a way of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions" (28)
  • Parenting: "Infant formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris." (32)
  • Scientism: "It's important also to remind ourselves that what reductive science can manage to perceive well enough to isolate and study is subject to almost continual change, and that we have a tendency to assume that what we can see is the important thing to look at." (65)
  • The gold standard in nutrition research is the large-scale intervention study (72)
  • "So this is what putting science, and Scientism, in charge of the American diet has gotten us: anxiety and confusion about even the most basic questions of food and health, and a steadily diminishing ability to enjoy one of the great pleasures of life without guilt or neurosis." (80)

Part 2: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

  • "The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them." (100)
  • "All of [the bad effects] can be reversed, if not perhaps so easily in the food system as a whole, certainly in the life and diet of any individual eater." (106)
  • "Nutritional equivalent of Inflation, such that we have to eat more to get the same amount of various essential nutrients." (119)

Part 3: Getting over Nutritionism

  • Solution: Stop eating a Western diet. (141)
  • Avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature (143)
  • "If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it's that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked." (144)
  • In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance than most of us do today. (145)
  • Wendell Berry: "Eating is an agricultural act." i.e. we are cocreators of the system that feeds us (161)
  • for information about pastured food (168)
  • "Dietary paradoxes are best thought of as breakdowns in nutritionist thinking, a sign of something wrong with the scientific consensus rather than the diet in question." (178)
  • "As in so many areas of modern life, the culture of food has become a culture of the eye." (193)
  • Slow Food: "a fir defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast life." (194)
  • Eating slowly means to eat deliberately: from freedom rather than from compulsion (196)
  • "Cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts." (200)
  • Practical tips (147+):
    • Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food
    • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are: unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or include high-fructose corn syrup
    • Avoid food products that make health claims
    • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
    • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible
    • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
    • You are what you eat eats too
    • Buy quality meat in quantity and freeze it
    • Eat like an omnivore (diversely)
    • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
    • Eat wild foods when you can
    • Be the kind of person who takes supplements
    • Eat like the French, Italians, Japanese, Indians, Greeks
    • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism
    • Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
    • Have a glass of wine with dinner
    • Pay more, eat less
    • Eat meals (not snacks)
    • Do all your eating at a table
    • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does
    • Try not to eat alone
    • Consult your gut
    • Eat slowly
    • Cook and plant a garden

Topic: Food

Source: Jordan (her notes)


  • The Queen of Fats by Susan Allport: account of the biochemistry of fats (125)
  • The Pleasures of Eating by Wendell Berry (159)

Created: 2022-04-25-Mon
Updated: 2023-01-07-Sat