30 Before 30: My thoughts on In Defense of Food

21 Sep

OK, I know I don’t normally blog about books. Or food really. But this one was on my 30 Before 30 list so you’re going to get my thoughts. A lot of them. Feel free to stop reading now if you’re not interested!

One of the items on my list was to read one food-oriented book. I considered Food, Inc. but I thought it might be too much. I get pretty easily overwhelmed by a lot of things and nutrition is one of them. I try to eat well but everything seems to have pros and cons which makes it hard to figure out what is right for me. I figured In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan would be a little less intimidating than Food, Inc. so I decided to start there.

The main premise of the book is right on the cover: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

{from Michael Pollan’s website}


At least the version I read had it on the cover, I don’t actually see it in the image above – maybe it gave too much away!

Before even reading the book (which was back in April, despite just writing about it now….because I lost my notes….which I am still annoyed by…I don’t like losing things), I was already in agreement with that overall philosophy, even if it’s not always applied. I’m going to skip commenting on “not too much” because moderation is the one thing I have going for me when it comes to diet (probably to the opposite extreme – when I get stressed I have to remind myself to eat – oops.)

But here are a few of the things that had me thinking and how I’m trying to incorporate them into our meals:


Eat food. Mostly plants. Shop from the outside aisles of the super-market (i.e. everything that’s fresh and that your great-great-grandparents would recognize).

This all makes a lot of sense to me in theory (though I’m confused about whether some things that come in packages are considered real food – see below.) I’ve actually always been pretty good about eating fruits and vegetables because I like them. The problem (excuse?) has sometimes been lack of time. There was a statistic in the book (which I don’t remember specifically) about the amount of time dedicated to meals now compared to earlier generations. I know we’re all busy but it was a good reminder that it’s important to dedicate enough time to the nutrition of my family.

This past year, I’ve been able to plan more, shop better, make lunches, and not waste the produce that we buy. One of the main problems I had before was that even though I might have bought good things, I didn’t make time to prepare them and therefore wouldn’t eat them. This is a pretty big lifestyle shift for me but it feels really good. I don’t necessarily enjoy the act of cooking (which can make it hard to spend a lot of time on it) but I love knowing that I’m taking better care of my family (which makes it worth it.)

Also, as much as I love fruits and vegetables, I’m also a Midwestern girl through and through and I really like meat. Despite my claim about how good I am at moderation, I can eat a disproportionate amount of steak for my size (oops again.) I’m working on incorporating more fish and vegetarian dishes into our meals and decreasing the portion sizes of meat when we do have it. Overall, I’d say it’s going OK. It just takes more thought since it’s not what we’re used to.


Eat food. Focus on whole foods, not individual nutrients. Take responsibility for your own nutrition instead of relying on scientific studies (which can lead to health trends) or government policies (which may benefit someone else more than you.)

I can’t adequately summarize the details of the book here but I found the scientific and political discussions to be really fascinating. I’m sometimes amazed and disappointed by my lack of critical thinking. These sections were a reminder that I should not take for granted the fancy claims, advertising, or even nutritional data included on a package. (In fact, Pollan argues that most things in packages aren’t generally food so we should be limiting them anyway.) Government policies developed 20+ years ago may not make sense now (if they even did then.) It is up to me to read labels and evaluate what I should be eating. I need to slow down, educate myself on the facts, and pay attention. I’d say I still have a lot of work to do here.


But I’m still confused. Even after reading the book, I am still confused about a few things, particularly as it relates to processed foods.

Pollan says that as a society we are no longer able to properly identify real foods. Though it sounds funny I have to admit I think it’s a fair assessment. Isn’t bread real food? Milk? Cheese? Aren’t they things my great-great grandparents would recognize? But am I supposed to avoid them now since they’re processed and packaged? Or is there a non-processed version I’m supposed to look for? Surely the expectation is not that I make my own bread all the time because that too would overwhelm me…

And what about low-fat and fat-free foods? I’m not supposed to eat them? If cream cheese is all processed, why shouldn’t I eat the low-fat version instead? I get that I shouldn’t really have any of it, but I’m definitely going to keep eating cream cheese. Not often, but sometimes. When I do, it seems like I should eat the low-fat version. That didn’t seem to be what he was saying. It sounds like I should eat in moderation but go with the original version which seems very counter-intuitive.

I actually think he tried to address both of these issues in the book but for some reason I’m still not clear. My brain may have been on information overload. Or maybe I’m missing something about the actual processing that would help things click for me. Kristy, dear nutritionist friend, feel free to chime in if you have time. If you’re interested in more posts related to nutrition (I promise to go back to pretty things soon – but I have a few more cooking related posts to follow first!), you should check out her blog. I regularly send her e-mails asking her to teach me about different things and she’ll often post the answers for everyone. :)

6 Responses to “30 Before 30: My thoughts on In Defense of Food”

  1. Kris & Chris {His Mrs. Her Mr.} September 22, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Sounds like an interesting read.  I watched Food Inc and it was very disturbing.  I changed my entire diet  but in the end I couldn’t give up chicken wings :) even so we buy more healthy foods but we are learning to not go crazy with the produce so it doesn’t go to waste.  Not sure how to give up all processed foods though. Sounds like you learned a lot! Thanks for sharing!

    p.s. I don’t really enjoy cooking either :-/ baking I find much more fun but I cook out of necessity not because I enjoy it.

    • pleasantandhome September 25, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

      I did! I definitely recommend reading it if you get a chance. The key for us with not wasting produce is definitely planning. I read something recently about someone whose house rule was you had to eat fresh things first. So, for example, if there was fruit in the house, you had to have that before anything canned or processed. I thought that might be a good habit to try – even if potentially difficult!!

  2. Deb McKenna September 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    Hi! Just the fact that u are learning what you can now will help prevent heart dx, weight gain etc. Way to go! I think the whole processed food thing is a challenge, it’s easy to think of pkg snacks as processed but we also need to apply the question to the bread, pasta & baked goods we eat. Obviously Wonder bread = processed, eating whole grain bread (less processed so the grain/fiber isn’t stripped) is much better for us Eating better carbs, better fats ie olive oil has helped me to inch the wt off & my total cholesterol is down. Yeah! I also think it’s ok to cheat once in a while & have cream cheese–you just have to watch how often and also balance the choices you make. Here’s to you staying thin and healthy! XO Mom

    • pleasantandhome September 25, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

      Thanks, Mom. :)

  3. Charise October 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    I follow the “do I know what all the ingredients are?” guideline when buying packaged stuff, bc it’s just not realistic to eat 100% homemade and/or whole foods with how busy we are, as much as we try. Our (packaged) bread is a whole grain with just flours, water, salt, sugar, that sort of thing – no wierd preservatives, or HFCS. Same w/ cheese – there’s real cheese, and there’s processed cheese-like product w/ ingredients you can’t pronounce. And I always go for the real stuff – low-fat versions of things often have extra added sugar, and I’m more satisifed by a little bit of the real thing than a larger amount of the fake stuff.

    • pleasantandhome October 16, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

      Yeah, I’ve heard that suggestion and attempted it too but I can’t say I’ve been very successful. Maybe I give up too soon but it seems like every label has something I don’t recognize and I’m never sure if they’re things I actually do know, just not by those names, or are the things I shouldn’t be eating. Probably the latter! This is definitely high on my list of things to get better at, regardless!

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