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'In Defense of Food' presents a manifesto for eating well

By George Dickie
Feb. 11, 2016 at 4:30 a.m.

Author Michael Pollan munches on a pear Dec. 20, 2007, in the backyard of his Berkeley home.

Americans are making themselves crazy with food.

We read labels, try all manner of diets and buy products that claim to be fat-free, sugar-free, low-carb and all-natural, all in the interest of losing weight and getting healthy. But a lot of people aren't getting there. And worse, we're not enjoying what we eat.

That's because we're getting it all wrong, says Michael Pollan, on whose best-selling book the PBS special "In Defense of Food" is based. He believes his mantra of "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" should be the guiding principle by which we should live.

And by "food," he means edibles that don't come with packaging and labels, aka fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins.

"It's quite remarkable when you think of all the traditional diets there are in the world," he says. "Every continent has a different way of eating, every ecosystem has a different way of eating. We humans are very clever, we're omnivores, we've learned how to eat what nature has to offer. But here we've managed to create the one diet in the history of our civilization that reliably makes people sick Ð the Western diet. How crazy is that?"

The program delves into the history of food and points out that hundreds of years ago, such modern-day scourges as obesity and type 2 diabetes didn't exist. Pollan contends that many of our troubles today stem from thinking about food in terms of the nutrients in them, a tendency brought about by the food industry's health claims on products based on the nutrients they've added (vitamins) or taken away (fat). But research shows that a wide variety of diets can be healthy provided they consist of the whole foods we've evolved to eat.

In essence, we've overcomplicated something that should be very simple.

"Health claims are a great way to sell food," Pollan says, "and so you take some partial or sketchy science and you hype it up as the be-all and end-all of your health and so you end up with an environment where people are deeply confused, believe they need to understand biochemistry in order to make breakfast. This idea that you need to know what an anti-oxidant is to eat, I mean it's crazy.

"So what I'm trying to do is remind people how simple it really is and that you don't need to understand nutrition science in order to eat well and you don't need to know what an anti-oxidant is to eat well. People ate well for thousands of years without having any idea what a nutrient was."

One possible solution, says Pollan, is the French diet. They eat full-fat, full sugar foods but in small portions. And they eat slowly and in social gatherings.

"The French kind of get it," he says, "that it's really about experience. It's about savoring food, it's about eating it in a very ceremonial way with other people, and that you don't need quantity to get pleasure from food, you need quality, and I think that that's really where we've gone wrong.

"Our whole food system is organized around quantity and it's quality that gives you a really happy food experience that satisfies you and it's more pleasurable. We're so anxious about food and wouldn't it be great to be able to relax about it a little bit?"

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