In Defense of Food follows Michael Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, a discussion of food production and ecology in westernized countries. Pollan's current work, is, as its subtitle suggests, a guide to navigating the modern food system and selecting healthy foods and eating habits.
Pollan suggests that the modern food system represents an entirely new way of producing and consuming food, with essentially five differences: from whole to refined, from complexity to simplicity, from quality to quantity, from leaves to seeds, and from food culture to food science. The food system itself has made a radical shift to dependence on fossil fuels for all aspects from fertilization to delivery. Pollan's message is straightforward: these changes are largely at fault for the modern epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and they are the result of modern reductionist thinking (the pattern of studying isolated systems rather than taking a holistic viewpoint) and its influence on agricultural and consumer policies.
His suggestions for eating healthfully in the modern world amount to a rejection of reductionism and a return to tradition. Pollan recommends a diet of “food” (what your great grandmother would have recognized as edible) based largely around leaves (green vegetables), with plentiful helpings of fruits and whole grains. Meat is allowed in moderation, preferably pastured/free range, along with various traditional foods; he specifically recommends wine. Eaters should be moderate in all things, consuming relatively small portions, and should make eating a relaxing activity that takes longer and is more expensive than is typical in westernized countries.
Pollan's arguments are sound, and the book is succinct and well-written, with only a few inconsistencies. His critique of reductionist science is legitimate. Connections between the modern western diet and the “diseases of civilization” are founded on considerable ethnographic and demographic data. The problem inherent to this kind of discussion is that the reductionist paradigm permeates everything to the extent that it must be utilized, even when discussing the benefits of a traditional diet, a discrepancy that Pollan notes.
The flaw is more in scientists than in science itself. There are good reasons to suspect significant errors in the official nutritional recommendations, with challenges coming from metabolic studies, microbiology, and nutrition. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we might accept that both good and bad science (and scientists) exist; the problem with reductionist science is more that its research ...