by Tanya Henry
Based on author Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, a new documentary (with the same title) offers up plenty of bite-sized nuggets about what we should be doing to improve our health as a nation. The Berkeley-based journalist’s seven-word mantra sums up his philosophy around helping Americans improve their eating habits: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The two-hour film, produced for public television, covers quite a bit of territory and includes everything from Pollan lecturing in a packed-to-capacity lecture hall, to historical examinations of how the media has covered food over the last 50 years, to the most current research and interviews with scientific experts studying the American diet.
Along with the vilification of the usual suspects—sugar, fat and salt, the film offers fascinating insight about the way in which microbes play crucial roles in our guts. Interestingly, a study of breast milk reveals how this “perfect food” offers newborns certain bacteria that fill up a portion of their intestines, disallowing harmful bacteria to invade. Likewise, there is ongoing research that explores ways in which we can learn to cultivate healthy microbiomes through diet to improve our health.
“It isn’t often that we find a simple answer for a very complicated problem,” says Pollan, who returns again and again throughout the film to the simple notion that eating real food that isn’t processed, that can be found in the outer aisles of our supermarkets and that our grandmothers would have eaten—is the right way to consume food.
Pollan, for those familiar with his work, is known for popularizing and blaming the notion of “nutritionism” on many of the health problems associated with our diets. He delves deep into this ideology that contends that the key to understanding food begins with the nutrient. He argues that since nutrients are invisible, it is necessary to rely on nutrition experts to make our food choices. He believes that this is where the problems began as certain nutrients became viewed as “good” and others as “evil.” He compares nutritionism to a religion, and blames many fads and misguided information on this religion-like concept that has us “looking for dietary salvation.”
Whether food is of great interest to viewers or not, this film is important for anyone who eats. In Defense of Food is a smorgasbord of fascinating historical perspective, important cultural findings and cutting-edge scientific research, all served up in accessible, right-sized, colorful bites.