If you’re an environmentally-conscious person, you’re probably familiar with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which addresses the environmental consequences of animal agriculture. A few years after publishing this book, he released another, called In Defense of Food, which addresses the health consequences of the western diet, the rise of what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances”, and the confusion around what’s healthy and what we should eat.
I read In Defense of Food as a college student, which was the perfect time for me to read it. Since I’d left home, where I ate meals prepared by my Mom from whole, natural ingredients, I’d started shopping for myself, and falling into the trap of the health claims made by most foods you find in the supermarket. Even with an 18 year foundation of healthy eating, I still was led astray by the loud marketing screaming at me from the grocery aisles (which tells you how powerful it is). Reading In Defense of Food was a great reminder of what I already knew, that fruits and vegetables are good for me, and that processed food is not.
Two years ago, PBS put out a documentary version of this book, which is now available to stream on Netflix. I gave it a watch last week, and it was a good refresher of the material in Pollan's book.
POLLAN’S STANCE ON MEAT
Pollan doesn’t come right out and say that we shouldn’t be eating meat, though he does present some strong correlations between meat-eating and risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. And he doesn’t touch on the environmental ramifications of the meat industry, though he goes very in depth about them in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He doesn’t prescribe any certain amount of meat as being healthy, though he suggests that meat should be treated more as a flavoring or special occasion food than an everyday food. And he certainly doesn’t claim that eliminating meat from the diet would be a detriment to anyone’s health.
PLANTS PLANTS PLANTS PLANTS
My main takeaway from this film, and the argument made most often and most strongly, is that we should be eating less processed food, and more plants, specifically colorful fruits and vegetables and leafy greens. Additionally, when we reduce our meat intake, Pollan argues, it leaves more room on our plates for foods that are packed with nutrients that are essential to our health.
IF YOU’RE VEGAN YOU’RE DEFICIENT IN ________.
This film was an interesting perspective, since I have subscribed to Pollan’s ideology for many years, and since I recently decided to try veganism. I know how I feel about meat and dairy from an environmental standpoint, however the main argument I hear from skeptics is that it’s not possible to get the right balance of nutrients while eating only vegetables.
It’s true there are a few key nutrients that are more abundant in higher quantities in meats and dairy than in plants (vitamin B12 and calcium are often cited). I don't like to stress about or quantify the nutrient content of my food, and I definitely don’t want to spend every day measuring out quantities of vegetables that contain calcium just to make sure I’m getting my recommended daily value. But I also don’t believe that it’s impossible to be healthy without meat, or that by being vegan I’d somehow be less healthy than a meat-eater.
It makes me wonder how many meat-eaters are getting their recommended daily allowance of any given nutrient, especially if their meat is grain-fed rather than grass-fed. Someone who eats burgers every day may be getting enough B12, but they’re also getting a load of saturated fat, cholesterol, and omega 6 fatty acids, perhaps to the exclusion of other important nutrients.
DO WE REALLY NEED TO BE TOLD WHAT’S HEALTHY?
Pollan gives a great reminder that most of us can inherently judge what’s healthy for us. I know that fruits and vegetables are good for me. I know that demonizing any one food group is risky. With those two things in mind, how do I create daily habits that will contribute to my overall health and prevent me from contracting chronic diseases? For me, the answer is staying informed, continually asking questions, knowing where my food comes from, and eating mostly plants.
In the coming weeks, I’ll delve a little bit more into the nutrients that can be lacking in a vegan diet, and see just how difficult it is to get my recommended daily allowance of each of them. I’d also like to look into the nutrients that are missing in the average American meat-eater’s diet, and how they could be made up by eating more plants! But for now, I don’t feel that sticking to a vegan diet will be detrimental to my health. On the contrary, I feel that it can only help me.
If you’ve tried going vegan or vegetarian, I’d love to hear your thoughts below! Did it stick? What were the obstacles? What changes did you notice in your health?