What to Eat: A Tough Question to Answer

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I recently finished reading two very thought-provoking, potentially life-altering books by Michael Pollan. It started with In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I ran into this book from two sources. First, UW-Madison chose it for its first common book program, Go Big Read. Second, the “light green living” website Ideal Bite, which I get daily tip emails from, made it the July read in their Biter Book Club.


In Defense of Food hopes to answer the question “what to eat.” In today’s industrial food system, however, this question is harder than ever to answer. What we eat has changed drastically over the last century to the point that much of what we eat wouldn’t be considered real food. Our Western diet contains highly-processed foods, chemicals, cheap calories (in the forms of sugar and fat), and less diversity than ever. You know where this stuff has led us…

The book wraps up with the proposal of eating rules that are conducive to better health AND greater pleasure in eating. The rules fall into three categories: Eat food; Not too much; Mostly plants. Simple, basic rules to live by.


Following In Defense of Food, I was eager to read more of Pollan’s works. I read the pre-In Defense book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This book presented a much more detailed look at where our food comes from. Pollan explores three different food systems in America: Industrial, Pastoral, and “Personal.”

In each respective section of the book, he follows or creates a meal from field to table. The Industrial meal starts in the corn fields of Iowa and ends at a McDonald’s in California. His Pastoral meal includes foods from an “alternative” farm in the Shenandoah Valley. The final meal, “Personal,” is comprised of food Pollan hunted, gathered, and grew himself. (His fourth meal was an “industrial organic” meal prepared using foods he bought from Whole Foods). The Omnivore’s Dilemma was an eye-opening, educational, and intriguing adventure.

I personally recommend reading both books. You go really deep into questioning what to eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Then In Defense of Food boils that journey down into easy to apply actions. I can personally say that I will never view items in the grocery store the same way again, and I’ve already started changing the way I eat – for both my health and happiness.

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a manner of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

– Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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