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252 of 284 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some good basic info, but lacks scientific rigor, April 18, 2009
This review is from: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Hardcover)
Michael Pollan's book has some generally good advice about what to eat, and some fascinating/disturbing info about the American food industry, but I was continually frustrated by the author's weak attention to research. Pollan is a not a scientist, and doesn't seem to find it very important to ground his assertions with unimpeachable facts. His advice can sometimes be contradictory ("don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize" but "eat tofu"--If your great-grandmother didn't come from Asia, it's doubtful she would recognize anything made of bean curd) and he tends to cite sources that he likes, rather than sources he's really investigated. For example, Pollan would never list a dairy-industry pamphlet as one of his sources, but he gleefully quotes some rather doubtful statements from an organic-food-industry pamphlet, and apparently didn't bother to ask even one secondary source to verify them. He writes a compelling essay showing that nutrition and dietary habits are incredibly difficult for scientists to study, and implies that any information based on nutritional studies is flawed, yet quotes certain studies as if they are somehow immune to this problem. Pollan maintains that the American government's health-education programs are a major cause of the obesity epidemic, yet the descriptions he gives of these programs don't match my memory of what was actually being taught at the time. And because he gives merely general endnotes, rather than specific footnotes, it's difficult to check where he got his information.

I also had a little trouble with Pollan's tone, which is strangely naive, and occasionally condescending. He seems overly impressed with some of his own statements, such as his claim that humans are the only animals that turn to experts to tell them what to eat. Even if one accepts that this is true, humans do a lot of things that animals don't do, and in many cases, we should be glad of it. (And as Paula Poundstone has pointed out, she has to tell her dog to get his head out of the garbage every day.)

I think Pollan is basically right that the American food industry would benefit from a major overhaul, and the suggestions he's making to the government would make us all healthier if they're implemented. But it's too bad that someone with generally sound ideas can't take a little more trouble with the details. Overall, if you read this book to learn how to eat healthier, you'll get some good tips, but take his "facts" with a grain of salt. This is definitely a book to be read, but it should be read critically.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 30 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 27, 2009 6:11:34 AM PDT
J. Seidman says:
Thank you very much for this review. I am particularly sensitive to whether material has a solid scientific backing, especially since so much written today does not. I am disappointed, although not particularly surprised, to learn that Pollan has followed the common practice of choosing sources based on whether they support his argument, rather than on scientific merit.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 16, 2009 11:03:08 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 16, 2009 11:23:41 AM PST
A Reader says:
I couldn't agree more. What are Pollan's credentials (if any) to be providing this type of 'advice'? He does not mention them in the book, and now I know why. Given his background (which can be found on his own website) he is not qualified to be providing advice on nutrition. He's laughing all the way to the bank as people like me buy his book. I found it contradictory for him to indicate that eating meat is OK (page 165) while stating that plants should be our dietary focus. A much better book is 'The China Study' by T. Colin Campbell. Campbell DOES have the credentials and scientific background to be expounding on the topic of nutrition.

Posted on Jan 20, 2010 2:57:31 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 20, 2010 2:57:40 PM PST
Perhaps, rather than "eat food your grandmother would recognize," the rule should be phrased as "eat food somebody's grandmother would recognize."

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2010 4:03:47 PM PST
LifeboatB says:
thanks for the tip! I've never heard of "The China Study"--I'll check it out.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2010 4:03:59 PM PST
LifeboatB says:
I like that!

Posted on Oct 26, 2010 8:22:47 AM PDT
J. L. Klimt says:
Thank you so much for your review. This book was shown to me this past weekend with a complete lack of objectivity. No allowance for any divergence of thought and the fan proceeded to quote different aspects as gospel. You have answered one of my major questions as to if there was scientific documentation for support of his theories.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 30, 2010 10:37:22 AM PDT
Robert Ruddy says:
The China Study is a bias book written by T. Colin Campbell who most definitely has a vegan agenda. He ignores the data which does not support his claims. Start by reading through the numerous comments and reviews of his book ...

Posted on Feb 2, 2011 4:24:10 AM PST
thehurricane says:
The whole point of the book is that we don't need scientists telling us what to eat. Just eat "real" food. If you can't figure out the difference between real food and industrialized then there is probably no hope for you anyways. After reading this book I went from a nutrition obsessed, fad diet junky, who bought all the "scientific" diet books as soon as they came out. Now I am much less eneurotic, I eat real food, you know... meat, veggies, fruits... I eat less of it and I am losing weight. Go on google and check out photos of people in the 20's 30's and 40's. Very, very few fat people. And guess what, nobody had heard of weight watchers, atkins, ornish and nobody was going to the gym or running 10 miles a week either. This included people in big cities like New York, Chicago where people didn't have to work on farms.
Look at Indian tribes to see what happens when the move away from fruits, veggies, whole grains and fresh meats and dairy... the are forced to eat white flour, sugar etc and the get horribly fat and have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. If you are such a sheep that you need someone with "scientific credentials" to think this out for you then you are in deep trouble.

Posted on Jul 10, 2011 11:36:39 AM PDT
Obviously the point of the book is missed with some. It is a pity that people demand scientific evidence that eating an apple is better for humans than eating a granola bar (or anything else that comes in a box). I doubt that he will or should apologize for not providing adequate scientific rigor. You claim that his tone is strangely naive. Which do you prefer, that he be naive or scientific? He is not a scientist, therefore, in this area he is admittedly naive. His perspective is clearly that of a nonscientist that is relying on basic knowledge of the food industry and common sense and urges fat, sick, Americans to do the same. Did you miss the many areas where he dismisses science as unneccessary? So he should base his argument on science and dismiss science at the same time? His claim is that science cannot reproduce what nature provides. But, he should rely on science to prove that argument. At no time does he make false claims about his background. He is a writer. He has written an insightful, enjoyable book. If you wanted a nutrition guide from a scientist, you failed in your research.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 18, 2011 10:38:26 AM PDT
LifeboatB says:
As I said, I think most of his basic recommendations about food are correct. But to me, it's poor writing to, as you put it "dismiss science" in some cases, and rely on it in others. (And to "dismiss science" actually means to dismiss any kind of logical thinking--look up the definition of "science.") It was frustrating to me that he would, for example, state that processed foods are bad for you, and that protein is not as important as most people believe, and then express surprise and contempt that most people wouldn't select "hot dogs and chocolate" as the items that would be most likely to help you survive on a desert island. I've been wondering about the hot dogs and chocolate ever since, since Pollan didn't explain why such processed goods are the perfect survival foods. When I'm reading a book that is advertised as giving information, I expect it to do just that.

I only read the book because I was assigned to read it for my book club. I didn't actually find it that insightful and enjoyable--I don't really care about Pollan's personal opinions. If he's making scientific claims--which he does--he should support them.
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