Julie Guthman on “In Defense of Food”

In a chapter titled, “Will local, organic food make you thin?” Julie Guthman takes aim at the dietary advice in Pollan’s work, particularly In Defense of Food:

Through better farming and better cooking, the movement has in an important sense redefined good food from “healthy” to “real.” These ideas have been promulgated by food writers, of course. The tagline of Pollan’s In Defense of Food reads: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the book, he contrasts “food” (that is, “real” food) with “edible foodlike substances.”

The alternative-food movement has attempted to influence the way we eat in addition to what we eat. Rejecting the idea of food as simply functional, to be ingested solely to fueld the bodily machine (the approach many diets take), much of alternative food discourse emphasizes conviviality and the social context of the meal. Food should be eaten at the table, not gobbled down in the car or at a desk, with plenty of time given over to civil discussion…

And yet, with all this emphasis on the pleasure of eating, subtle references to and preferences for thinness, akin to healthism, appear in the alternative food movement. Whereas more mainstream healthism promotes counting calories and standing on the scale, alternative food merely hints at this kinder gentler way to manage weight. Michael Pollan has been explicit in positioning alternative food against the food qualities and practices that make you fat. In a widely circulated New York Times piece about the movie Julie and Julia, he correlated the rise of obesity and the decline of home cooking (another potentially spurious correlation) and concluded that you can eat anything you want as long as you cook it from scratch. Some sections of In Defense of Food read like a masculine version of Why French Women Don’t Get Fat…At times In Defense of Food even reads like a diet book, when, for example, Pollan suggests using smaller plates to trick yourself into eating less, or when he says that “another important benefit of paying more for better-quality food is that you’re apt to eat less of it” (184)…To be sure, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, along with Pollan’s newest Food Rules, developed by eliciting rules from readers in the New York Times, all seem to suggest that if you act like him, by spending more money and time procuring, preparing, and eating food, you’ll be thin.

It is easy to take issue with Pollan on these points, especially since he appeals to a European aesthetic that is unlikely to resonate with the lower-to-middle-income rural and suburban white Europhobes who are some of the prime targets of current-day nutritional advice…Nonetheless, the implicit promise of alternative food is that if you have a more natural, sensuous relationship with your food, you will also have one with your body–which will somehow manifest in being not too fat. Is this “natural” relationship easy to find? in her important book Unbearable Weight, the feminist theorist Susan Bordo discusses how, in the face of a tyranny of slenderness that makes the vast majority of women extraordinarily weight conscious, the goal of having a more natural relationship with food can be doubly oppressive for women. Not only must they watch their weight, they must also watch themselves to make sure they appear to eat what and all they want…

To the extent that eating alternative food is discussed, if not explicitly promoted, as a weight-loss strategy, it is reminiscent of what Skrabenek called lifestylism in which disease prevention morphs into moral prescriptions as to how one should live, an issue to which I will return. In any case, there are many other ways that alternative food is a weak antidote to obesity. These lie with change strategies that do not address the political-economic foundations of the larger food system. (145-147)

Setting aside questions of the efficacy of alternative food for personal weight-loss, the criticism for failure to address political issues seems like one that requires some qualification. Perhaps In Defense of Food sometimes reads like a diet book, but I wonder if Guthman would argue that diet books shouldn’t exist. I think what’s most important to take away from the criticism is an understanding that alternative food doesn’t solve the problem. Yet it seems that there’s still value to supporting the development of alternative food systems, so that when political change comes, these will no longer be merely an alternative. Nonetheless, it is fair for Guthman to point out the incompleteness of that “solution.”

3 Comments »

  1. I’ve read all of the Michael Pollan books mentioned in
    Julie Guthman’s critic’. Not once did any of her objections come to mind while doing so. So thank you Adam Merberg, and thank you Julie Guthman, for publishing such an interesting analyses of Pollan’s work. I look forward reading more.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for letting me know! It’s definitely an important perspective, so I’m glad you’re finding it interesting.

  2. […] to support his opinions.” I might as well also mention that I’ve previously blogged Julie Guthman’s criticisms, as well as a few of my own. Share this:MoreLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this […]

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