A systems approach to food and nutrition – Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

These seven words make up the entirety of the “eater’s manifesto” that is the subtitle of Michael Pollan‘s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Of course, if the “doing” were as easy as the “saying”, Pollan wouldn’t have needed 200+ pages to explain the three rules embodied in these seven words.

At its core, Pollan’s argument is one for a systems view of food and nutrition and against attempts to reduce the complexity of the “food web” into its various components, each considered in isolation from the other. He points to the Western conception of food, especially our current “food science” and “nutrition industry”, as an example of the dangers of the reductionist view point.

As Pollan himself mentions in the introduction, it seemed to me at first to be a little bit strange for someone to be telling me to “eat food”. I mean, what else would I eat? The answer, as it turns out, is that a lot of what I – and quite probably you – eat is actually what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances”.

These food-like substances are, according to Pollan, the result of “nutritionism”, a deliberate effort by food scientists – and the companies that employ them – to break food down into it’s component parts, the macro- and micro-nutrients, so that these nutrients can be efficiently – and profitably – delivered to consumers.


The topics on the left side of the mind map above give an idea of how Pollan believes “nutritionism” has led to many of our current health problems, including the epidemic of obesity. He covers these in the first two sections of the book.

The topics on the right side give an idea of  the key points behind the three rules of his eater’s manifesto and how they all work together as a system. He covers this in section 3 of the book.

If you are inclined to systems thinking, Pollan’s argument will make perfect sense. There may be some areas you could nit-pick, but the overall approach is sound. If, on the other hand, you are not a “systems-thinker”, you may very well find yourself a bit confused and uncomfortable. We are, in general, so accustomed to worrying about all the parts of nutrition that it will take a very concerted – and conscious – effort, to “let go” and trust the system.

The mind map in Mind Manager 6 Pro format.

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