In Defense of Food from a Weight Loss Perspective

I recently watched the PBS documentary, In Defense of Food.  I had already read Michael Pollan’s great book about what to eat, called In Defense of Food:  An Eater’s Manifesto.  The show is a shorter version of the book and well worth watching even if you have read the book.  Likewise, the book is well worth reading even if you watch the show.

Pollan has famously summed up his approach as: “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”  His focus is mostly on healthy eating, although “not too much” certainly relates to weight loss.

As I was watching In Defense of Food, though, I kept thinking about it and Weight Watchers SmartPoints.  I have posted already about how Weight Watchers is encouraging us to eat less sugar and less saturated fat, and is trying to encourage healthier eating.  In some ways, the Weight Watchers Beyond the Scale plan is in sync with Pollan’s work.  If you follow Pollan’s maxims you will most likely do pretty good on SmartPoints. In others, not so much.  Weight Watchers sure sells some snacks or puts its name on some foods that I think don’t much fit into what Pollan would consider to be food. But, mostly, the two are not in opposition to one another.  Pollan simply advocates a way of eating that is probably more aspirational for many people than is Beyond the Scale. Weight Watchers snacks may be highly processed, but may be less bad and more portion controlled than a lot of other snacks we can buy.

In Defense of Food (the show), is essentially structured in 3 parts based upon the 3 short sentences above.  Note that the New York Times article in which he used set forth his suggestion for how to eat has a good overview of his position along with a number of food rules. For more of his food rules (largely a subset of what is in the book, In Defense of Food), see his book called – not surprisingly – Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.  In Defense of Food might be seen as largely addressing the “why,” while Food Rules focuses on the “how” of healthy eating.Eat Food

Your first thought on seeing this might be something like.  Yeah?  I do that already.  What else would I eat?  But, Pollan has a different take on it.  By food, he means real food.  He doesn’t mean what he calls edible, foodlike substances.  Basically, what he is talking about there is highly processed food.  Think about something like Cheetos, which is something I used to enjoy eating.  Is that food?  Here is a list of the ingredients for Crunch Cheetos:

Enriched Corn Meal (Corn Meal, Ferrous Sulfate, Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate. Riboflavin, and Folic Acid), Vegetable Oil (Corn, Canola and/0r Sunflower Oil), Cheese Seasoning (Whey, Cheddar Chese [Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes],  Canola Oil, Maltodextrin [Made from Corn], Salt, Whey Protein Concentrate, Monosodium Glutamate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Artificial Color [Yellow g], and Salt.

Well, it is edible.  But, is it food?  Isn’t foodlike really a better description?  Or, as I like to think of it when I see a label like that:  Maybe it is just a flavored science experiment.

Part of the reason Pollan suggests eating food is to try to drive a stake in the heart of nutritionism.  He points out that the United States went down the wrong path years ago when changing from advising people to eat — or not eat — certain foods to advising people to eat — or not eat — certain nutrients.  He discusses when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, in the late 1970s drafted guidelines that told people to eat less red meat and dairy products.  It did this in an attempt to less the rate of heart disease. This suggestion, of course, resulted in a huge outcry from the meat and dairy interests.  The guidelines were rewritten to more tamely suggest that we choose meats, fish and poultry that would reduce intake of saturated fat.

The reason that is important decades later, is that from that point forward the United States has usually written dietary guidelines in terms of reducing the eating of certain nutrients, rather than saying eat less of certain types of food.  The huge controversy about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines illustrates this.   The Scientific Report of the 2105 Dietary Guidelines Committee was clear:

The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, and legumes, and nuts, moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat: and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.

What is notable about these recommendations is that they talk about food and not nutrients.  It doesn’t say to eat less saturated fat.  It says to eat less red and processed meat.  Of course, once the food industry saw this and politics got involved in it, the actual final Dietary Guidelines went largely back to nutritionism.  While the new Guidelines have some good stuff in them, they also focus a lot more on nutrients than did the scientific advisory committee. So, for example, the Guidelines say to obtain less than 10% of calories from saturated fat, and to eat less than 10% of calories from added sugar. As Marion Nestle points out in her review of the Guidelines:

  • Saturated fat is a euphemism for meat.
  • Added sugars is a euphemism for sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Sodium is a euphemism for processed foods and junk foods.

The point that Pollan is making In Defense of Food is that nutritionism leads us to focus on nutrients rather than simply eating real food.  Think about some of what we hear:

Less than X% of your calories should be saturated fat.

Less than X% of your calories should be added sugar.

You should not eat more than X sodium.

Eat X amount of Omega-3s.

Don’t eat too much Omega-6s.

For most of us that advice is utterly useless.  Most people don’t count their calories.  I do, so I have that part covered.  Even fewer people know how much saturated fat they eat or how much added sugar and they certainly don’t have the Omega-3s or 6s shown on a nutritional information label. Even tracking every bite I eat on MyFitnessPal and on Weight Watchers, I am hard pressed to navigate all this.  And, I certainly can’t do it in the moment.

The result is that too many of us throw up our hands and simply give up on trying to figure out healthy eating.  It is too confusing and complex.  And, frankly, that is what much of the food industry wants us to do.  They want us to not realize that “eat less saturated fat” really means eat less meat, especially less beef.  They want us to not realize that “eat less added sugar” really means to quit drinking sugary sodas and to eat way less candy and cookies.  And “eat less sodium”?  That one really means eat less processed foods.

Pollan cuts through all the nonsense.  Eat food.  If you don’t eat a lot of processed foods (he is not a purist and doesn’t suggest you never eat such foods), then you don’t have to worry as much about the sodium in the food and you probably don’t add all that much sugar.  Eating becomes more simple since you are eating real foods and not the science experiments of a food industry that tries really, really hard to get us to eat what they come up with in their labs. One of the main things discussed in the show is that there are a lot of different healthy eating patterns.  What they have in common is that they are low in the kinds of processed foods we eat in the United States.

Mostly Plants

I’m taking this one out of order, so I can discuss “not too much” last.  Pollan says in the PBS documentary that lots of people weren’t happy with him for saying to eat “mostly plants.”  Vegans didn’t like it that he didn’t say to eat entirely plants.  And, a lot of other people didn’t like the emphasis on plants.  His defense of eating plants was a very interesting part of the show, including talking about the health benefits of eating mostly plants.  While he eats meat himself, he did have a section on Seventh Day Adventists and their longevity, particularly for those who are vegetarians.  He makes a very good case for eating much less meat.  Not avoiding it entirely, but having it fewer times a week and in smaller portions.  And, doing this may help with his next advice.

Not Too Much

Pollan knows that real food tastes great.  And, eating real food is better for us than eating processed junk. (Note that I am not a purist either.  I eat processed foods.  But, I do pay attention to the ingredient list and I watch how much of those foods I eat).  Alas, however, real food does come to us with calories.  A large section of the PBS documentary is about eating not too much food.  But, again, eating more real food helps with this also.  So much of the processed foods are high calorie with low satiety.  And, they are designed by the food industry to make us want to eat more of them.  So, simply limiting processed foods helps with the whole “not too much” thing.

Still, calories do matter.  But, if you follow “eat food” and follow “mostly plants” then you tend to do much better on the “not too much” front.  I was a vegetarian for about 2 years and I lost zero weight.  I did fine on the mostly plants part, but I ate lots of processed foods.  Cookies, candy, cake, and many other unhealthy foods can be eaten as a vegetarian.  It is entirely possible to eat in an unhealthy manner and be a vegetarian.  But, someone who both “eats mostly plants” and “eats food” already has a leg up on eating not too much since they are avoiding those foodlike substances.

This reminds me of SmartPoints.  If we limit saturated fat and sugar, then it may become easier to stay within your SmartPoints and lose weight.  And, let’s be clear.  Limiting saturated fat is largely about limiting meat and high fat dairy, as well as processed foods high in saturated fat.  Limiting sugar is mostly about limiting sugar sweetened drinks and sweet treats.  If I limit those things or avoid them entirely, then there is a much better chance that I will not eat too much.

The beauty of In Defense of Food is that it shows us how these three concepts go together.  Success isn’t just focusing on one of them.  I was an overweight vegetarian because I focused on one of them.  The success for me comes from working to be better at all three of them. I highly recommend watching In Defense of Food which can be watched on the PBS website.

Oh — another thing — I also love his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  I read it before In Defense of Food.  And, it was written first.  But, I would probably say to read them in the opposite order.  But, either way is good.


  1. lauren says

    Don’t eat processed foods, no sugar…that means very low carb. No bread, potatoes, rice, grains, starchy vegetables. Lots of meat, fat and mostly leaves for carbs. That will bring most diabetic’s blood sugars down into the 80’s or lower. Just think of all the feet, toes, kidneys and vision we could save if the prescribed diet for a diabetic was low carb or keto.

    • says

      I read the book about a year ago (as well An Omnivore’s Dilemma which is also good) and it really did have an effect on what I do. I’m not a purist, but it is something I think about. The documentary is really good as well.

  2. Linda says

    How would you count “sugar alcohol” in your sugar free items such as gum or Mrs. Butterworth’s sugar free syrup.
    And have you figured a way to count how many SP a person would get per day?

    • says

      Sugar alcohol isn’t counted like sugar in terms of SmartPoints. It is just part of calories. The only way I know to figure out daily SP is through using the assessment at the WW site or using the handheld calculator

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