10 things I’ve learned about food from Michael Pollan

10 Things I ve Learned from Michael Pollan

I have a confession. I’m a little behind on my what I’m reading posts. Over the past couple of months I’ve read both In Defense of FoodThe Omnivore’s Dilemma, two of Michael Pollan’s bestsellers, and in the process learned more about industrial food, big and small organic farming, feedlots and fast-food restaurants than I ever knew I could. Pollan is smart, honest, witty–and his books are just fascinating.

Here are 10 things I recently learned from reading these two, highly intellectual, foodie books:

1. Plants need animals and animals need plants. 

“When animals live on farms, the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop.”

Mixed farms make biological sense! We need to feed animals waste products of crops, and feed crops waste products of animals, but crops and animals no longer co-exist on conventional farms in the United States. This means  crops are faced with fertility problems and feedlots with poop problems.

2. Corn makes cows sick.

“What gets a steer from 80 to 1,100 pounds in 14 months is tremendous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements and an arsenal of new drugs.”

We need cheap calories and protein to produce cheap meat, so most industrial farmed animals are fed corn & soy-based diets. The sad thing is, corn makes cow tummies acidic, bloated, and can even put the animal into a state of acidosis. But instead of feeding cows what they’re meant to eat, industrial farmers pump their corn-based diets full of antacids and antibiotics to reduce the side effects and ward of disease. This is probably why cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days–their bodies aren’t be able to tolerate much more.

Sad face.

3. GMO crops undermine farmers & their land.

Some farmers use genetically modified seeds for more resilient and higher yielding crops but, if you ever took Econ 101, you know that greater yield means lower prices for those crops. GMO seeds are bred to last only one season and consume fertilizer faster than can be replenished naturally. The companies selling these seeds are really the only people who benefit from the farmer’s productivity.

4. Organic isn’t always a good thing.

A 1-pound box of pre-washed, non-local, organic lettuce at Whole Foods provides 80 calories of food energy but requires more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce. And when it comes to livestock, most organic farm animals don’t live happy lives like we think they do.

5. We need to eat more local foods.

92 cents of a consumer’s food dollar winds up in the pockets of food processors, middlemen and retailers. On the contrary, farmer’s markets take about 6 cents from every dollar a farmer earns and, since they’re local, a lot fewer natural resources, like gasoline, are consumed in the process.

6. Thanks to advances in food science, the typical Western diet is hardly composed of foods at all these days.

The majority of what we find on grocery store shelves are “edible food-like substances” than actual foods. Sad but true.

7. The more complex foods get, the worse they taste and the less healthy we become.

Nutritionism–focusing heavily on individual nutrients, instead of their synergistic effects in whole foods, has only made us sicker and fatter, and made food far less tasty than it used to be.

8. Humans are adapted to, and can thrive on, a vast range of different diets, but the Western diet does not seem to be one of them.

Mediterranean, anyone?

9. Healthier soils mean healthier plants and animals, and in turn healthier people.

If only it were as simple as it sounds.

10. We need to get back to eating food, just not too much, and mostly plants.


So, knowing what I know now, have I changed at all?  Yes.

Since finishing these two books I’ve definitely made an effort to eat more local and organic foods, when time and the budget allows. I frequent the Saturday farmer’s market almost every week and pick up as many fresh fruits & veggies there as possible. We also now get most of our meats from the neighborhood butcher, who only purchases local, antibiotic-free, grass-fed animals.

Want to know another funny effect of reading these two books? I now yell, “Grass-fed beef!” every time the hubs and I drive by a field of grazing cattle. Try it the next time you go on a road trip. It feels good and I’m sure makes the cows happy.

Foodie books: Read any good ones lately? If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food, what’d you think? Did it change the way you eat or shop for food?

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  • Great post, Elle! Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma is what pushed me over the edge to go to grad school for nutrition, so without Michael Pollan we may never have met!

  • I love love love the book What to Eat by Marion Nestle. She does a fantastic job taking you through a grocery store, and describing each section via nutrition, marketing, public policy, environmental impact and how they all intertwine.

  • I read these books a few years ago and had very similar thoughts to you. It’s crazy how far our eating habits have been removed from actual food! In my opinion, it’s important that we vote with our checkbook as often as possible in order to positively influence our food system :)

  • Hi there! I’m a new reader and also a registered dietitian. I have not read either of these books, but have heard a lot about them through family and friends and they’re on my must read list. I’m currently reading “Eating on the Wild Side” by Jo Robinson. It is similar in that she discusses how our food supply has changed so significantly over the years and how the nutrient value of our food has decreased dramatically. It’s quite interesting!

  • Both of these books are on my never-ending “to-read” list. Thank you for the list– it was very informative and I am all for the Mediterranean diet.

    • We go to Drewes Meats – they have a shop near Church & 29th but are also at the Noe Valley Farmer’s Market every Saturday! Love them!

  • I’ve read both of these books and loved them. There’s so much good information; I like how you chose to highlight 10 great points. The last one is my favorite! Reading both books made me more aware of where my food was actually coming from as oppose to just focusing on organic vs conventional. I’m trying to buy more local foods as a result. Have you seen Food Inc? It extends on a lot of the industrial farming issues Michael Pollan talks about in his books. He’s even interviewed in the documentary along with one of the farmers he goes to visit in OD.

    • I haven’t actually seen Food, Inc. but it’s been on my list of things to watch for a while! I’ll have to dial it up on Amazon this weekend – would love to see the bit with MP and his farmer friend!

  • Loved these books! He has a new one – Cooked – that I’ve been meaning to read. I left In Defense of Food at my house last year, and my dad read it. He tells all his friends about shopping at farmer’s markets and my parents’ CSA – it’s so funny.

    • I recently went on a book-buying bender on Amazon and have Cooked sitting on my bookshelf at home! Can’t wait to crack it open.

      Also, too funny about your dad! I’m sending both of these books to mine as well. I’m sure he’ll be educating complete strangers about sustainable farming and farmer’s markets as soon as he gets his hands on these books!

  • I want to read these! I love learning more about what I can do for better health and better treatment of animals and the environment! Thanks :)

  • Great post! I adore Michael Pollan and love that he’s spreading the message that he has in these 2 books. If you’re not tired about reading about food and sustainability quite yet, check out Brendan Brazier’s Whole Foods to Thrive. Lots of eye-opening statistics in there, and recipes too! :) I’m really lucky to have a lot of local farmers nearby, so since reading these 3 books, I’ve definitely started trying to buy locally (and in season) where I can.

  • I read “In Defense of Food” too, and it opened my [naive] eyes to the way the entire food industry operates. Another good one is Food Matters – same ideas and concepts but a great read.

  • Love these books! I read them a few years ago and they’re always on my mind when I go grocery shopping or touch food. I read his newer book, “Cooked” this summer, which has made me reconsider how I prepare my meals. It is quite frightening how industrialized food. And it is sad to think of what many of us (Americans) put into our bodies. I keep trying to get my fiance to read these and wish that more people knew where our food comes from and the effects it has on us and our world.

    • I totally agree – so many of us have no idea where our food comes from, which is all part of the problem. The sheer amount I’ve talked about these two books with my husband definitely has piqued his interest but he hasn’t yet cracked one open. I think I’m going to sneak IDoF in his bag the next time we go on vacation!

  • I really hope to read both of these books soon! Which did you enjoy most?
    The last foodie book I read was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was okay ;) I found myself falling asleep here and there, but maybe it was because I had a newborn and was so tired. I found his section on chickens and the whole “Free Range” culture quite interesting, though!

    • I loved them both but OD is definitely more dense. IDoF is a quick, easy and interesting read so definitely start with that one first!