Last year I became a Michael
Pollan groupie. Pollan is a longtime contributor to New York Times Magazine
and has written The
Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’ve read, and The Botany of Desire,
which I haven’t read — both books have been New York Times
In the book In Defense
of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto the journalist “shows us
how, despite the daunting dietary landscape Americans confront in the
modern super-market, we can escape the Western diet and, by doing so,
most of the chronic diseases that diet causes”(back-cover copy).
Polland’s journalism is superior — rational, fact-based, often
humorous, but also filled with self-reflection — an approach I enjoy.
What struck me in this last book is that he links the rise of “Western
diseases” to the fact that Americans (and unfortunately more and more
of the world) are eating “Western foods.” To quote:
“All of the uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain
fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced
directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly
processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise
plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap
calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture and the
narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny
handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy.”
He documents these facts:
• Four of the top ten causes of death today are
chronic diseases with well-established links to diet: coronary heart
disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.
• These diseases remain rare in places where people
don’t eat the way we do.
• When people in other places in the world give up
their traditional way of eating and adopt the Western diet, there soon
follows a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity,
diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.
• When populations stop eating the Western diet,
they stop suffering from the Western diseases.
It occurs to me that a disturbing corollary exists between our physical
Western distresses and our American spiritual ennui. Not only are we
eating the wrong foods here in the West (Pollan recommends that we only
buy from the edges of supermarkets and avoid the processed foods
stocking the shelves in the center of food stores), because of our
Western lifestyle habits, we are badly nourished spiritually.
Hungry Souls began eight years ago to attempt to feed those who were
spiritually starving — despite being surrounded by all the religious
books one would care to buy and readily supplied by a whole religious
print and media industry that packages and produces and markets a kind
of substitute, reductionist, manufactured low-fat spirituality.
For a visual
illustration of this, think of the space travelers in the film WALL-E. So overfed
— so force-fed, actually — their muscles could no longer propel their
bodies. Instead, mechanized lounge chairs whipped them through their
passive days. Rather a frightening prophecy, actually, of what our
spiritually overfed American Christianity is in danger of looking like.
We need to find the spiritual equivalents to Michael Pollan’s
challenge: Eat food.
Not too much. Mostly plants. That is what I will be
attempting to do in the next Soulish
Foods — explore some of the causes of our Western
spiritual diseases. I
would welcome feedback from you, my friends and readers!
Brainstorm this with me, PLEASE, as I go along: What is wrong with the
American spiritual diet? With so much instruction available to us, why
are we languishing spiritually? What do you think?
Pollan ends his remarkable treatise In Defense of Food
with some rules for eating. To tempt you to pick up this writer’s work,
I’ll just list a few below. You can discover what he means by reading
the book yourself. (I
challenge you to keep up with me in this reading program. I’m 66 and
certainly heading over the hill intellectually!)
• DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T
RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. (Or, don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.)
• AVOID FOOD PRODUCTS CONTAINING INGREDIENTS THAT
ARE (A) UNFAMILIAR, (B) UNPRONOUCEABLE, (C) MORE THAN FIVE IN
NUMBER, OR THAT INCLUDE (D) HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP.
• AVOID FOOD PRODUCTS THAT MAKE HEALTH CLAIMS.
• YOU ARE WHAT WHAT YOU EAT EATS TOO. (Think about
There are more! — but enough. Buy, borrow or check out the book for
3-Day Silence Leader Training
regularly receives inquiries as to our “schedule” of silent retreats.
The truth is: We have no regularly scheduled retreats except the yearly
24-Hour Advent Retreat of Silence held in December. Frankly, our team
cannot keep up with the demand.
We would like to remedy this by offering a regular silent-retreat
schedule for small groups led throughout the year by skilled retreat
So we are planning an extended brainstorm and planning session (yes, we
will observe silence, but not, as our liturgical friends say, “the
Grand Silence”) at St. Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, IL. This is the
Benedictine community of sisters who have so graciously welcomed us for
the last two years for our 3-day retreats.
We have reserved room for eight women. The cost is $150, which covers a
shared room with private bath and meals. The dates are Sunday April 19,
starting at 5:00 P.M. through Wednesday April 22 and ending with the
noon meal. This will be a working retreat with hours of designated
silence. Our goal is to share our areas of expertise, develop exercises
in silence, and design a template for leaders that can be used for a
“schedule” of silent retreats.
If you are a practiced retreat leader, or if you feel called to be one,
we welcome your presence. Contact us as soon as possible at
. (If we
have more than eight participants, we can possibly book more rooms.)
The Soulish Food e-mails are
posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web
site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to
register on the Web site to receive the bi-weekly newsletter. You might
want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
"It occurs to me that a disturbing corollary exists
between our physical Western distresses and our American spiritual
ennui. Not only are we eating the wrong foods here in the West, because
of our Western lifestyle habits, we are badly nourished spiritually."
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto By Michael Pollan
Praise for Pollan's book from Amazon.com reviewers
"In just 200 pages (and 22 pages of notes and sources), In Defense of Food
gives you a guided tour of 20th-century food science, a history of
'nutritionism' in America and a snapshot of the marriage of government
and the food industry. And then it steps up to the reason most readers
will buy it -- and if you care for your health and the health of your
loved ones, this is a no-brainer one-click -- and presents a
commonsense shopping-and-eating guide."
"Food is the one thing that Americans hate to love and, as it turns
out, love to hate. What we want to eat has been ousted by the notion of
what we should eat, and it's at this nexus of hunger and hang-up that
Michael Pollan poses his most salient question: Where is the food in
our food? What follows in In Defense of Food
is a series of wonderfully clear and thoughtful answers that help us
omnivores navigate the nutritional minefield that's come to typify our
Review from Nora Ephron, The New York Times
"I have tried on countless occasions to convey to my friends how
incredible this book is. I have gone on endlessly about Pollan's
brilliance in finding a way to write about food -- but it's not really
food, it's about everything. ... Well, the point is, I have tried and
failed to explain it, so I just end up giving them a copy, and sooner
or later they call to say, 'You were right, it's fantastic.'"