What to Eat by Marion Nestle

What To Eat by Marion Nestle
April 2007
Paperback ISBN: 9780865477384
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This review is also posted on my food blog Thoughtful Eating.

A couple of years ago, when I was in for my yearly check-up, I was describing to my doctor my various intestinal dilemmas as well as my issues with certain foods. At that point in my life, I was really wanting more information about food and nutrition in general. He gave me a short list of books that he recommended I read and on that list was Marion Nestle’s What To Eat. I bought the book and set it aside. While I didn’t pick it up for another year and a half, I left it somewhere visible so it’s continued presence would be a constant reminder to pick the book and read it.

Finally this year I read the book. What took me so long? I didn’t want to be a victim of scare-mongering and I was very worried that this book would do that. That reading it would scare me enough that I would be living in fear of many foods. Instead, I got a thorough education.

It took me about 6 months to read this book. Mostly because there was a lot of information to take in and I really wanted to take my time with it. While this book could be used as a reference guide, it’s best read from cover to cover. The author Marion Nestle has a very impressive resume. She’s written multiple books about food and food politics, she’s a professor of nutrition and sociology and has a Ph.D in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition (Source: http://www.foodpolitics.com/about/) . So when you pick up this book, know that you are in good hands.

What to Eat covers a variety of food topics including (in no particular order):

Fruit & Vegetables
Organic produce
Fish & Seafood
Milk & Dairy
Oils & Fat
Tea & Coffee
Soy Milk
Frozen Foods
Processed Foods
Packaged Foods
Prepared Foods
Snack Foods
Foods targeted at Children
Infant Formula & Baby Food

It would be impossible for me to write in this review all the valuable bits of information and food for thought that I gleamed for this book. But I’d like to point out a few that really surprised me.

I think the most difficult chapters for me to read were the ones on Fish & Seafood. It was the scariest topic of them all especially since there are many issues with the quality of fish & seafood which comes from over-fishing, mishandling, pollution, toxins and farming. I gathered from these sections that fish & seafood as a food group is not as healthy as we think it is and as a seafood aficionado this made me nervous.

I also learned that for a carnivore the worst thing to eat is another carnivore. If you are going to eat meat or seafood, make sure what you are eating one on the lowest rank of the food chain. Nestle made the case by showing how shark meat can be quite dangerous. Sharks are notorious carnivores that not only eat herbivores and omnivores but also other carnivores too. If one small fish carries a toxin and a larger fish carries another toxin and that larger fish eats the smaller fish, the larger fish will basically be contaminated with both toxins (or if it’s the same toxins, a double-dose). If a Shark eats that larger fish, the shark will be carrying the toxins of that larger fish and the smaller fish that the larger fish has eaten. And sharks eat a wide variety of fish but also carnivorous mammals too including seals, dolphins, whales, etc (that eat fish that may or may not eat other fish). So eating shark meat is quite a gamble because of the multiplication of toxicity! After I read that, my mind was blown and I ended up having nightmares about eating shark meat. This was the best lesson in biology though as it made me understand why humans don’t eat other omnivores and carnivores. (I also correlated this to mad cow disease and how farmers would grind up diseased & dead lamb/mutton and put it into cattle feed).

The other interesting chapter that surprised me was the one on supplements. My father-in-law has been trying to teach everyone about Vitamin D supplements and both of my parents take various supplements and vitamins on a regular basis. For years my mom harassed me about taking multivitamins which I never really took consistently. Right now, I take a calcium supplement daily and if I’m off a hormonal medication then I take natural supplements like Phytoestrogen. Marion Nestle makes the case that no one really needs added vitamins in their diet whether they be from supplements or from enriched foods and drinks. Why? Because if you eat a wide variety of foods, including vegetables and fruits, you most likely do not have a vitamin deficiency because the variety is already contributing to your basic vitamin needs. In fact, vitamin deficiencies in non-third world countries are very rare. She only suggests taking a multi-vitamin if you have one (or a few) days in which you eat very poorly. Nestle also discusses about how too much of a vitamin can be a bad thing! Interesting. I wanted to argue with her about other non-vitamin supplements though. For me, placebo or not, supplements have helped me immensely with various problems I have. But then again, I’m no expert and I only know from my own personal experience.

What to Eat is very informative and thorough. You get an important lesson in food politics and how food companies want to make money off of consumers regardless of whether it affects your health negatively or not. This is something I already had some knowledge about but Nestle’s findings are quite eye-opening. After reading this book, I don’t think I’ll look at food marketing quite the same way. Nestle does have some bias. She has opinions and she is not afraid to share them. At certain points I had hoped this book would be more technical and less biased, but in the end I came to the conclusion that the book works very well as it is. Nestle shares a lot of her own personal experience with food as well as her experiences with companies and key figures in the food industry. It adds some very informative and enlightening details as well as context.

If you are interested in learning more about food and food politics, pick up What to Eat! You’ll come out of the experience an enlightened (not scared) individual who will be empowered to make better food choices for yourself and your family.
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