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Michael Pollan

At sixty-six years of age and best known for his books on the sociology of food, the American author and journalist Michael Pollan has become an unlikely figurehead for the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan surveyed the recent revival of psychedelic drugs as adjuncts to psychotherapy, and the emerging evidence that supports their use in the treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Globally prohibited since the early 1970s and still mostly illegal, these compounds – including the ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD and psilocybin (the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms), as well as MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine – are once again the subject of clinical trials, including in Australia where the federal government has became one of the first in the world to fund research in the field.

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If Michael Pollan were a terminal illness, I’d be in the fourth stage of grieving. He has had a brilliant and successful run until now, producing seven books in just over twenty years, taking up a university teaching position (yes, food-related), writing long articles, mostly for the New York Times, and all the while cooking and thinking his way to self-fulfilment.

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In Defence of Food is several books rolled into one. It is a primer on nutrition science, a contextual exposé on what we put in our mouths, an advertisement for the joys of eating and even something of a self-help diet and behavioural book. It is also part of Michael Pollan’s ongoing conversation with the reading (and eating) public, and is more satisfying when placed within his oeuvre, particularly The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006).

Mostly, though, In Defence of Food is a polemic about ‘the problem of the Western diet, and how we might plot our escape from it’. Pollan even cites a shiny new eating disorder for us to worry about: an ‘orthorexic’ is a person ‘with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating’. While Pollan writes about the United States, we only have to read the ingredient lists on our supermarket products, or reflect upon the controversy over the meat-heavy (or meat-rich, depending on your viewpoint) CSIRO diet books, to recognise the Australian relevance of the ‘Western diet’ debate.

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