Editor Roundtable: In Defense of Food

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This week we put food on the Roundtable as we study the 2015 Big Idea Nonfiction documentary In Defense of Food, by Edward Gray based on the book by Michael Pollan. Leave a comment below or visit us on Twitter @StoryGridRT to let us know what you think of our analysis.

You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 14).

The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the documentary adapted from Wikipedia.

Author and journalist Michael Pollan sets out to answer the question he is asked most by readers of his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: What should I eat to be healthy? His  journey of discovery takes him from the plains of Tanzania, where one of the world’s last remaining tribes of hunter-gatherers still eats the way our ancestors did, to Loma Linda, California, where a group of Seventh Day Adventist vegetarians live longer than almost anyone else on earth, and eventually to Paris, where the French diet, rooted in culture and tradition, proves surprisingly healthy.

He goes on to explore the relationship between the Western Diet and nutritionism, and argues that nutritionism, the ideology that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components, has over-complicated and harmed American eating habits, and that the science of nutrition should not influence people’s eating habits because a full range of nutrients has yet to be identified by scientists. It seems the more focused Americans become on nutrition, the less healthy they seem to become. Faulty nutrition science and deceptive marketing practices have encouraged us to replace real food with scientifically engineered “edible food-like substances.”

Pollan argues that, rather than focusing on eating specific nutrients, people should focus on eating the sort of food—real food—that their ancestors would recognize, food as it exists in nature, before it’s been processed and tampered with, having nutrients stripped to promote shelf-life and artificially added to make them “healthy” again.

All of this is boils down into his succinct seven-word manifesto: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Embracing this simple approach, Pollan says, will allow us to rediscover the pleasures of eating and avoid the chronic diseases so often associated with the modern diet.

The Six Core Questions

Read about an Editor’s Six Core Questions here.

1. What’s the Global Genre? Worldview > Revelation > Big Idea Nonfiction


We’ve learned from our colleague Shelley Sperry, in her wonderful blog post on Big Idea Nonfiction, that Big Idea Nonfiction acts almost like a subgenre of the Worldview > Revelation internal genre. The author of Big Idea Nonfiction is the protagonist, who having been on a journey that changed his worldview, invites the audience to come along and have our worldview changed too.

Michael Pollan’s journey changed his worldview about how we eat, and he wants us to feel both the urgency and the simplicity of making life-saving dietary changes ourselves.

Bid Idea Nonfiction can also have an external genre. In this case, how we eat is laid out literally as a matter of life and death, so I looked to the Action external genre. We perceive the villain as huge institutions like government, Big Agra, and Big Food, so I’m going with the Epic subgenre, which pits Person Against the State.

For plot, I’m going with Rebellion, in which the villain is visible. This documentary introduces us to that villain over and over again via corporate mouthpieces, food labels, and advertisements. We probably can’t overthrow it, but we can subert or outwit it.

Additional Comments 

Leslie: Like The Tipping Point, In Defense of Food is an Intellectual Action story within the Big Idea Nonfiction. In an Action Story, the force of antagonism determines the sub-genre and plot. Shawn has said that the villain in all Nonfiction is the human condition/environment because we know so little about what makes the world go around. That makes it Action > Adventure > Environment. I’m tempted to call it a Labyrinth Plot (the identifying feature of which is a maze-like edifice) rather than Environment. The confusion and misinformation around what to eat if you want to be healthy feels very much like Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard to me.

Click here to learn more about the four nonfiction categories.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of a Big Idea Nonfiction Story


  • There must be an overarching Big Idea that is both surprising and inevitable.The Big Idea is that there is this: So much conflicting information from government and industry has been manipulating the US diet, and that manipulation has led to a rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes, especially in children. This boils down to a simple question: What should I/we eat? It happens within the first minute. Then, he takes us through a sample of the misinformation.
  • All three of the classic forms of argument/persuasion to make the case.
    • Ethos is all about the expertise of the author. Does the author have credibility in the space? Pollan is a well respected journalist that starts out by telling the audience “who am I to do this type of work?” This is a great device to then introduce the expects (which there are many) who form the basis of his rules of eating. These rules are trickled out throughout the movie. I also like the beginning where he talks about a “fresh perspective.”
    • Logos is all about the evidence, data, and backup material the writer uses to support his conclusions. Pollan uses studies, experts, and facts throughout the movie to prove his points. The diversity of opinion and talent makes the logical argument about why are Americans getting fatter and more unhealthy compelling.
    • Pathos is the writer’s appeal to the audience’s emotions to sway them, arousing their anger, or appeal to their self-interest or sense of identity. Pollan does this well throughout the whole movie by showing different demographics and how they have been hurt by the government’s and industries’ manipulation of our diets. It’s particularly compelling when he shows the study of colon cancer markers among Africans and African-Americans. This just makes the point even stronger that diet and health go hand in hand.
  • Tease the reader with narrative cliffhangers. This happens throughout the film and starts with the story of the Anthony Scavotto, an eleven-year-old who is overweight. The way it starts pulls at the heartstrings. “My friends can run and not get tired. I can’t do that.” With this, we get the first argument that Pollan will debunk: “They were buying food that said it was healthy but was not.”
  • It must have a “Big Reveal,” which is akin to the global story climax in a novel. The Big Reveal is that we need to stop manipulating our food and eat what our great-grandmothers would recognize as food. Lots of different whole foods and mostly veggies. It seems that’s the best way to stay healthy.
  • Evidence from credible sources: The entire movie is a series of setups and payoffs with evidence from experts in medicine, farming, and nutrition that debunks common food myths. The best part is the data and Pollan’s approach to presenting it. He emphasizes that there are no absolutes but it is clear that a balance diet of mostly veggies, less meat, less refined foods, is the best way to go.
  • How-to apply the knowledge revealed from the Big Idea in everyday life. Throughout the movie, Pollan reveals his food rules, which are fun and informational. My favorites include
    • Only eat what your great grandmother would recognize as food.
    • Eat lots of different colored veggies.
    • Enjoy your food.
    • Cheat every once in a while.
  • Entertaining anecdotes that keep the reader hooked: There are so many of these, and the best examples are the rules.
    • The twists and turns of the French diet or the Mediterranean diet are also great, since a lot of our food choices were based on limited research.
    • The old cigarette commercials were also a great way to show that if something is harmful, we should not be promoting it.
    • The Harvard study on Fat was also shocking and entertaining as well as the soda tax fights.
    • The teaser about “I thought this would be complex but it turns out, it’s not” came within the first two minutes.

Click here to learn more about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions for a Big Idea Nonfiction book.

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions for the Action Adventure Aspect of the Big Idea Nonfiction Story


As our colleague Shelley Sperry explained, “Big Idea authors usually craft their stories to fit the rules of an External Genre too, which provides much of the narrative drive of the story.”

Like The Tipping Point, In Defense of Food is an Intellectual Action Adventure. The elements listed below are from a post on the Hero, Victim, and Villain in Big Idea Nonfiction.

Well, The Tipping Point has the most dastardly villain of them all…an unbeatable one to boot.

The villain is our state of being.

No, it’s not specifically “outer space” or “a rock” or “ a snowstorm.” It’s the implacable foe that each and every one of us stares down and then retreats from every single conscious moment of our lives.

The villain of The Tipping Point (and all of Nonfiction for that matter) is the human condition. …

We know very little about what makes the world go around. Physically or spiritually. Many of us spend their lives searching for some kind of answers to the deep questions that plague us all… https://storygrid.com/hero-victim-villain/]
The Life Value at Stake in the External genre is Life and Death: While individual food choices on any given day won’t kill most people, the habitual choices people make about what to eat and how much—based on confusion and misinformation—have a big impact on health, illness, and lifespan.

  • Hero, Victim, Villain:
    • Heroes: A hero is someone who sacrifices themselves to free the victims. Pollan is the hero-protagonist. Other heroes include food scientists and educators, and people like Anthony Scavatto. In this film, the heroes do battle with the confusing information and environment to free themselves and others.
    • Victims: It’s called In Defense of Food, but the victim here is not food. Rather humans as “eaters” in general and more specifically, people who are whipsawed by the changes in nutritional advice.
    • Villain: The human condition and our state of being, through which we know very little about what makes the world go around (e.g., “eggs are bad; eggs are good”). The human condition as villain is assisted by companies that sell “edible food-like substances” that are bad for people’s health and government agencies that put out harmful and confusing information.
  • Destination/Promise: This is like the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. We’re on a quest to understand and apply the Big Idea. Pollan’s specific promise is that people can “learn how to eat if you are concerned about your health.”
  • Path/Methodology: This is like the Yellow Brick Road—by following the clear path, we’ll reach the destination. Here: Pollan seeks to clear up the confusion about the links between food and health—using his skills as a writer with an open mind—and tell people about it.
  • Sidekicks: Like the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, sidekicks in the Intellectual Action Adventure exemplify components of the global hypothesis. The food scientists and educators Pollan speaks with unravel confusion and correct misinformation with data and pithy sayings, like “separate association and causation.”
  • Set Pieces/Weigh Stations: These are sequences with a central dilemma that must be solved before the Global story can move on. The stakes must increase with each set piece as we follow the path. For example, Pollan covers the “not too much” aspect of the Big Idea last, and he notes that it’s the hardest to change. Set pieces include food vs. nutrients, Nutritionism, Diseases, evolved to eat vs. diseases of civilization, why eat food, why mostly vegetables, why not too much.
  • Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: Anthony Scavatto’s ’s story and the Death Recipe PSA.

Additional Comments

Anne: I identified the speech in praise of the villain at 1:05:40.

Jarie: I used this method to frame up my Big Idea Nonfiction book, The Entrepreneur Ethos. The big idea is that entrepreneurs need an ethos to strive for so they can build a more ethical, inclusive, and resilient community. When I first started the book, I knew nothing about Story Grid. During my initial draft, I was getting all sorts of feedback that was basically saying “I don’t get” or “why do we need this?” The SG framework allowed me to focus in on what mattered and make sure I had all the proper pieces.

Shelley Sperry’s article is an excellent resource. She analyzes The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It’s an excellent read and includes a list of all the Story Grid posts that deal with Big Idea Narrative Nonfiction.

Leslie: The Tipping Point is a great Masterwork for a written Intellectual Action Adventure/Big Idea Nonfiction book.

3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?


A first-person framing device is used as Pollan, speaking directly to the camera (so therefore to me and you), talks about the book he’s written (which, incidentally, is also written in the first person as the journalist/investigator of the Western diet and food industry). It brings us in, “I’m talking to you.”

The camera travels the world to visit people and places where Pollan isn’t visibly present, but his voiceover accompanies us pretty much throughout.

Click here to learn more about the Four Nonfiction Points of View. 

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?


Wants: Protagonist Pollan wants us to wake up to the life-threatening nature of the Western diet and “outwit the villain,” so to speak, by turning away from the food it supplies.

Needs: He needs a large mass of people to make the changes he’s advocating because that’s the only way the system will change.

Meanwhile, Antagonist Big Food wants profits and needs to maintain the illusion that they are selling us healthful food.

Click here to learn more about Objects of Desire in a Nonfiction Book.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?


It’s tempting to fall back on the famous seven-word motto—EAT FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH, MOSTLY PLANTS—and that’s certainly the Big Idea at the heart of the Worldview Revelation. But to fit it to a Story Grid style format, how about this?

Death and disease result when Big Food cons us into eating the bad diet it sells, but health and happiness prevail when we eat real food, not too much, and mostly plants.

Click here to learn more about Controlling Ideas in Big Idea Nonfiction.

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?


Beginning Hook

The author needs a clear statment of their credentials and big idea, as well as a compelling origin story: Pollan does this in the first lines of the show. He outlines his credentials as a food journalist, and explains his initial hesitation to cover this topic, followed by his realization that he brings a fresh perspective to it. For nonfiction, the math of the BH, MB and EP can be more like 10-80-10 (rather than 25-50-25 in fiction).

  1. Inciting incident: Pollen’s readers wanted to know what they should eat, which led Pollen to ask, “what do we know about the links between diet and health?” HOOK: “I really thought the answer to this question would be so much more complex than it has turned out to be.”
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: The Western Diet is making people sick.
  3. Crisis Question: If our current diet is making us sick, what kind of diet did we evolve to eat? What kind of food comes from nature?
  4. Climax: Pollan investigates mother’s milk (the food we get at the beginning of our lives).
  5. Resolution: Nature provides everything we need.

Middle Build

Explanation of the big idea citing third party sources. (Pollan interviews many experts in a number of industries – medical experts, academics, nutritionists, chefs and farmers (hydroponic)). The middle build is about teaching the audience, and persuading them to the author’s POV using ethos (story – Anthony Scavotto’s story (framing story), stories of other cultures and how they eat (ex the Hadza people), Kelloggs, the stories we tell ourselves about nutrients (good v evil)), logos (logic – expert interviews and plentiful) and pathos (emotion – child mortality, stories of 7th Day Adventists and longevity).  

  1. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: We’ve confused eating food, with eating nutrients (nutritionism: the ideology of believing that the nutrient is the key to understanding food).
  2. Crisis Question: If the French eat such rich food (which seems to go against everything we’ve learned about nutrition), why do they have better health than people in other Western countries? (The French Paradox)
  3. Climax: The French have a different culture around food than most North Americans (smaller portions eaten more slowly, food is something to be enjoyed/an event, eating together).
  4. Resolution: Cultivating a relaxed, non-punitive attitude toward food is essential. All things in moderation – including moderation.
  5. Inciting incident: Since the Hadza people, who are still hunter-gatherers (as our ancestors were), don’t suffer “western diseases” (heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity etc), we can learn from them. The lesson [and Pollen’s Big Idea] is “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants”.

Ending Payoff

The ending payoff must be a paradox. The paradox here is that the answer to a complex question is really very simple. Eat food.

  1. Inciting incident: We have more control over our food choices than we think. We do have power. (food markets etc, grass roots movements)
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: The food industry itself is at a turning point. Anthony is also at a turning point (changing his lifestyle)
  3. Crisis Question: Could the answer to our health problems really be as simple as “eat food”?
  4. Climax: Yes, it is that simple.
  5. Resolution: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. [surprising yet inevitable? Inevitable, yes – because Nature provides. Surprising, depends on the level of knowledge the viewer had before watching the documentary]

Additional Comments

JarieA big idea non-fiction book needs to hook people in quickly with the hypothesis up front, usually in the introduction. The rest of the book attempts to prove the hypothesis, and the final piece is the ironic conclusion or the twist. Shawn’s math of 10%-80%-10% is about right. In some cases, the hook is the Introduction, and the payoff is the Conclusion or Epilogue. Also, How-To’s are even more formulaic in that each and every chapter, or each part is a mini-big-idea with self-contained BH-MD-EP.

Click here to learn more about the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff of The Tipping Point.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Jarie: I really love how the movie speaks to us as if we’re Pollan’s friend. He’s like “lets go on this adventure together.” It’s also nice that, even though he looks at a lot of studies, it’s not overly scientific. The rules are also easy to remember and something that your grandmother would tell you. This is a powerful device for getting people to take action.

I also like the cuts to Pollan speaking in a large lecture hall. This gives him credibility, since all those people wanted to hear what he had to say. The props are also great when he talks about how much sugar is in certain things.

Leslie: I loved the irony in the commercials and marketing that could be remembered fondly, but is shown to be insidious: Wonder Bread, which is “technology designed to solve a problem created by technology” and the Coca-Cola song.

The Big Idea is so simple and easy to remember, but Pollan also includes pithy statements of supportive advice that are easy to remember. For example, “Make water your beverage of choice” and “stop eating before you’re full.” It’s as if Pollan is doing battle with ads for “edible food-like substances.”

Such a clear Crisis Question (Best Bad Choice): Surrender to the Western Diet and wait for evolution to adapt us to it or change the way we’re eating.

Anne: Trivia: the Coca-Cola commercial with the famous song was the most expensive ever made at the time (1971)

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

Join us again next time when we put food on the Roundtable as we study the 2015 Big Idea Nonfiction documentary In Defense of Food, by Edward Gray and based on the book by Michael Pollan. Watch it with us and follow along next week. 

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.