The Omnivorous Mind

The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship With Food by John S. Allen 

publication date: 2012
pages (including back matter): 319
ISBN: 978-0-674-05572-8

In this book, John S. Allen attempted to explain Americans’ current relationship with food, by looking at humans’ evolutionary history, especially the evolution of the brain.

Allen divided his discussion into chapters, which examined different aspects of our brain’s relationship with food, including 1) why we like crispy food; 2) humans’ omnivorous behavior; 3) eating as a sensual pleasure; 4) problems with obesity and anorexia; 5) food and memory; 6) how we categorize food; 7) creativity and food; and 8) his thesis: our minds capacity for a “Theory of Food.”

Much like the preceding sentence, this book was dry. However, I’d rather read a dry, yet balanced, nonfiction book, than an intense rant or diatribe without any facts to back it up. Allen certainly presented facts to back up his theories. The book included many science-heavy discussions about the brain, animal evolution, and human behavior. It also included images showing different parts of the brain, which were sometimes helpful, sometimes not.

Although I had to read through a lot of heavy science stuff, which often went over my head, the book afforded interesting information. For example, I did not know that, according to scientists, when humans switched to an agricultural diet, we actually became unhealthier. As Allen explained:

[T]raditional agricultural diets, because they are less varied, are not as good as hunter-gatherer diets at providing all of the specific nutrients that our bodies need to thrive. On the other hand, they clearly provide enough to allow people to survive and reproduce, increasing population numbers.

Allen also had an endearing sense of humor that would pop up from time to time, such as in this discussion of human memory and the meals we eat:

It is with some distress (and a little pride) that I realize I can, off the top of my head, remember in detail burgers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, White Castle, Hardee’s, Carl Jr.’s, Jack in the Box, Five Guys, In-N-Out, Hamburger Habit, Nation’s Giant, and the now defunct Rich’s Bulky Burgers.

The subject-matter of this book was interesting to me, and Allen discussed it with humor and thoroughness, so I enjoyed the book. However, if you have no interest in this topic, I would not recommend it to you.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

Wall Street Journal
Open Letters Monthly
Pop Matters

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