Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Food For Thought

The latest book by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) is so simple, so concise, it could be read, indeed should be read, by elementary and middle school aged children. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is not much more than a pamphlet; Pollan designed this book to cut through the cacophony of food and nutrition noise that fills the virtual air of today’s media.

Keeping track of the most up-to-the-minute nutrition news can be overwhelming. Pollan, a veteran journalist with an interest in food and nutrition, conducted his own investigation in an attempt to discern an optimal diet. His research revealed two basic facts concerning the link between nutrition and health. He says,” Fact 1: Populations that eat a so-called Western diet – generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains – invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.” His second fact points out that populations that eat a more traditional diet do NOT suffer from these diseases, regardless of what that alternative diet consists of.

In his previous book, In Defense of Food, Pollan came to the conclusion that all modern nutrition advice can be condensed into 7 words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. In Food Rules he now comes up with a list of 64 simple guidelines for anyone who wants to eat healthier, without worrying about things like whether carbs are good or bad, or how much fat to include in one’s diet.

Pollan divides these 64 rules into three sections that align with his 3-part mantra: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Under Eat Food, he counsels, “Don’t eat anything your Great-Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” (Rule # 2) This has the twofold effect of encouraging us to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and discouraging us from eating overly processed, chemical-laden food. Another interesting idea (Rule #13) is to “Eat only foods that will eventually rot.” Manufacturers process food to keep it shelf-stable longer; the longer the shelf life, the more processed the food. By sticking to food that will rot, we avoid nutritionally deficient food. Simple, right?

Under the Mostly Plants section, Pollan turns to an old Chinese proverb when he advises (Rule #24), “Eating what stands on one leg [mushrooms and plants] is better than eating what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better than eating what stands on four legs [cows, pigs, other mammals].” That proverb is Pollan’s thesis in a nutshell. He relies on another cultural reference (attributed to both Italian and Jewish grandmothers) with Rule # 37: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” Following this rule will ensure that we stick to whole grain bread products rather than white flour ones.

Several Rules are quite humorous and need virtually no explanation: “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t” (#19) and “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.” (#57) Similarly, “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.” (#36) We don’t need technical clarification of these concepts, but these clever lines are good reminders of basic nutrition principles.

The final third of the book focuses on Not Too Much, or eating less. Some of these Rules (“Do all your eating at a table,” “Try not to eat alone,” and “Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it”) are a reflection of life in the 21st century. Surely the great-grandmothers of Rule #2 would be puzzled by people eating alone in their cars or cubicles, or by the fact that only about half of families today have dinner together at least 5 times a week. Pollan advises us to enjoy quality of food, rather than quantity. We should strive to create good meals and savor them, rather than simply fill up with cheap calories.

Don’t be misled by the book’s title – it is not nearly as authoritarian as it sounds. Pollan himself prefers to think of his rules as policies or guidelines. And in fact, the penultimate rule in his book is probably the most sensible. It is simply “Cook,” (#63) because “Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors, and to guarantee you’re eating real food and not edible foodlike substances . . .” If we choose to cook from scratch, we’ll inevitably end up following most of his other rules. And that will allow us to feel okay about Rule #64 – Break the rules once in a while.


  1. Thank you for bringing Michael Pollan's great little book to my attention - your review was so good that I now feel compelled to add this one to my ever-expanding list of books that I must read!

    I love all the simple little gems that you quoted, particularly rule no 63 - "Cook".


  2. A great book. It makes you think. Adopted many principles here in the Valley where I have time, but no stores. All good intentions evaporated; however, in the east where I had no time and plenty of stores. Ok, so now perhaps it was an organic apple I ate in my car. The solution is obvious, I must quit my job and live full time in the West. Please send money so I can afford to eat - food, mostly plants, and not too much.
    : ) Suz

  3. A terrific review! I picked up Pollan's little book this week, and it now goes to the top of the list. Your statement, "Pollan designed this book to cut through the cacophony of food and nutrition noise that fills the virtual air of today’s media," is exactly right. He is a national treasure. Thanks for alerting all of us who didn't know of it about this book!

  4. For all you Michael Pollan fans: He appears in the documentary "King Corn" which we just rented last night. Very interesting piece about the explosive growth in the corn industry and how it is making Americans fatter and less healthy. It will put you off high fructose corn syrup, of course, but also make you question corn-fed beef, if you haven't already.

    I am not sure I am ready to view "Food Inc" yet!

  5. For those, like me, who picked up this book and then set it in the ever-growing "to read" pile: in Pollan-esque phrasing, "Pick it up. Read it now."

    It took me no more than 1/2 hour to read it through, and I can see how easy it will be to consult it from time to time to refresh my recollection of the rules. It is the how to eat equivalent of "The Elements of Style."

    And, WOS, thanks for the movie tips, as well.

  6. I'm going to get the book. Great post, thanks.

  7. A well-written review of an important book. I find myself thinking of Pollan's advice with just about every meal. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." So simple. Read it and live it -- nothing less than the future is at sake. Seriously.

  8. Thanks for sharing! Sounds like a great book for any family.

  9. I went to Amazon to get "Food Rules" and in order to qualify for free shipping spent another $22.00 on "House Cat: How to Keep Your Indoor Cat Sane and Sound." Haven't read Amy Tan in a while so ordered "The Bonesetter's Daughter: A Novel" Quite an eclectic reading list, don't you think?


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