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.