Michael Pollan’s message on “what to eat” is elegant and simple, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Those of us who read about food have, in the last few years, been swamped by the language of nutrition. Antioxidants. Polyphenols. Probiotics. Omega-3 fatty acids. But you can know all about this stuff and still not be able to answer the basic question: Yeah, but what should I eat?
Michael Pollan says that where we’ve gone wrong is by focusing on the invisible nutrients in foods instead of on foods themselves. He calls this “nutritionism” — an ideology that’s lost track of the science on which it was based.
Michael says it’s good for scientists to look at why carrots are good for us, and to explore the possible benefits of, say, substance X found in a carrot. What happens next is well-meaning experts tell us we should eat more foods with substance X.
But the next thing you know, the food industry is selling us a food enriched with substance X. We may not know whether substance X, when not in a carrot, is good or bad for us. And we may be so impressed with the new substance-X-filled product that we buy it and eat it — even though it may have unhealthy ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and salt.
Pollan identifies four myths “nutritional food:”
Myth #1: Food is a delivery vehicle for nutrients. What really matters isn’t broccoli but its fiber and antioxidants. If we get that right, we get our diet right. Foods kind of get in the way.
Myth #2: We need experts to tell us how to eat. Nutrients are invisible and mysterious. “It is a little like religion,” Pollan said. “If a powerful entity is invisible, you need a priesthood to mediate your relation with food.”
Myth #3: The whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. “You are either improving or ruining your health when you eat — that is a very American idea,” Pollan says. “But there are many other reasons to eat food: pleasure, social community, identity, and ritual. Health is not the only thing going on on our plates.”
Myth #4: There are evil foods and good foods. “At any given time there is an evil nutrient we try to drive like Satan from the food supply — first it was saturated fats, then it was trans fat,” Pollan says. “Then there is the evil nutrient’s doppelganger, the blessed nutrient. If we get enough of that we, will be healthy and maybe live forever. It’s funny through history how the good and bad guys keep changing.”
Pollan remembers that when fats were declared to be evil, his mother switched the family to stick margarine. His grandmother predicted that some day stick margarine would be the evil food.
Michael Pollan says everything he’s learned about food and health can be summed up in the above mentioned seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Probably the first two words are most important. “Eat food” means to eat real food — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and, yes, fish and meat — and to avoid what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.”
1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, “What are those things doing there?” Pollan says.
2. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients; or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
3. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
4. “Twinkies aren’t food.” Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot. “There are exceptions — honey — but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad are not food,” Pollan says.
5. “Always leave the table a little hungry,” Pollan says. It is not just what you eat but how you eat. “Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, ‘Tie off the sack before it’s full.'”
6. “Eat meals together, at regular meal times.” Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It’s a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. “Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?” Pollan asks.
7, Don’t buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.
Eating doesn’t have to be so complicated. In this age of ever-more elaborate diets and conflicting health advice, Food Rules brings a welcome simplicity to our daily decisions about food. Whether at the supermarket or an all-you-can-eat buffet, this is the perfect guide for anyone who ever wondered, “What should I eat?”
Michael Pollan is professor of science and environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.