Eating doesn’t have to be so complicated, says Michael Pollan, long time contributor to the New York Times and Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. In this age of ever-more elaborate diets and conflicting health advice, Food Rules brings a welcome simplicity to our daily decisions about food. This handbook lays out a set of straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely, one per page accompanied by a concise explanation. It’s an easy-to-use guide that draws from a variety of traditions, suggesting how different cultures through the ages have arrived at the same enduring wisdom 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?”
Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
Like a large gray fog, a great Conspiracy of Confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition — much to the advantage of everybody involved. Except perhaps the ostensible beneficiary of all this nutritional expertise and advice: us, and our health and happiness as eaters.
“The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.” People don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. As soon as you remove useful molecules from the context of the whole foods in which they’re found, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all.
What’s going on here? We don’t know. The good news is that, to the carrot eater, it doesn’t matter. That’s the great thing about eating food as compared with nutrients: you don’t need to fathom a carrot’s complexity to reap its benefits.
We do understand some of the simplest relationships, like the zero-sum relationship: that if you eat a lot of meat you’re probably not eating a lot of vegetables. This simple fact may explain why populations that eat diets high in meat have higher rates of coronary heart disease and cancer than those that don’t. But people worried about their health needn’t wait for scientists to settle this question before deciding that it might be wise to eat more plants and less meat.
“Health” is, among other things, the byproduct of being involved in ecological relationships in a food chain. As the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard put it in 1945 in “The Soil and Health” (a founding text of organic agriculture), we would do well to regard “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web. These ecological relationships are between eaters and whole foods, not nutrients. For example, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup.
Looking at eating through this ecological lens opens a whole new perspective on exactly what the Western diet is: a radical and rapid change not just in our foodstuffs over the course of the 20th century but also in our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal. From whole foods to refined.
Pollan says everything he’s learned about food and health can be summed up in 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.”
- 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.
- Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
- 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.
- Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot. “There are exceptions but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food,” Pollan says.
- It is not just what you eat but how you eat. “Always leave the table a little hungry,” Pollan says. “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.'”
- Enjoy meals with the people you love. Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It’s a good tradition. “Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?” Pollan asks.
- Don’t buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.