Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan
Like many Americans, my relationship with food/healthy eating/dieting has been complicated. Growing up in the gymnastics world, I was no stranger to the variety of eating disorders that plague many a misguided eater. In my adult life, I have made a concerted effort to rectify my food confusion, and my philosophy now aligns very well with one of my favorite little books: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan.
Pollan is a professor in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He became well-known for his food journalism in 2006, after publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which we’ll cover later). He has recently gained more exposure thanks to the 2016 Netflix series Cooked. Of his seven major books, Food Rules is the shortest (140 pages) and most easily digested – a great place to start if you’re new to Pollan’s food philosophy.
What I love about this book is its simplicity and logic. The advice is easily summarized in the book’s three parts:
- What should I eat? (Eat food.)
- What kind of food should I eat? (Mostly plants.)
- How should I eat? (Not too much.)
In Part 1, Pollan distinguishes real food from “edible foodlike substances” (processed/fake foods). He says to avoid complicated packaging and loads of additives that suggest a lot of processing has happened between the real-food state and the final-edible-foodlike state.
In Part 2, we are advised to eat primarily things that come out of the ground – plants. Meat should be treated “as a flavoring or special occasion food.” I love this advice, and I adhere to it. The result? I don’t miss meat or feel guilty about wanting it, because I don't completely deprive myself of it. Since vegetables are the foundation of my diet, I've learned to select and prepare them such that they are lovely and filling. As a bonus, eating primarily vegetarian is cheaper than eating a lot of meat (this helps offset some of the advice in Part 3).
In Part 3, Pollan advises us to simply eat less than we might like. This is brilliantly simple advice that is probably the single greatest lesson a dieting person could learn from the book. Quality over quantity is the rule, if you have the means to abide by it. Pollan advocates paying more to get good food, which I generally agree with although this is obviously problematic for consumers below a certain income line. (This is one of the reasons I plugged Leanne Brown’s Eat Well on $4/Day book early on.)
Overall, you can easily poke holes in Pollan's simple advice if you like*, but you would be missing the point. Pollan is no fool – he knows he has oversimplified, and in fact he has done so intentionally. He wants eaters to remember his advice, and to be able to use it. He wants to steer people away from diets that require so many rules and bizarre habits that they become impossible to sustain. His last rule is actually to "break the rules once in a while," which imbues his advice with self compassion and a bit of realism. He advocates a lifestyle change, a way of integrating healthy eating into your day-to-day life such that you are less stressed about food choices and more focused on enjoying your food. All in all, this is a wonderful little book, and it's a great place to start for anyone looking to improve their eating habits.
*And now a rant:
If I hear one more a**hole haranguing about “dihydrogen monoxide” (which is water, by the way, but obviously nobody – including scientists – calls it that) as an example of how anti-additive consumers are idiots, I might scream.
Anti-additive consumers are not idiots. They’re trying. They’re confused. Hell, anyone is confused in your standard grocery store these days, including scientists. So where does that leave the well-intentioned public? Grasping onto concepts they think they understand, like Pollan’s advice to “avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.”
This is not unreasonable advice. Is it an oversimplification? Yes. Can a confused consumer take it too far? Certainly, and this is particularly unfortunate if that person thinks they understand more than they do and becomes too prominent of a spokesperson. (I hesitate to even direct traffic to her site, but this rant can’t go without mentioning “Food Babe” as an example of someone who understands little science but has a disproportionately large voice.)
Some food additives are not only completely harmless, but are in fact quite beneficial when you think about the alternative (food contaminated with mold, bacteria, etc.). Other additives are legitimately concerning. Should average consumers have to educate themselves about the intricacies of these additives? No, that is unreasonable considering that at present, not even scientists are on the same page about all of that.
Suddenly Pollan’s advice to simply avoid the additives seems a lot more rational. If you don’t eat from the processed/packaged side of the grocery store but instead stick with the fresh stuff, you avoid the debate, and you’re eating more produce. And that is better for both you and the planet.
Photo by Lauren Shipp