Food marketing is confusing. With so many competing health claims (“Whole wheat! Wait, no gluten!”) and constantly revolving lists of do/don’t eat (“Less protein! Umm… Actually, more protein!”), it’s hard to keep it all straight and understand what it really means to eat well.
Since Michael Pollan published In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto in 2008, many people have quoted his adage “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” as a rule of thumb for following a healthful diet. But why?
First, some background: Michael Pollan is an award-winning journalist, author, and professor at UC Berkeley. Pretty trustworthy guy. Before In Defense of Food, he published several other best-selling books on the topic of food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a look into the production practices of the American food industry and the choices we make in deciding what to eat. Pollan contests America’s obsession with nutritionism (a focus on eating nutrients rather than on eating food) and urges readers to focus more on the traditional ingredients and rules of successful (healthy) food cultures.
Eat Food. There’s a difference between real food and “edible food-like substances.” Real food is something your great-grandmother would recognize (she was probably not too familiar with Go-Gurt, for example). You should be able to imagine real food in its natural form (e.g. a cow, an apple tree). And, for baked or prepared foods, you could expect to recognize all of the ingredients and would probably have them in your own pantry (e.g. flour, olive oil, salt). None of this Yellow 6 and butylated hydroxyanisole nonsense.
Not Too Much. “Calorie restriction has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention.” Hmm, interesting. Many food cultures have rules about moderation. The Okinawans of Japan follow a Confucian teaching, “Eat until you’re 80% full,” and oh by the way, they have the highest life expectancy in the world.
Mostly Plants. (And lots of leaves.) Your digestive system evolved to eat lots of plants, and occasionally meat when a hunt was successful. (Anthropology nerd for a moment: although the fat from meat made our brains big and made us the humans that we are, killing a mastodon with handmade tools wasn’t that easy, and it wasn’t something we did 3 times a day. Meat was a supplement to a plant-based diet.)
Here’s a distilled list of Michael Pollan’s 64 rules for eating well (available in book form as Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual):
- Eat food. Don’t eat edible food-like substances; they’re edible, but they’re not food.
- Avoid anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce, or ingredients no ordinary person would keep in their pantry. Or high fructose corn syrup. Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot.
- Avoid products that make health claims.
- Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store, where real, fresh food is kept near loading docks. Also, get out of the supermarket whenever you can. Shop at the farmers’ market and eat locally and seasonally why dontcha.
- Eat like an omnivore. Diversify. Eat wild foods when you can.
- Eating what stands on one leg (mushrooms and plant foods) is better than eating what stands on two legs (fowl), which is better than eating what stands on four legs (cows, pigs, other mammals).
- Eat animals that themselves have eaten well. (Also, eat animal products from animals that have eaten well.)
- Pay more for your food. There are 400 reasons why you should do this, probably worth another entire post. Until then, just trust: cheap food generally doesn’t pay off in the long run medically, environmentally, or economically.
- Cook. Eat junk food if you want, just cook it yourself.
- It is not just what you eat but how you eat. Small portions, communal meals, food culture rather than food science. Eat like the French, or the Japanese, or the Italians, or the Greeks.
Learn more: Michael Pollan’s website Read the book. Really, you should. But if you don’t have time, read this article.