Michael Pollan is a change-agent in the sustainable food movement. In 2010, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is the author of five books including The New York Times bestsellers In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.
Two years ago, Michael Pollan released Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a small book that helped Americans change the way they think about their relationship with food by providing simple, honest rules to eat and live by. Pollan’s rules (or guidelines as I like to call them; rules can be rigid and we all need a little flexibility in our life!) aren’t full of medical or nutritional jargon; just real, time-tested rules passed down from generation to generation that a grandmother would share with her daughter, or a simple piece of wisdom shared between two friends.
For the latest edition, Pollan teamed up with the talented artist Maira Kalman to bring a down-home, earthy feeling to the book. There’s something familiar yet inspired about Maira’s illustrations. They take me back to my childhood, cooking with my mother and grandmother, or on a trip through Europe where real slow food is still treasured and honored. The new edition of Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual also includes a fresh introduction from Pollan and 19 additional food principles.
Pollan’s rules are intended to help Americans distinguish between real food (and sadly) the cheap processed junk foods our nation has so passionately taken to and called “food.”
Pollan’s collection of rules keeps it simple: No medical or calorie counting rules (don’t people get tired of counting calories?). And my favorite rule is the super simple number 24: When you eat real food, you don’t need rules. If you stick to this one rule, you can toss out all of the other rules (even the calorie counting!).
Here are a few more of my favorite rules:
Rule #2: Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food
As Pollan puts it, “There are now thousands of foodish products in the supermarket that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Rule #3: Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That No Ordinary Human Would Keep in the Pantry.
Many of these rules seem obvious when seen in the written word, but are so overlooked when walking down the grocery shopping aisle. Got any of these ingredients in your pantry: Ethoxylate diglycerdes, ammonium sulfate or calcium propionate? They’re all common ingredients found in highly processed foods, and they’re also toxic and potentially harmful to humans and the environment. That’s kind of the opposite of real food, don’t you agree?
Rule #6: Avoid Food Products That Contain More Than Five Ingredients.
Common sense tells us that the more ingredients in a product, the more processed the food is, and higher the chance of unrecognizable mystery ingredients winding up on our plates.
Rule #9: Avoid Food Products with the Word “Lite” or the Terms “Low-Fat” or “Nonfat” in Their Names.
Manufacturers have to replace the fat, sugar and other ingredients they take out with something, and usually it’s in the form of carbohydrates or other mystery ingredients that contribute to America’s expanding waistline. As Pollan states, “… removing the fat from foods doesn’t necessarily make them nonfattening. Carbohydrates can also make you fat, and many low- and nonfat foods boost the sugars to make up for the loss of flavor.” My advice: review rule number 24 above.
Rule #14: Eat Only Foods That Will Eventually Rot.
According to Pollan, “Real food is alive – and therefore it should eventually die.” (Honey is the exception, it can last centuries.) The eternal shelf life products can be found in the center aisles of supermarkets in cans, boxes, bags and the one container food should never come in: the tube (can you say chips?). Hint: shop the outer aisles of a grocery store or better yet, make a weekly visit to your local farmers market, sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) or start a vegetable garden.
Rule #15: Eat Foods Made from Ingredients That You Can Picture in Their Raw State or Growing in Nature.
I love this rule. It’s an especially easy way to make certain you’re eating real, wholesome and nutritious food. If you don’t know what ammonium sulfate looks like, then why would you eat it? So much of our food choices are imparted by visual cues: colors, shapes, textures and size. Eat foods that conjure those images and avoid the rest.
Rule #17: Buy Your Snacks at the Farmers Market.
Farmers markets connect you with local farmers and a bounty of fresh, seasonal and local foods. Fruits make the best snack ever, and as Pollan says, if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not hungry. So why not have apples, or other fruits readily accessible?
Rule #19: Eat Only Foods That Have Been Cooked by Humans.
In the introduction of the book Pollan makes three great points about the connections between health and diet. These facts are not questioned and should be read by everyone. Number one: Those that eat the Western diet – a diet high in fat, sugar, processed foods, meat, refined grains (like white flour), and very low in whole foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, are highly likely to suffer from what is now called Western diseases (or “diseases of affluence”) like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Those processed foods are rarely in contact with humans; instead they’re shuffled through machines and factories.
What’s stunning, Pollan goes on to state:
“Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet. Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet. The arguments in nutritional sciences are not about this well-established link; rather, they are all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the Western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases. Is it the saturated fat or the refined carbohydrates or the lack of fiber or the trans fats or the omega-6 fatty acids – or what? The point is that as eaters (if not scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This diet for whatever reason is the problem.”
This is stunning and eye opening. America cannot continue to deny it’s self created health and obesity epidemic. It is time, America takes responsibility for it’s self created crisis. We have created a food system that is making America sick and costing our health system billions of dollars a year.
Fact number two: “Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets generally don’t suffer from these chronic diseases.” As Pollan states, the diet ranges on our planet are actually pretty extreme. From very high-fat diets like the Inuit in Greenland who subsist primarily off of seal blubber, to diets high in carbohydrates like the Central American Indians that live primarily off of maize and beans, to those that are high in protein like the Masai tribesmen in Africa subsisting largely on cattle blood, meat and milk.
With so many diets and lifestyle options today, like vegetarian, vegan and the Paleo diet, just to name a few, many preach that their way is the best. But Pollan goes on to make a great point based on the above.
“What this suggests is that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets. Except that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us is now eating. What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!”
Remember, if you forget your favorite rules, hark back to the super simple rule number 24: When you eat real food, you don’t need rules, you can forget about all of the other rules.