Food Rules
An Eater's Manual
Michael Pollan
Penguin Books, New York (USA), first edition, 2009
139 pages.

This little book is a true gem. Written in a very clear, concise manner, author Michael Pollan (the renowned author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto) put together here a very easy to use guide to a healthy diet. The chapters are short (just a few lines, even a single sentence at times!), but packed with content. The introduction already establishes the overall line:

There are basically two important things you need to know about the links between diet and health, two facts that are not in dispute. All the contending parties in the nutrition wars agree on them. And, even more important for our purposes, these facts are sturdy enough that we can build a sensible diet upon them. Here they are.

FACT 1. Populations that eat a so-called Western diet —generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and suagr, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains — invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. 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 science 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 saturated fat or the refined carbohydrates or the lack of fiber or the transfats or omega-6 fatty acids —or what? The point is that, as eaters (if not as scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This diet, for whatever reason, is the problem.

FACT 2. Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets generally don't suffer from these chronic diseases. These diets run the gamut from ones very high in fat (the Inuit in Greenland subsist largely on seal blubber) to ones high in carbohydrate (Central American Indians subsist largely on maize and beans) to ones very high in protein (Masai tribesmen in Africa subsist on cattle blood, meat, and milk), to cite three rather extreme examples. But much the same holds true for more mixed traditional diets. 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 now are eating. What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick! (While it is true that we generally live longer than people used to, or than people in some traditional cultures do, most of our added years owe to gains in infant mortality and child health, not diet.)

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, pp. XI-XIII)

Notice how, as the author points out, while it is true that we may not know exactly what ingredient is the culprit, we do know which is the diet that causes all these chronic diseases: our own! I consider this very important because there are plenty of "clever" skeptics these days who like to state that we hear all the time about the latest findings of this or that scientific study that, in reallity, contradict each other, concluding that the best thing we should do is ignore all these recommendations and eat whatever we want. Again, we may ignore which exact ingredient (or ingredients) are behind the chronic diseases, but we do know perfectly well which overall diet and lifestyle are causing them. This is an extremely important fact to bear in mind, so we do not get lost in the middle of the noise.

So, what is the best diet we could follow? Pollan summarizes it in the following seven words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, p. XV)

Yes, I know. The first part of the advice sounds quite silly, right? Bear with me. It makes perfect sense. He explains it himself a few pages later:

These days this is easier said than done, especially when seventeen thousand new products show up in the supermarket each year, all vying for your food dollar. But most of these items don't deserve to be called food —I call them edible foodlike substances. They're highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted. Today much of the challenge of eating well comes down to choosing real food and avoiding these industrial novelties.

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, p. 5)

Does it ring a bell? Fish sticks, chicken that does not even look like chicken, sausages, dips, salad dressings, tater tots, and all sorts of other industrial, highly processed garbage that we have grown accustomed to love. Or, as he puts it in the next chapter: don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Although, to be fair, this is getting more and more difficult in countries like the US, since several generations of Americans have now grown up eating this sort of "food". But there are other ways to recognize what food can truly be called food, as Pollan explains in subsequent chapters: "avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry" (rule 3), "avoid food products that make health claims" (rule 8), "avoid foods you see advertised on televisin" (rule 11), "eat only foods that will eventually rot" (rule 13), "eat only foods that have been cooked by humans" (rule 17) or "it's not food if it's called by the same name in every language" (rule 21). They are all great rules to live by when choosing your food. So, as you can see, it truly is not so easy to "eat food", at least not in our modern, wealthy societies.

In the second part of the book, Pollan tells us what we should eat, which is mainly plants. It's not necessary to become a vegetarian. That's where plenty of people get it wrong. As he explains:

While it's true that vegetarians are generally healthier than carnivores, that doesn't mean you need to eliminate meat from your diet if you like it. Meat, which humans have been eating and relishing for a very long time, is nourishing food, which is why I suggest "mostly" plants, not "only". It turns out that near vegetarians, or "flexitarians" —people who eat meat a couple of times a week— are just as healthy as vegetarians. But the average Amereican eats meat as part of two or even three meals a day —more than half a pound per person per day— and there is evidence that the more meat there is in your diet —red meat in particular— the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer. Why? It could be its saturated fat, or its specific type of protein, or the simple fact that all that meat is pushing plants off the plate. Consider swapping the traditional portion sizes: Instead of an eight-ounce steak and a four-ounce portion of vegetables, serve four ounces of beef and eight ounces of veggies. Thomas Jefferson was probably onto something when he recommended a mostly plant-based diet that uses meat chiefly as a "flavor principle".

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, pp. 53-54)

Other related rules: "drink the spinach water" (rule 26), "eat animals that have themselves eaten well" (rule 27), "eat like an omnivore" (rule 29), "eat well-grown food from healthy soil" (rule 30), "don't overlook the oily little fishes" (rule 32), "eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi" (rule 33) or "sweeten and salt your food yourself (rule 34). Once again, they all make perfect sense. They all are rules that we have known for ages. We just choose sometimes (all too often, actually) to live as if they didn't exist because life is easier that way, especially the type of life we live in our wealthy societies these days.

Now, rule 35 ("eat sweet foods as you find them in nature") is particularly interesting:

In nature, sugars almost always come packaged with fiber, which slows their absorption and gives you a sense of satiety before you've ingested too many calories. That's why you're always better off eating the fruit rather than drinking its juice. (In general, calories taken in liquid form are more fattening because they don't make us feel full. Humans are one of the very few mammals that obtain calories from liquids after weaning.) So don't drink your sweets, and remember: There is no such thing as a healthy soda.

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, p. 77)

This definitely goes against the traditional stereotype of juice as a very healthy drink. It sure is in relative terms, especially when compared to soda. However, as Pollan clearly explains, it is all too easy to drink too much of it.

And what to say about the last part of the book, on how we should eat? Pollan's main advice is to eat less:

This is probably the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do —regardless of whether you are overweight— is compelling. "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. We eat much more than our bodies need to be healthy, and the excess wreaks havoc —and not just on our weight. But we are not the first people in history to grapple with the special challenges posed by food abundance, and previous cultures have devised various ways to promote the idea of moderation. The rules that follow offer a few proven strategies.

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, p. 101)

What follows is, once again, a list of rules that are plain common sense, truly nothing we haven't heard before: "stop eating before you're full" (rule 46), "eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored" (rule 47), "eat slowly" (rule 49), "spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it" (rule 51), "buy smaller plates and glasses" (rule 52), "serve a proper portion and don't go back for seconds" (rule 53), "breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper" (rule 54), "limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods" (rule 56), etc. One of the rules (rule 59) stands out, for it's precisely what people in Mediterranean countries have been doing for centuries now:

Amereicans are increasingly eating in solitude. Although there is some research to suggest that light eaters will eat more when they dine with others (perhaps because they spend more time at the table), for people prone to overeating, communal meals tend to limit consumption, if only because we're less lilely to stuff ourselves when others are watching. We also tend to eat more slowly, since there's usually more going on at the table than ingestion. This is precisely why so much food marketing is designed to encourage us to eat in front of the TV or in the car: When we eat alone, we eat more. But regulating appetite is only part of the story: The shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, p. 129)

Just two more rules before closing this review. First of all, a rule (rule 63) that may sound quite stupid but, in reality, is getting more and more difficult to follow in our ever-busy and scheduled life: cook.

In theory, it should make little difference to your health whether you cook for yourself or let someone else do the work. But unless you can afford to hire a private chef to prepare meals exactly to your specifications, letting other people cook for you means losing control over your eating life, the portions as much as the ingredients. Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors, and to guarantee you're eating real food and not edible foodlike substances, with their unhealthy oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and surfeit of salt. Not surprisingly, the decline in home cooking closely parallels the rise in obesity, and research suggests that people who cook are more likely to eat a more healthful diet.

(Michael Pollan: Food Rules, p. 137)

And yet, in countries like the US, an increasing amount of people rarely cook or, when they do, instead of cooking they do something that I prefer to call combination of processed ingredients.

Said all this, Pollan's last rule is worth always keeping in mind: "break the rules once in a while" (rule 64). In the end, moderation is what matters the most. Altogether, this is, as we said at the beginning, a little gem of a book. Easy to read (it can be read in one sitting), yet chock-full of good advice. Food Rules is a classic manual. A book to keep around and read every couple of years or so, as well as to use during everyday life when needed, of course.

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 7/10