Feb 102010

In writing his latest two books, Food Rules and the earlier In Defense of Food, author and professor Michael Pollan had a surprising revelation. With most of his previous (well-researched) books, he found that subjects that seemed to be simple on the surface turned out to be more complx and ambiguous when you looked into them deeply. But when

investigating the question “What should we eat?” Pollan was surprised to find just the opposite. For all the complex and contradictory diet advice coming out of nutritional and food science, all the parties agreed on two very simple facts.

1. The traditional Western, highly processed diet will kill you. It causes obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and a host of other troubles. Every culture that adopts it suffers drastic increases in these diseases.

2. Cultures that do NOT eat a Western diet manage to live on a wide variety of traditional diets, ranging from high-carb to high-fat to high-protien – all without high rates of these chronic Western diseases.

And a related truth:

3. When Westerners stop eating a Western diet – their health improves quickly and dramatically.

You would think that agreements on these points would make diet choices easy and nutritional research simple. But instead of focusing on dropping the Western diet, nutrition and food scientists spend all their time squabbling about exactly what  isolated nutrient or lack of it is the issue. Is it processed carbs? Omega 6 vs Omega 3 fatty acids? Dairy? High fructose corn syrup? Artificial colors and sweetners?

Why this confusion over a simple subject? In a word, money. Food manufacturers don’t get rich by selling you a few cents worth of corn. They get rich by taking a few cents worth of corn, processing it into high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, xanthan gum, malto-dextran – combining it into some unnatural monstrosity of a breakfast cereal, squirting the latest “fad” ingredient into it,  and then selling it to you for four bucks a box. They want to isolate the “good” things in a traditional diet so they can artificially add them to their processed foods, slap health claims on the label, and still make enormous profits. And the health industry isn’t doing too bad either selling us expensive maintenance drugs for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and the like.

So, putting aside the deliberately confusing and self-promoting diet “recommendations” of food “science”, Pollan reaches back into traditional cultures and produces a book of “rules” for how to eat well. They are actually more personal policies. This is an expanded version of the rules he outlined in his previous book, In Defense of Food. This book doesn’t have all the meticulously researched history and science of the previous book. It’s a short, simple guidebook that you can read in an afternoon, full of wisdom that will stick with you.

The rules are divided up into three sections – What to eat (food), what KIND of food to eat (mostly plants) and HOW to eat (not too much). Here are a few examples from each section.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.

…so much for xanthan gum.

Don’t eat  breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

…no, “Fruit Loops” are not fruit.

Do all your eating at a table

…no, a desk is NOT a table.

You get the idea. A lot of the rules are deliberately redundant. Pollan hopes that of all his rules, a few from each section will be memorable enough to stick with you. All it takes is a few rules from each category to drastically improve the way you eat.

This is the shortest book you will ever read on diet, but it’s all you need. Carry it with you. Memorize as many of the rules as you can, and this small book will make huge changes in your health.

Jan 202010

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. I first ran into Michael Pollan’s work reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan is a Berkley professor of science and environmental journalism. That book made me a fan.  His work is well-researched and absolutely facilitating. In Defense of Food is equally compelling.

After investigating what Americans eat in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan turned his attention to the question that was pouring in from his readers: What SHOULD we eat? Pollan’s answer is deceptively simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. He then spends a number of chapters unpacking that simple advice and using it to construct a set of food rules. I mentioned Pollan’s rule earlier in my post on The Most Important Nutritional Rule. “Eat Food” , for example, isn’t as easy as it sounds nowadays. There are a lot of products out there in the supermarkets and restaurants that may LOOK like food, but that contain ingredients that no human being has every consumed in history – until now.

If it has high-fructose corn syrup in it, it’s not food. If it has ingredients in it your grandmother wouldn’t have recognized – it’s not food. If it arrives through the window of your car – it’s NOT food. Food is made from whole, natural products with as little extra processing as possible.

Along the way, Pollan also takes us on an eye-opening tour of the history of nutrition and food science and their efforts to boost sales and profits by tricking us into eating highly processed junk.

In the last part of the book, Pollan provides a set of rules for how to eat. This includes rules on what to eat as well as how to eat (at a table, with family, etc.) Pollan turns for his rules and his nutritional wisdom to traditional cultures and cuisines that have nourished humanity for thousands of years. Pollan’s book is a potent and convincing defense of common sense and wholesome food in a world where we have lost our way.

Recently, Pollan released a book called Food Rules, which consists primarily of the “rules” part of In Defense of Food. Pollan felt compelled to add a few rules, such as “Never buy any food that you have seen advertised”.  I hope to get a look at this book soon. But if you’d like a more complete treatment of the topic, In Defense of Food is the book for you.

Below is a clip of Michael Pollan discussing some of the ideas in his book.

Jan 122010

In earlier posts, I explored the question – “What one thing can you do that will make the most positive difference in your life”. Out of a host of good suggestions, I suggested that daily self reflection was my personal nomination. Now I’d like to extend this idea and narrow it down a bit. Let’s take the field of nutrition. Of all the health rules you can follow, is there any ONE rule that would make the most difference to your health? I’m focusing here on the area of nutrition. We’ll talk about movement or exercise later.

It seems like every week there are new diet tips in the magazines, and new fads make the rounds. There are things to take out of your diet and things to put in. There are so many possibilities, but it there  any ONE rule that can help you out?

I’m going to cheat a bit here and suggest the rule that makes up the thesis of Michael Pollan’s bestseller – In Defense of Food. Michael proposes a simple rule at the beginning of his book – and then spends the whole book explaining it. His rule for eating is this: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. ”

Let’s focus on the first part for our one rule. “Eat Food”. Here’s what Pollan means by this. Eat things that are actually food – not food imitations, or enhanced food, or artificial food, or synthetic food, or food substitutes. And frankly, that eliminates a lot of what passes for “food” these days. Pollan suggest a few simple guidelines to interpret the rule “Eat Food”.

It’s not food if your grandmother wouldn’t have recognized it as food. It’s not food if it has more than about five ingredients. It’s not food if it contains any chemicals that you can’t pronounce or that your grandfather would not have heard of. This PARTICULARLY excludes anything with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors or colors. If it doesn’t spoil fairly quickly, it probably not food. If it makes health claims, it’s probably not food. That stuff on the shelves wrapped in plastic that LOOKS like bread probably isn’t food at all by Pollan’s rule. Does it really require twenty ingredients to make a loaf of real bread?

You get the general idea. As much as possible, eat whole foods, as close to their natural state as possible, and with as little processing as possible. If you are currently following a standard American diet and implement this one rule, I think it will benefit your health more than anything else you could do. Yes, down the road it would be a good idea to pay attention to the “…mostly plants” part of Pollan’s rule. It would also be a good idea to consume more of your fruits and vegitables in a fresh raw state. But this one rule should get you started.

Anyone have any different nominations for the number-one nutrition rule, or variations on this one?

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