Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

One of my favorite popular science writers is New York Times food columnist, Michael Pollan.  He’s written several books but one of my favorites is his short 2009 book, Food Rules, in which he provides a plethora of rules of thumb about healthy eating.

What Pollan suggests as healthy is about being flexible within the constraints of your lifestyle and cultural dietary preferences while still taking into consideration scientific understanding and healthy eating best practices.  Pollan is more about moderation than abstinence – keeping yourself in the middle of the road instead of tempting fate and going off the rails.  He breaks his guidelines and suggestions down into three broad categories – 

  • Eat real food
  • Not too much
  • Mostly plants.  

Within each broad category he gives dozens of guidelines for eating healthy.  For instance, with regard to eating real food, Pollan suggests to avoid eating things that your great-grandmother probably wouldn’t recognize as food (like Go-gurt or flan-in-a-can) and avoid food products with ingredients a third grader couldn’t pronounce, like azodicarbonamide, polydimethylsiloxane, and butylyted hydroxyanisole.  Look those three chemical additives up if you’re interested in finding out which foods have shampoo, rubber preservatives, and plastic foam in them.  Better yet, read all labels and look up anything with a name you don’t recognize.

Pollan’s “Not Too Much” category of Food Rules includes suggestions like simply buying smaller plates (which research has shown can trick you into eating smaller portions).  Pollan also suggests that we spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.  This can be difficult with today’s hectic schedules, but taking longer to eat a meal and eating more slowly has been shown to help you feel full faster.

Another way that Pollan phrases his suggestion to “Eat mostly plants,” is by saying, “If it grows on a plant, eat it.  If it is made in a plant, don’t!”  Pollan’s suggestions are not anti-meat but he does suggest using meat as a flavoring for veggies instead of as an entree.

Pollan’s Food Rules offers dozens of really good suggestions in each category and each guideline is explained and supported by a chapter of scientific research as well as plain common sense.

A few years ago I was chatting with a Registered Dietitian that I met and I mentioned that I really like Michael Pollan’s common sense guidelines in Food Rules.  She frowned and replied, “I find that approach really prescriptive.”  I didn’t really know what that meant but I think it means that people don’t like to be told what and how to eat and not to eat, so she didn’t think they would have much success complying with hundreds of rules prescribed by Pollan.

If that is what she meant by prescriptive, I don’t think the book comes off that way.  I consider it more akin to guide rails to warn you back into the road when you start to veer off over the edge into the abyss.  As common sense as Pollan’s suggestions are, there are a lot of them so you definitely should not try to implement all of them at once.  That really would be a prescriptive recipe for disaster.  

Instead, pick any one guideline that resonates and seems like it is doable and try to work it into your life for a week or two, then add another one.  Pretty soon you will have a pretty powerful set of guide rails to help keep you on the road to moderation.

Food Rules; An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan (2009, Penguin) is available for ten or twelve bucks from Amazon or wherever you buy books.  It is Physiologist recommended and well worth a read.

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