The best-selling american author and food journalist Michael Pollan is the most known critic of our food system and of the modern Western diet. His previous books In Defence of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma won the coveted James Beard Award. His books have been globally well accepted by readers enjoying his abbreviated and clear writing style. Often, the author’s broad, years spanning research does not yield revolutionary conclusions, yet it confirms what a common sense would whisper to our caffeinated and by sugar fidgeting minds. Such as “Avoid foods you see advertised on television”. In this pea-hued pocket book titled Food Rules, Pollan simplifies his by science backed findings that he published in his previous, much broader books, into 64 bold yet plain rules that can serve as “an eater’s manual”.
You manage to read it easily within a day, in a span of a long-haul flight or take it a slice by slice as a memorable treat, because of the one small page print of each point.
Most of us will benefit from his advices, not just these like me who “have a glass of wine with dinner”, which Pollan defends through “considerable scientific evidence” since “alcohol of any kind appears to reduce the risk of heart disease”. Whether it is the calming, relaxing effect of the tipple, or any magic nutrient such as possibly the resveratrol in red wine, he ponders. But he does not make conclusions because like his fellow authors and some of the most respected nutrition experts he had conversations with (Marion Nestle, …) prior to the publication, he is aware of the nutritional science being a nascent field yielding mutually disqualifying research findings. Indeed, how can we be sure that the findings in animal studies work on humans or how can you subject your volunteer sample to consume only one nutrient and live the exactly same lifestyle while having the same genetic profile? You cannot, and like with medicine’s side effects, some nutrients and edible substances can click with one individual while cause a havoc in the body of another.
In Food Rules, Pollan pooled the results of his previous food-centric publications, consulted medical doctors, and comments of the readers of the New York Times blog by Tara Parker-Pope into a handy set of rules that will not harm, and more likely significantly improve yours and your family’s dietary habits. Repeated by many of the internationally acclaimed experts on conferences, seminars, popular Tv programs, on health blogs, the author’s poignant advise to “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” proves to spot it point blanc.
Throughout the practical manual, he supports this potentially for many of us life-changing dietary advices for a better health, more in sync with our environment, and giving us more pleasure from food. Anecdotes, science and the millennial wisdom merge in Food Rules.
The manual is divided into there actions:
First; what should I eat? Eat food.
Here, Pollan sums up how and mainly why we should avoid processed foods and eat as humans have been eating for millennia, because this is the only secure way to give our bodies what they need. The author warns that they “contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted”. I agree, but as concise as he tries to be, the point deserves a critical view of a chemist such as Joe Schwarz PhD. Writing in An Apple a Day that these ‘chemicals’ mostly naturally occur in ‘real’ food, but usually but not necessarily in lower concentration. Schwarz adds “cross-breeding plants to produce improved varieties” can “introduce undesired chemicals”, because “these plants contain more natural toxins than other plants” to defend themselves against predators, and “nobody knows the human consequences of eating these natural pesticides”. To be fair “all plant foods [should] be tested for natural toxins”. Added colourings, preservatives, salt and sugar are indeed unnecessary and potentially detrimental to our health, but we should look at the science properly and not just stick to a hear say. I addressed the dietary myths in my latest musing. The efficiency of supplements or rather the behaviour of supplement takers is enlightening. Dig into the Food Rules and wonder!
In Part II: What kind of food should I eat? Mostly plants.
Pollan gives plenty of evidence for the sustainable health benefits of plant-based diet. I was struck by the rule “eat like an omnivore” because it just makes sense that “the greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases”. By eating more colours, different grains and species of meat, we as consumers also support biodiversity. And, how can we disagree with another rule “Eat animals that have themselves eaten well”. Science has proven that for example the type of fat in a corn-fed hogs in the Jamon Iberico Bellota is better (omega3s), and the Vitamin and mineral profile is better. You are what you eat, and the same applies to animals and plants. The soil in which a plant is grown is the most important criterion resulting in the plants’ improved or decreased nutritional value. Healthy organic soil, rich in balanced nutrients will yield higher quality of plants. [read more about going beyond organic]
The last Part III is at least as if not more important as what we eat. How should I eat? Not too much.
Eating with moderation has been promoted by many wise cultures over the millennia. Numerous sayings are related to restricting our food intake. Not just fasting periods (read more on fasting in my experience and science-based feature), but also our daily consumption. Such as “eat when you are hungry not when you are bored”. Mindless eating does not just robs us of the pleasure we can have from food, but also contributes to weight gain. Mindfulness, eating slowly (the growth of the Slow Food organisation around the world proves that increasingly we are not satisfied with how fast food feeds us), not alone, and cooking your own food as much as you can, these and many other similar tips have one in common – the French paradox. The French, despite eating butter, croissants, marmalade, foie gras and white bread, eat all of that in small portions usually in a communal meal with plenty of laughter and a relaxed conversation, and they have less heart disease than most developed countries that adopted the villain Western diet.
If you “eat food“, listen to your body’s needs (real hunger) and “do your eating at a table” you are on the right track to health, and will not need to succumb to the recently highly commercialised detox. To this point, I will share one last tip from Pollan: “avoid food products that make health claims”. Why? You will have to read the book to find the answer. I cannot tell you all, but having the real hard copy of this book around at home, and picking it once in a while helps tremendously with sticking to these wise advices, although even Pollan concludes that we should “break the rules once in a while“, and the last part indeed is meant to be in bold!